Anselm Kiefer’s New Series ‘Homage to a Poet’ Reinvigorates the Power of Words

Images: Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seoul
Installation views: Charles Duprat, © Anselm Kiefer

That Anselm Kiefer was born in Germany on March 8, 1945, just two months before the Nazis’ unconditional surrender to Allied troops in May, most assuredly laid the foundation of tension that has, and continues to inform his work. After all, he not only grew up in a ruined nation, but also one whose status in the world order was that of moral pariah.

Seventy six years later, turmoil and torment remain on full display in the new series titled Homage to a Poet, which is currently on exhibit through May 11, 2022 at the Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Pantin gallery. It should be noted that the exaltation of his work is at a particular high, with Kiefer in the last five-plus years alone having solo exhibitions at the Albertina in Vienna (2016), the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (2017), Paris’ Rodin Museum (2017), the Met Breuer in New York (2018), and the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo (2019). But Homage… is a viscerally revealing snapshot of the artist in his eighth decade of life, a poignant look at how his influences have ultimately manifested.

It is also and most earnestly an homage to his first creative love, as he had actually hoped to be a writer/poet before becoming a painter, and is perhaps here seeking to reconnect with that impulse. For the task, he borrows lines from the likes of Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam and August Graf von Platen. Fascinatingly, connections can be drawn between the four by way of circumstances and eventual fates. Bachmann and Celan carried on a 13-year post-war correspondence (she lived in Rome, he in Romania), and both committed suicide in their 40s; Mandelstam unsuccessfully attempted suicide and ultimately died of heart failure in the Gulag at just 47; and von Platen was taken by colic at just 39 (his demise was actually the inspiration for Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice). So there is once again a thread of great tragedy running through his output.

The series was inspired by a quote from Nobel Prize winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who urges us to “look beyond what words represent and signify, and notice instead their texture and the connections they form with each other.” Tellingly, Kiefer uses a kind of aesthetic stroke of violence against his own paintings, finishing them by melting and burning a varnish into the surface – an act which is surely rife with metaphor, considering what Celan and Mandelstam suffered at the hands of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, respectively.

One work in particular, Im Herz des Bergs (2021), features Mandelstam’s words, as translated into German by Celan: “Im Herz des Bergs, mit nichts, geht sie ihm hin, die Zeit” – In the heart of the mountain, time comes to him with nothing. It perhaps seeks to build a kind of empathetic bridge between the suffering both experienced under brutal totalitarian regimes. Which seems the point of the entire series, really – that words and strokes of a brush can help to bring us together in consolation on the other side of terrible tragedy.

And make no mistake, Kiefer’s reverence for those words is characterized by nothing less than solemn seriousness, as a 2017 journal entry merely confirms, “You swim from one [poem] to the other, without them you’re without direction, lost. They are the handholds where something masses together in the infinite expanse.”

And with Homage to a Poet, he seeks to immerse us in that infinite expanse.

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