As someone whose art practice rarely requires a piece of paper larger than A3, I took the opportunity of a trip to London to visit the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts to indulge in the opposite extreme. Kiefer is, in my view, one of the most significant living artists; particularly remarkable because much of his art is based around representational oil-on-canvas works with a deep understanding of perspective. At the same time, his work is deeply symbolic and conceptual, often addressing spiritual issues and trying to make sense of recent German history.
I was drawn to Kiefer when studying for my fine art degree largely because I was interested in the way that his work was simultaneously traditional and conceptual. However, having expressed this interest in Kiefer, my tutors then used his work to challenge me, particularly on how I dealt with scale in my own work. Kiefer’s paintings are large and this, combined with his use of perspective means that you feel that you can walk into the pictures which, in turn, draws you into the symbolism that he is addressing (see: “En route to Milan: more musings about Leonardo”). When you walk into a room of his most recent paintings (the Morgenthau series in this exhibition), you get an additional sensation as 100 square metres of the still-drying paint perfume the air with the fragrance of linseed oil.
Anselm Kiefer’s Northung, (1973) on display at the Royal Academy giving some idea of how scale and use of perspective combine to draw you into the image.
I did experiment with scale in response to my tutor’s goading but working at larger scales creates it’s own problems. Apparently, one external examiner commented that he could spot the work of part-time students because it always had to fit into the back of a car. Not for us the luxury of a three metre high canvas. Some of my final degree show images were painted onto a series of panels in order to to sidestep this problem but, with this behind me, I decided that I was more comfortable working at a smaller scale. It was not just the practicalities of working from home, my subject matter was already so magnified by three or four orders of magnitude and one more made little difference to the story that I wanted to convey.
A work-in-progress of my own, approximately sixty times smaller than Anselm Kiefer’s Northung (which is, itself, half the size of his largest works).
The intellectual heft of Kiefer’s art remains an inspiration, nonetheless. The quality of his work was put into perspective when I walked around the corner to the Allen Jones retrospective in another part of the Royal Academy. Jones was part of the Pop art movement of the 1960s and has retained many elements of Pop art in his practice ever since. His brightly-coloured paintings and recycled mass-media imagery looked shallow and vacuous to someone still digesting the visual splendours of Kiefer’s show.