Going to the Venice for the Biennale is a conversation between the now and a thousand years of yesterday. The exhibition by Anselm Kiefer at the Palazzo Ducale is one example of this no one should miss. It is an astonishingly powerful dialogue that can leave no mind untouched. Be warned, the exhibition is not for the fainthearted or those wishing to keep history in books.
Kiefer, born in the last year of the second world war, painted giant canvasses on site over the last two years, exploring, in greys, blacks, browns and elements of gold, arguably the darkest chapter of human history. It is not an easy exhibition, but a necessary one in these times.
The opening is a giant field of blackened stubble in white fields under a snowstorm sky with rust red and ochre bursts, like eroding explosions still echoing from the past, muted with time but still burning. The huge panels of canvass curve, wrapping around and immersing any viewer standing at the focal point. We cannot ignore the black sticks of stubble – charred, chaotic remains of broken fences, each post a symbol of a lost soul, fallen. And jutting out of the canvass are piles of burnt books. This wasn’t just a storm of nature, but a tempest of human violence. This was not a landscape of the romantic German tradition, but a panorama of pain, of the emptiness of evil ideologies and profound short-sightedness and prejudice, a tabula rasa of death.
The main room is perhaps thirty metres long, twenty wide and six of seven tall, filled with Kiefer exploring history, putting down, with harsh honesty, the pain and chagrin, the cruel emptiness of war. Another stubble field has the sticks growing as leafless vines into the sky, holding up a lead coffin, prised open, revealing but two dead sunflowers, with blackened faces and roots of rock. There is no life looking to the sun here. The coffin is exhumed, held high, for us to see the raw past.
The next are infinite seas with ochre orange skies. At the bottom a submarine, a second, a third. High in the sky fly not clouds, but shopping trollies and bicycles carrying straw, wood, charcoal, blankets an abandoned golden dress. There are no people, only what they brought to survive the cold, and failed. An echo of hope. A statement of despair.
Then a landscape of dozens of flattened, muddied standing uniforms, with a reaper’s blade the backbone and head of the central figure. The empty crowd of ghosts march towards us with a backdrop of Venice’s canal-scape of beautiful buildings burning under a sky of fire. I get the feeling they want to talk to us, to pass a message, but there is no voice, no whisper, just loud silence.
The final piece was the stairs to heaven, with rickety stairs, one standing with little confidence on top of the other, emerging from the marshes and leading to a golden sky. One sullied shoe remains, forgotten, on a lower wrung, decomposing, its structure exposed like a skeleton’s ribcage, and abandoned with a hint of the gold of hope on its front. Dotted across the painting are a half dozen more lost shoes, getting more golden nearer the top. Coats hang as empty witnesses of the passage of souls on the beams. At the base, in the marsh, however, there are a few emerging red flowers. Not poppies of remembrance, but signs of life. After all the loss, life re-emerges. Perhaps some hope, or a statement the life moves on, even after such unimaginable unpalatable loss.
As we leave, on the left and right of the stairway from marsh to heaven, stand two angels, not with gleaming wings or shining swords, but covered in mud, sullied and eroded by all they had to guide on from our cruel folly. One cannot leave without being stunned, but also in admiration of Anselm Kiefer’s honest portrayal of raw history.
Europe is now again in a moment of raw history – and I can’t help but think these paintings of empty stubble fields in winter could soon be the Ukraine, the ghost uniforms statements of sacrifice. And I wonder who will paint these scenes in the future to help a generation, two, three even, come to terms with a more than difficult history.
This is a conversation beyond that of an artist today to history of the 20th century, or the whispers and shouts of history to the present fields of war. A few rooms down, we pass through the Bridge of Sighs – where prisoners from centuries ago last saw the beautiful canals of Venise before their sentence was carried out. How many soldiers followed orders to lose their humanity and their liberty?
The room before was blessed with Tintoretto’s majestic painting of paradise, full of people, far from the battlefield reality of the second world war or the nightmare in today’s Ukraine. Kiefer’s work showed the stairs to heaven and the detritus the passing souls leave behind. Paradise gives hope, but it is far better to make it real in this lifetime than bank on an afterlife. Anselm Kiefer’s work reminds us of what can go wrong if we don’t listen to history.
We need a conversation – with history, and with ourselves. Anselm Kiefer’s art is a language – a brutally honest language. I warned you this article would be dark, but if we don’t confront the past, we cannot confront the present and there will be scant chance of progress or light. In these complex times, we need hope. And understanding history may give us a chance to avoid its wasteful repetition.
We live in worrying times. See Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition in Venice, and remember the millennia of Venetian genius, often battered by conflict, fire and war, but overcoming it to leave us a wonderful legacy to admire. If only we can leave as great a legacy from our complex modern world. Immerse yourself in Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition and do not shy away from his honest truth, do not baulk at truth. Then explore the creative explosion of the Biennale. We have a choice as to what to do with our energy, ambitions and vision.
Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition at the Doge’s Palace, situated next to the Basilica San Marco and the Piazza San Marco is on until 6 January 2023. For more of his works see also Eschaton—Fondation Anselm Kiefer, the Gagosian and Artsy.