"He believes you have to have destruction to have rebirth and renewal,” says Robin Vousden of the Gagosian Gallery, London, describing the thinking of his client and long-time friend, prominent German artist Anselm Kiefer.
Vousden uses the words at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia for the opening of “Kiefer Rodin,” an exhibition of the works Keifer created in response to those by great French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). The exhibition remains on view at the Barnes, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, through Monday, March 12.
In 2013 the Musee Rodin in Paris invited Kiefer — whose work demonstrates an interest in the natural and human self-destruction — to develop a project inspired by “Cathedrals of France,” a book written by Rodin three years before his death.
Like Kiefer, Rodin had a profound interest in ruins and buildings as symbols of national identity. “Cathedrals of France,” written at the beginning of the first world war when the cathedrals were attacked, is a mournful tribute to his country’s great gothic cathedrals. Rodin lamented the abandonment of these buildings he regarded as a major achievement in human history, sources of inspiration for him. The cathedral was, for Rodin, a vessel to the divine, as was the human figure.
For the project, Kiefer visited the Musee Rodin’s storerooms, where he saw Rodin’s plaster casts and abattis (sculpture fragments of arms, legs, and heads). Rodin would assemble and reassemble these to create new works of art. Kiefer decided to create a whole body of work inspired by Rodin.
“Kiefer Rodin” includes 100 works, placing Kiefer’s artwork in dialogue with that of Rodin’s, and demonstrating how Rodin, too, is very much an artist of our time. “Kiefer Rodin” commemorates the 100th anniversary of Rodin’s death and is the only U.S. venue for the exhibition, organized in collaboration with the Musee Rodin in Paris.
Both artists had some of their first successful exhibitions in Philadelphia, and the Barnes is located next door to Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum. “Echoed in ‘Kiefer Rodin’ is Dr. Albert Barnes’ belief in the continuity of great art throughout the ages,” says co-curator Sylvie Patry. “Dr. Barnes viewed artistic expression as an endless conversation between works of different times and places.” Dr. Barnes famously hung his collection of contemporary artists of his time alongside African sculpture, Old Master paintings, and Navajo textiles to highlight the connections and influences among disparate works of art. Although separated by a century, Kiefer and Rodin participated “in a dynamic exchange,” Patry says. “Kiefer has defined his role in this project as a wanderer between worlds.”
Kiefer, who lives in Paris — as did Rodin — was born in 1945 in southern Germany during the final days of the collapse of the Third Reich and grew up in a newly divided country that was in a state of identity crisis, lacking foundational myths or symbols untainted by the Nazis’ pathological nationalism, according to the Gagosian website biography of Kiefer.
Kiefer was part of a generation of Germans who felt the shame and guilt of the Holocaust but had no personal experience of it. The artist has stated that the lack of discussion of the war in school became a creative wellspring for him. His toys, says Vousden, were the rubble of bombed buildings. From this rubble came the germination of new life.
Kiefer’s ruminations on German history, which earned him fame beginning in the 1970s and ‘80s, are conveyed in mammoth-scale paintings layered with his signature materials: tar, straw, iron, lead, glass, pottery, burned wood, and organic plant matter.
“Painting, for me, is not just about creating an illusion,” says Kiefer. “I don’t paint to present an image of something. I paint only when I have received an apparition, a shock, when I want to transform something. Something that possesses me, and from which I have to deliver myself. Something I need to transform, to metabolize, and which gives me a reason to paint.”
Fusing art and literature, painting and sculpture, Kiefer’s oeuvre encompasses paintings, vitrines, installations, artist books, and an array of works on paper such as drawings, watercolors, collages, and altered photographs. With their rough-hewn textures they evoke charred landscape and apocalyptic settings.
Artists’ books have been a consistent and central part of his practice. “The book — the idea of a book or the image of a book — is a symbol of learning, of transmitting knowledge,” he has said. “I make my own books to find my own way through the old stories.” Many of Kiefer’s books take the form of freestanding sculptures.
“Kiefer Rodin” includes Kiefer’s large-scale illustrated books; a series of monumental paintings; and vitrines filled with molds, dried plants, stones, pieces of fabric, and other objects. It also includes Rodin’s large plaster sculptures, assemblages, and drawings and watercolors that explore the relationship between architecture and the human body.
Credited with revolutionizing sculpture in the 19th century and paving the way for modern approaches, Rodin was also interested in rough, uneven surfaces and often left traces of his creative process visible. The works sometimes appear unfinished and revealed, rather than covering up the messiness of the creative process.
The two artists share a number of traits, says Catherine Chevillot, curator at the Musee Rodin. “Both were never satisfied with their work and were devoted to constant experimentation,” she says. “And both were trained to reconstruct a world, gathering fragments of an ancient world to create a new view.”
Both Kiefer and Rodin work large. In many museums where Kiefer’s paintings are permanently hung, benches and chairs are placed before them (such as the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York), where they can be contemplated. At MASS MoCA, in North Adams, Massachusetts, a specially designed building houses his “The Women of the Revolution,” more than 20 lead beds that convey the bodies that once lay dying on them. Here at the Barnes there is not quite so much space to show these works to full effect, and at times they feel crammed into the gallery rooms that are otherwise ideal for the works of, say, William Glackens or Paul Cezanne. Not only are Kiefer’s works physically enormous but the serious information they convey needs space in which to air it.
One striking work, in a room of its own, is “A.R.A.K.”— not the name of the Arabic anise-flavored pastis but the fused initials of Rodin and Kiefer. In this painting, with two strands of double helix cascading, their DNA comes together. The spiraling rusty forms may also suggest Jacob’s Ladder, connecting heaven and earth.
Another notable work is the 2016 “Sursum corda.” Inside a glass vitrine is a dead tree and that double helix again, that twisting rusty ladder, growing from a block of soil. Look closely, and underneath are the plaster fragments of heads and legs.
And in “Die Walkuren (The Valkyries),” stiff, white, plastered clothing hanging on rusted metal hangers from a rod suggests the children who died wearing the garments. A white lace dress with ruffles, a bow, and pearl buttons is splattered with ashes and blood.
The subjects and themes of these large-scale works are developed by the artist in sketches, watercolors, and altered or collaged photographs. The drawings develop the artist’s themes through experimentation — as preliminary or intermediary studies — and result in beautifully finished, stand-alone works of art.
Kiefer often builds his imagery on top of photographs, layering his massive canvases with dirt, lead, straw, and other materials that generate a “ground” that reads literally of the earth itself. Within these thick, impastoed surfaces Kiefer embeds textual or symbolic references to historic figures or places.
In another gallery in glass cases are the enormous plaster books with watercolor and pencil drawings of Rodin-like nudes, strong with finely articulated muscles. Unlike Rodin’s, here the figures have toe and fingernails, nipples and vulva, painted cherry red. The figures appear to take on yoga poses such as happy baby or child’s pose. The pages have a marbled texture, and the figures morph into the marble.
The books appear to have many leaves, not just the pages they are open to, and when questioned one of the curators confirmed that each page contains something unique.
The son of an art teacher, Kiefer was drawn to art and saw himself as an artist from a young age. He was raised in a home in the Black Forest near the eastern bank of the Rhine, an environment that would play a formative role in his development as an artist and would provide imagery and symbolism for his work.
After beginning his studies in romance languages and law, he switched to art in 1965 and held his first solo exhibit in 1969. During the early 1970s he studied with conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, whose interest in using an array of cultural myths, metaphors, and personal symbolic vocabulary had an enduring effect on Kiefer.
In 1969, toward the end of his studies at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe, Kiefer photographed himself in his father’s Wehrmacht uniform, posing in front of historic monuments and Romantic seascapes in Europe, with his arm extended in an illegal Nazi salute, according to the press release about Kiefer’s exhibition “Provocations,” on view at the Met Breuer in New York City through April 8.
Six years later the artist selected 18 of these images for a photo-essay titled “Occupations,” which met with widespread public outcry. Indeed, while Kiefer’s artistic provocation ran counter to the intense process of postwar denazification, which included the removal and destruction of offensive signs of Germany’s infamous history, it was also an unwelcome threat to a kind of collective amnesia that had overtaken West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, continues the press release.
In the 1980s, in his continuing pursuit to disinter the past, Kiefer began reusing old photographs for new projects and also extending his artistic means. He added new materials such as earth, lead, and hay, and approached his works in near-alchemical ways. He also turned to monumental themes (including architecture, cosmology, and mysticism) to further ponder time and existence.
“If you don’t acknowledge that it happened, you can’t make it better,” says Vousden. “Kiefer thinks he can make it better through art.”
Kiefer Rodin, Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. Through March 12. Wednesdays through Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. $5 to $30. 215-278-7000 or www.barnesfoundation.org.