Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Anselm Kiefer

I've been slogging through a book by Simon Schama call "Landscape and Memory" and a slog it has been. This is not an easy read, particularly if you aren't familiar with European history which the author apparently assumes you will be. Lots of arcane references and foreign phrases, but I persevere because the tenet of the book is to connect ancient myths and landscape to our most basic social instincts and institutions. Since so many of my quilt themes of late center around nature, since landscape is such an integral part of my daily life, I figured it was worth a read.

Today's reading centered around Germany and highlighted a modern artist named Anselm Kiefer. His work is totally unfamiliar to me, yet it appears that my last journal quilt enlisted a device that he himself used. I quote from Schama: "In 1974 he drew on the national reverence for both wood carving and woodcut engraving to produce a series of prints in which 'Germany's facial types' were seen barely emerging from the grain of timber." Well, they do say nothing's new under the sun. And I didn't presume to think my idea to use a wood grain patterned fabric to thread paint my portrait of a wood worker was a unique one. But I didn't expect to run across such a similar idea.

This is from Kiefer's Hermanns-Schlacht book completed in 1977.

Here is another way he invoked "...the darkest grove of history [having] his block-heads emerge from the grain of German timber." Trees, especially the oak, were a big part of his art, his German heritage.

I had another surprise coming. Hermanns-Schlacht opens with this black & white photo that he took at the edge of Varus' forest. Schama describes it as "...a screen of white birches, thin and cage-like, barring the entrance (and the exit)...behind the line of birches, an infinity of blackness." I see stands like this now, those straight birches so rigid compared to the undulating ones I was used to back in Wisconsin. But I had never thought of them as barriers.

Towards the end of the chapter, Shama ties in Kiefer's works and political inclinations with the "cultural force of myth and magic..." more involved than I want to get here. But there were a few things he noted that I found worth thinking about:

"To be sure, myths are seductive things. A truly disconcerting number of those who have spent their lives codifying, narrating and explicating them have not gone unbewitched by their spell."

"So how much myth is good for us?...The real problem - what we might call the Kiefer syndrome - is whether it is possible to take myth seriously on its own terms, and to respect its coherence and complexity, without becoming morally blinded by its poetic power."

"Of one thing at least I am certain: that not to take myth seriously in the life of an ostensibly 'disenchanted' culture like our own is actually to impoverish our understanding of our shared world. And it is also to concede the subject by default to those who have no critical distance from it at all, who apprehend myth not as a historical phenomenon but as an unchallengeable perennial mystery. As the great Talmudist Saul Lieberman said when he introduced Gershom Scholem's lectures on the Kabbalah that became Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism: 'Nonsense (when all is said and done) is still nonsense. But the study of nonsense, that is science.'"


June said...

Thanks for these quotes and your insights, Sheila. I read Landscape and Memory -- or I should say, I turned the pages of the book one at a time and at approximately the pace one would expect a reader to be moving -- but I hardly remember anything of it.

However, the birches of Kiefer suddenly resonated with me -- Buchenwald, of course. And with that, some of Schama's comments came back.

The part of Schama that I remember best was his ride to the cemetary in Poland and how various memorials and cemetaries commented on one another. I need to look that up again because it was what kept me reading through the rest of the book.

Thanks again.

margaret said...

Another book on somewhat similar lines - ancient myths etc in modern art - is Overlay by Lucy Lippard. A somewhat easier read than the Shama book!