In an exploration of the popularity of Anselm Kiefer in Italy, we asked art critic and curator Gabi Scardi about Kiefer’s relationship with that country.
Anselm Kiefer is an artist ‘pluricelebrato’, in other words, he is one of the most publicised and high-profile contemporary artists of our time. How well known would you say he is among the general public in Italy?
GS: He is very well known for many reasons. In general, his work is strong, iconic and impressive and it was shown in several public spaces in Italy. A spectacular place, Pirelli HangarBicocca Milan, permanently houses a site-specific large-scale piece, The Seven Heavenly Palaces 2004-2015. It was commissioned for the opening of the space and got Kiefer a lot of media attention in Italy.
Also, Kiefer’s work in Italy is presented by a very active and well-known gallery, Lia Rumma; this has contributed to his work in the country.
Secondly, Kiefer doesn’t limit himself to the art world alone, and this means he reaches a bigger audience – people who don’t just specialise in contemporary art. In 2003, for example, he designed the scenes and costumes for Richard Strauss’s opera, Elektra, in the Teatro di San Carlo of Napoli; this year the spectacle was presented once more, and Kiefer created a new set for it.
Thirdly, it is how he behaves, what he says in his interviews, and his way of thinking. Anselm Kiefer is an artist who is strongly related to history. His works refer to history in general – universal history – not just that of Europe. His works also refer in a wider sense to rituals, myths and the history of religion. Kiefer as a human being facing the universe is fascinating – and this makes him interesting to look at.
Elizabeth of Austria (1991) is a monumental work. It was presented at the artist’s first exhibition at the Galleria Lia Rumma in 1992, and many say his relation with the Italian public started from there. How did Kiefer’s popularity in Italy grow?
GS: Lia Rumma is based in central Milan and Naples – she is one of the main Italian gallerists; she’s very active and well known in the country.
But for me there is another key event that connected Kiefer with Italian hearts; it was in 1982, when he took part in the Terrae Motus collection. That this collection was established is thanks to the initiative and foresight of the Neapolitan art gallerist, Lucio Amelio. Amelio was a remarkable personality and he was in contact with many of the main international artists of his time.
In the very difficult days following the 1980 earthquake that devastated the Campania and Basilicata regions, Amelio invited some of the biggest and most sensitive contemporary artists to respond to the catastrophe by creating an artwork. Anselm Kiefer was among them, and his contribution is a work called Et la terre tremble encore, d’avoir vu la fuite des géants. It is made from oil and terracotta on canvas, and it is a mystical and spiritual work. Therefore for me, it was in 1982, years before the creation of Elizabeth of Austria, that Kiefer became an important name in Italy, and I think that it is from that moment that he can be referred to as an important artist for Italy.
On a more general note, in Italy the cultural heritage is dominant. Few artists have been as skilled as Kiefer in connecting with this heritage. History is the base of his work. His paintings, sculptures and installations are strongly linked to classical culture, and this somehow makes it easy for him to be appreciated in Italy. His mythology with women and his white sculptures related to Roman history are an example, and the kind of materials he uses is linked to history and memory.
Kiefer’s works are in high demand. His permanent exhibition in Milan at Pirelli HangarBicocca is an interior landscape within the Hangar landscape. It involves a walk around Kiefer’s psyche through seven fragile cement towers and five large scale mixed-media paintings. The works were created between 2004 and 2015 and the exhibition is a three-year project that started in 2015 and will run until 2018. What is it about his work – specifically the installation at HangarBicocca – that so engages Italian people?
GS: These works are absolutely spectacular but universal to humanity, with its ambitions, fragility, failures. This is a universal theme; it’s not only about the Italian vision. They refer to the great architectural constructions of the past and are a metaphor for the attempts by man to ascend to the divine. The presence of books and the constellations, represented by means of astronomical numbering, are all symbolic elements.
Together with the seven towers, five large-format paintings have been on show since 2015. They are housed in the same space as The Seven Heavenly Palaces, and they give further meaning to Kiefer’s masterpiece. In those paintings, Kiefer makes reference to some of the themes already present in The Seven Heavenly Palaces. They also express a number of considerations that are key to Kiefer’s poetic vision, including the relationship between man and nature, and references to the history of ideas and of Western philosophy.
Drawing on his interest in mythology, history, and knowledge, Kiefer often uses books as subject matter to represent knowledge and civilisation. Similarly, he frequently incorporates text into his paintings, including excerpts from poems, novels, and nationalist slogans, as well as names of seminal figures, written in a scrawling script. The fact that Kiefer uses architectural tropes, as well as astronomic numbers and poetry, is greatly appreciated by Italians – but also, to my mind, by people in general.
‘You cannot avoid beauty in a work of art,’ says Kiefer, as if beauty in his works is not just about uplifting harmony, but rather about the chaos, mixed with beauty, that is interwoven with existence. Could we speak of a connection between Kiefer his work and the Italian mentality?
GS: Well, Italy is a complex and diverse country. There are too many stereotypes about Italy. What is definitely important for the whole of Italy is the sensitivity to culture and beauty. Another important element is the link with classical culture, and a feeling for equilibrium and balance. Anselm Kiefer brings us the romantic artist he is. His vast pictures, thick with paint and embedded with objects from sunflowers and diamonds to lumps of lead, nod to Norse myth, to Kabbalah and the Egyptian gods, to philosophy and poetry, and to alchemy and the spirit of materials. The idea of the sublime, don’t forget, might be Italian but it is also very German.
Kiefer has a long history with the city of Naples. It began in 1982, with the creation of a work for the Terrae Motus collection. His professional relationship with Lia Rumma began in 1992, and in 1997 he held a solo exhibition in the Sala degli Arazzi of the Museo Nazionale at Capodimonte, followed in 2004 by an exhibition at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Nowadays, Kiefer is appreciated throughout whole of Italy, but what is it about this specific city that touches Kiefer personally?
GS: One reason that makes his work resonate in Naples is his sense of grandeur. Another is his capacity to work on complexity and ambivalence and to combine opposites. Also, Kiefer’s work expresses an untouchable beauty that could be ruined – and ultimately will be. One of his central points is fragility.
Naples, with its noble magisterial palaces, is a place where everything is extreme. At each step you perceive the juxtapositions: the ambition and the failure, the magnificent and its opposite. The city is vital and contradictory. When you are in Naples, you feel grandeur everywhere – and at the same time you get the sense of fragility and decadence. Naples sighs under the possibility of its breaking down or collapsing. There is a strong correspondence between all this and the way Kiefer looks at things. Naples is a city of layers, and layers of multiple histories are hallmarks of Kiefer’s work. Even the way he uses materials is by overlaying one layer upon another. His works are thick.
Gabi Scardi is an art critic, curator and writer. Her main field of research covers the practices at the intersection between visual art, anthropology, architecture, design and urban culture.
Since 2011, she has been the curator of nctm e l’arte project. She curated the Greek Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015), as well as the restoration of Alberto Burri’s Teatro Continuo, Milan (2015). Scardi was consultant for visual art for the Milan Provincial Authority, and curator at MAXXI, National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome. The exhibitions that Scardi curated and co-curated include: Fashion as Social Energy, Palazzo Morando, Milan (2015); The war which is coming is not the first one, Mart Museum, Rovereto (2014); Roma-Sinti-Kale-Manush, Autograph, London (2012); Spazio, MAXXI, Rome, 2010; Aware: Art Fashion Identity, Royal Academy, London (2010); Synthetic Ritual, Prichard Art Gallery, Idaho (2012) and Pitzer Gallery, Pitzer College, Los Angeles (2011); Side Effects, Louisiana Museum, Copenhagen (2011) and Side Effects, Biennale de Lyon (2009); Maria Papadimitriou, Infinito fa rumore, eternità fa silenzio, Fotografia Europea, Reggio Emilia (2009); “Alfredo Jaar, It is Difficult”, Spazio Oberdan and HangarBicocca, Milan (2008) and “Alfredo Jaar, Questions, Questions”, public project, Milan (2008).