Saturday, 29 May 2010

Anselm Kiefer
Karfunkelfee 2009
Gold paint, chemise, jesmonite, snake, brambles, concrete, acrylic, oil, emulsion, ash and shellac on canvas in steel and glass frame. 332 x 576 x 35cm
White Cube, London
30 October 2009

This was the first exhibition I had seen of Kiefer’s work in a commercial gallery. The work compromised a series of forest diptychs and triptychs displayed in glass and steel vitrines. The exhibition was titled ‘Karfunkelfee’, after a poem by the post-war Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann.

"On the Golden bridge, only he who might know the fairy’s secret word can win. I’m sorry to say, along with our last snow, it melted in the garden.”

Of the four huge works in the exhibition I have chosen the title piece to review. Karfunkelfee roughly translates as Carbuncle Fairy, an ambiguous figure from fairy tales who may be good or evil. As Kiefer explained in an interview with Tim Marlow, the word Karfunkel has two meanings; it is firstly a precious stone but also associated with ergot, a fungus that that grows on wheat and other crops turning them black. Human poisoning due to the consumption of bread made from ergot-infected grain was common in Europe in the Middle-Ages. Interestingly, ergot is known in German as ‘the tooth of the wolf’ and may be connected to the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowolf.

This would certainly be of interest to Kiefer, who since the 1970’s has made art that alluded to Teutonic myths, Wagner, and the Black Forest; an artist celebrating German history whilst acknowledging the guilt of its fatal collision with Jewish history that culminated in the Holocaust. Kiefer was taught by Joseph Beuys in Dusseldorf and both the use of found materials and the sombre palette are obvious influences in his work. Unlike Beuys though, his chosen medium was painting and like Georg Baselitz, he reprised the painterly style of expressionism, alluding to emotion in his work rather than truth.

Kiefer’s process is to start with a normal canvas and apply a 75mm thick pigment layer that cracks on drying and then place these in vitrines to make a threshold distancing the viewer from the painting. The background image is a forest on a hillside covered in snow and the trees are painted with dark slashing strokes. He adds items between the canvas and the glass of the vitrine that relate to the theme of the work, in this case a snake, Moroccan thorns, scattered teeth and an empty hooded smock. The result of these boxed in memories is not unlike a display cabinet in a natural history museum. Although there is an absence of figures, a human element is acknowledged through the inclusion of the floating empty hooded smock in the central vitrine. The perfect metaphor for the ambiguous Karfunkelfee.

The work has a portentous melancholy to it but I cannot help feeling that the symbolism is too overt, too carefully (artfully) arranged and that this reduces the force of the impact. This manipulation of his Expressionist inheritance in order to give an authorial mark of emotion risks the viewer doubting the psychological depth of the work (more message than feeling). [1]

[1]Paraphrased from Rosalind E Krauss in The originality of the avant-garde and other modern myths 1984 MIT Press 194

©blackdog 2010

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Giorgio Morandi

Still Life, 1962
Oil on canvas 30.5 x 30.6cm
Tate Modern, London
1st June 2001

This was the first time I had seen his work and in all honesty I couldn’t remember any specific painting from the show, only the overall impression the body of work made. Consequently I have chosen a painting that was in the show, but that I have had chance to see at the National Gallery in Scotland subsequently.

The impression the Tate Exhibition left with me was one of incredible uniformity, each painting was a small still life and in one room the same objects in the paintings were repeated over and over. The palette throughout was predominantly muted colours and I have since learned deliberately referenced the colours of his home town, Bologna. Because he painted his bottles and boxes without any labels the arrangements were more about form than representation.

Although I went through the exhibition quite quickly and missed the immense complexity within the subtle variations of composition, I did spend enough time with a couple of paintings in the exhibition to appreciate their qualities of quietness and spatial harmony. I also remember preferring the later more abstract style of painting where the still life objects were arranged in a non-conventional way. So I was pleased to revisit this example of his later style in 2005, when I was more attuned to the quality of the nervous scumbled brushwork and the light that emanated from the surface. I was also aware of the significance of the tightly grouped objects that suggest to some the skyline of Bologna and to others family portraits.[1]

Looking at the work later I was also able to appreciate, in retrospect, that the painting was more about the idea than the things he saw, and that they were devoid of narrative. Yet he did paint from actual objects rather than from his imagination. The photograph of his studio shows a reconstruction of a typical set up for one of his paintings. Morandi once commented that 'For me nothing is abstract. In fact, I believe nothing more abstract, more surreal, than reality'.[2]

In this canvas I certainly felt there was more to it than the physical surface of the image, an aura which maybe because of my own circumstances at the time, I sensed as melancholic. It is something to do with the two black bottles cowering in front of the white vases, something edgy and uncertain. From a distance I find it hard to say whether I was feeling the artist’s intentions or if I was projecting my own sense of loss, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. I certainly didn’t see a skyline, but I did sense a family portrait where some of the members were lost.

[1] In fact I have since read that Darian Leader postulates in his book “The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression” that Morandi’s repetition and rearrangement of motifs might not just resemble family portraits, but also may indicate an arrested or stagnation of the mourning process

Leader, Darian The New Black 2008 Hamish Hamilton 30

[2] Quoted on Tate Modern webpage

©blackdog 2010