Anselm Kiefer

South London Art Gallery/Anthony D'Offay

For a period of over three years during the early part of the decade, Anselm Kiefer did not produce any artwork. This fallow stretch followed immediately upon German unification and coincided with his departure from Germany and relocation to southern France. The previous decade and a half had seen a remarkable effort on Kiefer’s part to assimilate and make sense of German history, while meditating on the ability of the contemporary artist to carry out such a task. In the years leading up to unification, however, his work took on an air less of urgency than of frantic excess—one thinks of the lead bombers spilling hair and teeth in Paul Maenz’s final exhibition at his Cologne gallery in 1989, and the overblown bookcases of The High Priestess (Zweistromland), 1985, which, along with lead V2 rockets, occupied the main hall of Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie during Kiefer’s show there in 1991.

“I Hold all Indias in my Hand,” Kiefer’s first exhibition in Britain since he resumed painting in 1995, evidenced, as one might expect, both continuities and differences between the work of the early ’90s and the more current pieces. Transformation has always been central to his art: a painter’s palette, sometimes winged, appears as an ironic symbol of the artist’s godlike ability to transcend materiality; in other images, straw is spun into gold. Even Kiefer’s signature use of blackness—the charred quality of the landscape haunted by the war—can be seen, in the cycle of nature, as a prelude to renewal. In the newer works, the war, its memory, and its legacy are less overt presences than in Kiefer’s paintings of the ’70s and ’80s. Instead, the focus is more personal: many of the works include a figure that stands in for the artist himself in the form of a balding, middle-aged man, semiclothed or naked. He appears amid fields of sunflowers, either sheltering under them, like the mulch from which they grow, or upright, one among them. The landscapes of the current paintings are also seen through showers, even blizzards, of sunflower seeds. It might seem perverse to fail to mention the proximity of Kiefer’s current home to the Arles landscape of Van Gogh, but the sunflower is nevertheless thoroughly absorbed into Kiefer’s own vision. Glued onto the surface of the paintings, these fragments of dark matter hold within their casings the promise of a light that is both terrestrial and cosmic.

One of the woodcuts bears the name of Robert Fludd, a seventeenth-century English Rosicrucian whose most significant work attempted to chart the relationship between the microcosm of the individual entity and the macrocosm of the universe. Similarly, the title of the exhibition, along with a series of works in which Kiefer’s painterly alter ego appears surrounded by the East and West Indies, is taken from a poem by the Spaniard Francesco de Quevedo, whose imagery conjures heavenly bodies from the jewels of a ring held in the hand. The paintings are huge but in no way overbearing, the vastness of their scale mirroring the desire to marry the individual with the universal. They are painted on rough burlap, and paint as matter is substantially present in all but the most distant views. When one stands far back, the landscape emerges, and the vast sky, populated by myriad dark “stars,” descends towards it, sweeping it back up into its depths.

Michael Archer