Entering the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Margulies Collection in Miami, the visitor is confronted with a dramatically powerful sculpture. Sprache der Vogel is a 3 ton stack of mammoth books bound in lead crushing two flimsy folding chairs, with huge black wings spread to speak of an eagle’s defense of its nest. An instructive label speaks of an early 20th century French alchemist, Fulcanelli, who believed that the language of birds unveils “hidden truths,” and the artist’s interest in the magic of alchemy, “the hastening of time” to transform lead into silver and then gold. The English name for Hitler’s mountain house near Berchtesgaden, the Eagle’s Nest, comes to mind. We’re intrigued.
Anselm Kiefer, born in 1945, was raised in post-war Germany. A childhood spent surrounded by the rebuilding of an urban landscape of gashed concrete, he was deeply affected by the efforts of the people around him to scrap away the detritus of war, as if denying the Third Reich’s influence on their collective psyche, like the alchemist trying to turn lead into gold. To him, they were hiding the truth as Hitler had. Strong yet subtle, poetic yet demanding, the artist’s work seeks to debunk the magic of repression and demands that his audience consider the past truthfully. The following is a brief description of some of the work in this exhibit.
German phrases written in the furrows of a desolate field with a crop of burnt sticks provide theatrical scenery for a frail collapsible chair stacked with a collection of kindling topped with a lead model of a mid-nineteenth century boat. Across the gray winter’s sky is written the enigmatic title. A label explains that the iconography of this monumental painting refers to a poem, Das einzige Licht (The Unique Light), written by a Romanian Jew named Paul Celan who was imprisoned in a labor camp during World War II. Lines from the poem such as “As an ark it left the road, thus saving you in disaster,” “the lamps of fear” and “milk that you drink from the splinters,” provide fertile food for thought. The past is evoked with metaphorical references to the biblical story of Noah and to the escape of the Jews from Europe by boat.
The Margulies exhibition of the Anselm Kiefers in their collection, which opened two weeks ago for the season, presents his art on the monumental scale it deserves. Walls have been built to construct spaces perfect for each piece. The Ages of the World, an awe-inspiring, monumental pile of the artist’s old paintings sprouting huge, carbonized sunflowers, and including an occasional rock and printed rolls of old filmstrips, challenges the space available in its large room. Two huge murals of stacks of stretched canvasses offer enriching clues with lists of terms for geological strata and prehistorical periods. Katherine Hinds, the curator, described a hectic three-hour installation with the artist, his crew, and Margulies employees. The paintings below eye level face upward, while the paintings above face downward, thus placing the viewer in a whole new idea of pictorial space. No photograph could communicate the emotional intimacy and conflict of the space with the scale of the work. It must be experienced.
A monumental room contains a series of adjoining, steel-framed, collaged compositions of dried clay, black paint, female clothing, and desiccated ferns installed on the side walls in two rows. Procession is implied, as in a sanctuary or the passage of time. German words are included in some of them: “Walpurgisnacht,” an ancient European festival welcoming spring that involves dancing and fires to drive away evil spirits; and “Johannisnacht,” an early German celebration of the Summer solstice involving bonfires. Fire, erosion, and ancient rites evoke the passage of eons.
Two ruined cement bunkers in the center of the room suggest the effects of human violence, explosion, and war. The front one shown in the above image with German words that mean, “Fuel, enough coal for two thousand years”, refers to Hitler’s false promise for the future of Germany. Kiefer himself spread the coal on the floor of its entrance. Behind, the second bunker has a round second story, evoking a place of worship. Kiefer has used the title of this work before. The fern and other ancient vegetation decayed for millennia, giving us the fuels we use today, fuel like coal that we have used for celebration and destruction.
The Margulies Collection is a private museum with exhibitions of work from the collection installed annually. It is open to the public in the afternoons, Wednesday through Saturday, providing a quiet opportunity to consider the art and a setting perfect for deep contemplation of Kiefer’s poetically profound work. A pleasant and knowledgeable staff is on hand to answer questions. Open until the end of April, this exhibition is worth the trip to Miami.
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