BETWEEN DESTRUCTION AND CREATION, ANSELM KIEFER
Words AICHA PILMEYER
Numéro had the honor of being guided by the Museum’s director, Suzanne Swarts, during the preview of ‘Anselm Kiefer: Bilderstreit.
When Anselm Kiefer’s name is mentioned, dark tones and war-related themes come to mind. However, Voorlinden aims to showcase he is much more than that. His vast works range from wood engravings to sculptures and monumental canvases reworked with diverse materials like lead, rope, and fire. Playing with spatial relationships, Kiefer challenges our collective memory, urging a critical gaze. His brush suggests, confuses, and adds depth to stories. Alongside pieces from his extensive archive, the exhibition features never-before-seen works, including a painting that still drips with wet paint, a vivid testament to the dynamic process through which Kiefer brings his creations to life.
The title “Anselm Kiefer: Bilderstreit” -scribbled on the walls by Kiefer himself- reflects the core of his work—destruction as a necessary part of the creative process. All his pieces embody a literal struggle, serving as the driving force behind his productivity. Kiefer, discussing his constant internal conflict with Suzanne, explained, “I always have a war in my head. Deciding the next step, choosing left or right, each choice eliminates other options, intensifying the struggle, growing larger over time.”
He invests time to develop his works, with some pieces remaining parked for years until he resumes their progression. Even creations that don’t work out aren’t thrown away; they become part of his body of work. Every material he removes is carefully preserved, labeled, and archived, creating a collection of fragments that trace the evolution of his art. This is apparent in his extensive archives; during his recent move, he was accompanied by a convoy of 120 trucks.
Inspired by poet Paul Celan and his ability to articulate painful subjects, Kiefer does not shy away from controversial subjects either. His work embodies a duality of childhood innocence and a mature comprehension of Germany’s difficult history. Refusing to conceal trauma, he sees it as motivation to learn and teach, which is apparent in his work. Just like books that open to reveal their stories or close to keep them hidden, Kiefer exposes history. Growing up amidst the ruins of Germany, Kiefer began constructing and deconstructing installations at a young age, and his art serves as a reminder of war’s ravages and the importance of not hiding but showcasing and learning from history—a message pressingly relevant today.
His work embraces contrasts between dark and heavy materials and light elements such as gold details, elements of nature, and recurring sunflower motifs, a nod to his favorite artist, Van Gogh. Like Van Gogh, the work vividly shows a struggle through its thick layers and emotions that can be felt when taking the artwork in. Suzanne shared a specific detail about the flowers that lingered in my memory: The sunflower embodies the cycle of life, from its vibrant bloom as it eagerly faces the sun, to its eventual bowing under the weight of its maturing head. As its seeds fall, the cycle begins anew. In a striking black-and-white piece, a prominently featured sunflower stands in juxtaposition with a figure lying on the ground below, symbolizing a return to the origin, a serene return to zero – my personal favorite work.
During his solo exhibition at Voorlinden, from October 14, 2023, to February 25, 2024, intriguing paintings, sculptures, books, and installations are on display. Walking through the exhibition you will learn to understand the broadness of the work, but most of all you can feel the passion that goes into making the artworks come to life. Anselm Kiefer successfully created mini universes, extending an invitation to visitors for exploration, where observation and reflection harmoniously intertwine.
If you enjoyed the exhibition, make sure to see ‘ANSELM’ – Wim Wenders’ captivating 3D documentary on Anselm Kiefer. You can watch the trailer below.
Header image on the left side of the page: Photo: © Anne Claire de Breij