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Remembering that we are but dust

05 April 2019

Ben Quash continues our exploration of the art of the Fall with a look at Anselm Kiefer’s Ash Flower

Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of The Burnett Foundation in honor of Michael Auping

Anselm Kiefer: Aschenblume, 1983-97; Oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth, and dried sunflower on canvas, overall 158 x 299 3/4 in. (401.32 x 761.37cm)

Anselm Kiefer: Aschenblume, 1983-97; Oil, emulsion, acrylic paint, clay, ash, earth, and dried sunflower on canvas, overall 158 x 299 3/4 in. (401.32 ...

TO SPEAK of a “Fall” at all — let alone to have a doctrine of it — is already to have hope. Perhaps this seems paradoxical. But there is a far worse condition than knowing yourself to be a fallen creature, and recognising that something is seriously wrong with your and the world in which you find yourself. It is to think of the present state of affairs as “normal” — knowing nothing different; aspiring to nothing better.

The belief that things are as they are because something has gone wrong enables one to put sin in its place. Sin is non-necessary (even if now ubiquitous in its influence and effects). Because it is not primordial, it is not ultimate, either. To look backwards to an imagined time before sin was (as Genesis helps us to do) equips us to look forward to a time when its dominion will be shattered (as the prophets, and the seer of the Apocalypse — and Jesus himself — help us to do). In both directions, sin is shown to have limits. And, as sin’s finitude is exposed, it is rendered less defining.

Theological arguments will rumble on about how we have (or how we come to) this knowledge. Do we, as St Augustine of Hippo seems to suppose, retain a “memory” (however obscure and indistinct) of the true home that we have lost, which naturally draws us to seek it afresh? Or — more radically — is our natural knowledge of God so comprehensively vitiated by the Fall that there is no reliable light of reason left by which to steer? In this case, only the breaking in of a light from beyond our darkness — the revelation vouchsafed to us by the words and work of Christ — tells us that we are sinners, in the very same moment that it tells us that we don’t have to be sinners for ever. These are significant differences, but what they share is their conviction that, one way or another, we can know that we are fallen.

THE contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer agrees. He is deadly earnest in his belief that there is something seriously wrong with the world. He was born in the Black Forest in 1945; so his and his country’s post-war biographies have unfolded in tandem. The Third Reich was barely mentioned as he grew up, but it was everywhere a silent presence, affecting every aspect of life. He wanted to face it.

In Germano Celant’s words (Anselm Kiefer: Salt of the earth, Skira, 2012), Kiefer “turned himself into a passive actor: he accused himself of a sin and a crime so that he could serve as the foundation for a premise for conscious rebirth”. It was a “decision to be ‘guilty’ and ‘useless’ and thus a dead creature that finds its rebirth in death”. This meant keeping his country’s recent history before his face in the present moment, without resort either to trivial alternatives or to silence.

One of the huge achievements of his work is the honesty with which he asks not just Germans but all of us to face our condition. His art makes the Fall in general — and Germany’s fall in particular — more knowable, through his determination to interrogate its myths and symbols, its architecture and its detritus.

In doing this, he knows that he is not treating something that can conveniently be pigeonholed as a freak historical event. That would be far too comforting. The trashed landscapes and ruined interiors that he portrays are not just the legacy of Hitler: they are the legacy of Adam, whose curse (as he was expelled from Eden) was that he would be immured in dust. For as long as history runs its course, his descendants must struggle with this dust in the sweat of their brows, before returning to it in death.

Kiefer likewise insists that we are all dust. And, after 1945 and the horror of the concentration camps, the connotations of this dust become even more disturbing. Much of Kiefer’s work suggests to us that the ash of the ovens is not neatly contained in the dustbin of history: it is still on the wind.

KIEFER’s palette of colours is relatively narrow: dominated by greys, blacks, and browns. His conceptual palette, by contrast, is vast. A voracious appetite for the scientific and mythological systems used by human cultures — both ancient and modern — enables him to combine references to kabbalistic texts, Greek myths, Christian scripture, and modern astronomy with hungry fascination. They are not forms of escape from the world: they are documentary evidence of our earthbound struggle with our decaying natures. Like Kiefer’s own art, they arise out of the mismatch between what we see and what we long for.

In an interview, Donald Kuspit once asked Kiefer about the beauty of his work. Kiefer responded: “To have spent five years on one painting for it to end up merely as ‘beautiful’ hardly seems worth the trouble.” The vast painting reproduced here, Ash Flower (seven metres wide, 1983-97, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth), is not beautiful by any conventional measure. And — as in a number of his works — Kiefer used actual ash to make it.

In Kiefer’s paintings, “ash is the trace of an immemorial disaster” (Wessel Stoker, Where Heaven and Earth Meet: The spiritual in the art of Kandinsky, Rothko, Warhol, and Kiefer, Rodopi, 2012). Here, he has spread it across the surface of a depiction of the grand Mosaic Room in the Reich Chancellery, Berlin (designed by Albert Speer). A colossal interior, built for grand ceremonies and multitudes of people, is hauntingly monochrome and empty — disappearing into distant space. Can anything good come out of this? Can anything grow in this dust? Kiefer does not answer directly, but places a tall dried sunflower in the middle of the canvas.

THE Dutch scholar Wessel Stoker proposes that one of Kiefer’s lifelong questions is “whether heaven is up to bearing the weight of earth and its history”. Kiefer’s is a fiercely post-lapsarian outlook. The world that he shows us in his visual art is like the world conjured in the poetry of the late Geoffrey Hill: thick with history; layered in seam upon seam; knotted and tangled; smeared, and clogged, and hard to penetrate. It is, as Rod Mengham writes, “the reverse of a history that can be sounded, mapped and steered through” (“Waterworld” in the exhibition catalogue Anselm Kiefer Für Chlebnikov, Jay Jopling/White Cube, 2005). Any moments of clarity are rare, and any brightly illuminated spaces are small.

But there are occasional flashes of light in his work — brief sparks, like fire from struck flint. Or maybe like the sunflower in Ash Flower: a potent and vivid example of transformation and surprise, overlaid on the ash coating of the cavernous and empty Nazi hall. To believe in a Fall is to have hope — perhaps even for Kiefer.

Indeed, ash itself (like lead, another material with which Kiefer is fascinated) has connotations of transformation and renewal. The alchemist sees in lead the potential for gold. The farmer sees in ash the potential for new growth. Kiefer once remarked: “Ploughing and burning, like slash-and-burn agriculture, is a process of regeneration, so that the earth can be reborn and create new growth toward the sun [. . .].”

The splendour of a divine Creator may no longer be readable from the face of nature, but earth (even ash) can still be used “to mould a symbol, a symbol of the imaginative and the spiritual world”.

“NO ESCHATON,” Kiefer has insisted. And I think that that may be a very important message for those of us tempted to use eschatology as a narcotic, to take the edge off the seriousness of our present condition. But, as the art critic of The Guardian observed in 2014 after viewing a retrospective of Kiefer’s work at the Royal Academy, “In the end [. . .] what stays with you is the feeling — overwhelming at times — that he is always making his way carefully towards the light.”

The Revd Professor Ben Quash is Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College, London.

Our Lent series is based on a series of talks being given at St John the Baptist, Catford.


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