There has been a feast of German art in London this year. In the spring, three exhibitions – at the British Museum, the Gagosian and the Royal Academy – illustrated different facets of one of Germany’s most famous living artists, Georg Baselitz. This autumn, there are major retrospective exhibitions on Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Poke at the Royal Academy and Tate Modern, while the British Museum celebrates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall by a review of 600 years of German art, design and innovation.
At the centre of the Royal Academy’s courtyard are two large vitrines. Entitled Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations: The New Theory of War, this is from Anselm Kiefer’s ongoing exploration of the Russian Futurist writer and theorist Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) who determined that a major sea battle takes place 317 years. Kiefer creates a work which is both a “monument and anti-monument,” where ships battle in an imaginary sea in which visitors and Sir Joshua Reynolds himself (first president of the Royal Academy) take part through their reflections in the courtyard.
This imaginary battle is a prelude to the exhibition inside the main galleries, “the most significant exhibition of the German artist’s work ever held in the UK“, not only showing work from his 40-year career, but also new sculpture created specially for the the Royal Academy spaces.
Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945 as the Second World War was coming to an end. His early work was controversial in depicting themes from the Nazi rule and he has continued to reflect on the his culture’s history and unrealised potential, drawing on history, mythology, literature, philosophy and science. His works are dark and intense, often incorporating a variety of materials including diamonds, lead and sunflowers, with paint that it layered like earth or waves in the sea.
The exhibition has a impressive selection of works both small and monumental and has had “must-see” reviews, but it could be better. Many of Kiefer’s works are dark and intense and are best shown in a setting which reflects this. Although the Royal Academy galleries have had their rooflights darkened, at the initial viewings there was too much light in the cream-coloured classical rooms, excepting the last one when Keifer suddenly moves into his 2014 works with colour and the rooflights are open. The sculptures are stunning, revealing layers and confusion of history and the earth’s geology. The lighting may enable the visitor to see every detail, but some of the dark intensity of the work is lost. This had improved at a more recent viewing, or perhaps the weather was darker?
Sigmar Polke was born only four years before Ansel Kiefer, and in some ways their work is similar; in other ways entirely different, as can be seen in the retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern.
Polke experimented with a wide range of styles, subject matters and materials. In the last 20 years of his life, he produced paintings focused on historical events and perceptions of them. Both artists worked in a variety of media and used unexpected materials, in Polke’s case including meteor dust, gold, bubble wrap, snail juice, potatoes, soot and even uranium. Ansel’s work is darker and more monumental; Polke’s is lighter and wittier, perhaps reflecting his interest in consumer society in the 1960s, in travel, drugs and communal living in the 1970s and his experimental practice after 1980.
The British Museum commemorates the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago with a celebration of German art, design and innovation over the last 600 years, including art by Durer, Holbein and Richter, technological and design achievements such as Gutenberg’s printing press, Meissen porcelain, the Bauhaus movement and the VW Beetle. The exhibition aims to “investigate the complexities of addressing a German history which is full of both triumphs and tragedies”.
Mark Hudson in the Daily Telegraph feels that the exhibition could be better: “This is a potentially fascinating exhibition let down by unimaginative presentation, with far too many exhibits crowded together with far too much text. Given a more stringent selection and more radical design, the objects might have told a genuinely powerful story.”
It runs alongside a Radio 4 series and Mark Hudson suggests that this may be its problem; it may be a visual catalogue of works referred to in the programme. The real problem is that the exhibition ends with unification 25 years ago, apart from a model of the Reichstag designed by a British architect, Foster and Partners. Where are the examples of creativity and invention since then, of which there must be many examples?
The question of the exhibition is therefore unanswered. Many nations have works of creativity, but how does that shape them? How does the history of the last 600 years support the emergence of artists such as Keifer, Polke, and Georg Baselitz? The last case as the visitor leaves the exhibition is of memorabilia from the German team in the 2014 World Cup, which is a disappointment compared to the remainder of the exhibition.