THE STATE HERMITAGE MUSEUM
Exhibition: 30 MAY – 3 SEPTEMBER 2017
Curated by Dr. Dimitri Ozerkov
Nina Danilova, Associate Curator
Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace
Russia, 190000, St Petersburg,
Dvortsovaya Naberezhnaya 34
Ghost over the Waters
Credit Line: © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat
THE STATE HERMITAGE MUSEUM
30 MAY – 3 SEPTEMBER 2017
For the very first time in Russia, the State Hermitage Museum inaugurates a solo exhibition of one of the most famous contemporary artist, Anselm Kiefer.
The exhibition is organized by the State Hermitage Museum in close collaboration with the artist and in cooperation with Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London/Paris/Salzburg. Anselm Kiefer dedicated the exhibition to the great Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov.
Anselm Kiefer is an artist whose work demonstrates a deep and diverse intellectual reflection. In his oeuvre he faces the themes of history, religion, literature, philosophy as well as the question of memory and heritage. One of the main source of inspiration for Kiefer is world culture in its widest perspective: German history, religious mysticism, antiquity, and Mesopotamian mythology.
Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945 in a little German town called Donau Eschingen, a few months before the end of the Second World War. Researching the themes of guilt and pain, which paralyzed his generation, Kiefer, alongside Georg Baselitz and Gerhard Richter, became one of the first artists who blatantly addressed the topics of Nazism and the Holocaust.
In 1980 Kiefer represented Germany at the Venice Biennale. In the following years he had solo exhibitions held at the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Royal Academy of Arts in London as well as at the Grand Palais and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Anselm Kiefer is the only living artist to be part of the permanent display of the Louvre.
According to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, “Anselm Kiefer’s art lodges in a strange spaciousness, as far from horrible as it is from decorative”, – two constants of contemporary art. His pictorial works – extensive, multilayered, three-dimensional – mark the revival of the history painting genre with its key concerns: memory and cultural myth. In a challenging manner, Kiefer explores layers of history by a distinct treatement of materials and texture, colours in his canvases are mixed with dust, soil, clay, rusted metal, straw and dry flowers.
In 1985 he acquired an obsolete roof of the Cologne cathedral: lead sheets became pages of his artist’s books, one of his central means of expression. Delving into the practice of Anselm Kiefer demands a viewer that is prepared for mystic compassion and an immersion into the whirling of rarified intellectual ideas.
In 2016, Anselm Kiefer, inspired by his visit to St. Petersburg, created a new exhibition project specially for the Hermitage Museum. It is in the triadic space of the colossal Nikolaevsky Hall of the Winter Palace that Kiefer chose to display around 30 new works dedicated to the Russian futurist-poet Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922).
For Kiefer, poetical production is often a starting point: “I think in pictures. Poems help me with this. They are like buoys in the sea. I swim to them, from one to the other. In between, without them, I am lost. They are the handholds where something masses together in the infinite expanse.”
One of Khlebnikov’s central ideas is that major pivotal naval and terrestrial battles endlessly repeat every 317 years. This foresight was for Kiefer a thread to reflect on themes of war and peace, the fugacity and finitude of all human aspirations and the mercilessness of fate. All the while, the exhibition “Anselm Kiefer, for Khlebnikov” is an ode to the sorrowful beauty of rusted vessels – these relics of wars once instilled fear and are now left at the uttermost points of the earth.
The exhibition is curated by Dr. Dimitri Ozerkov, the Head of the Contemporary Art Department of the State Hermitage Museum, and Nina Danilova, Associate Curator of the same department.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue (both in Russian and English). The catalogue features a foreword by Prof. Mikhail Piotrovsky, the General Director of the State Hermitage Museum, and texts by Dimitri Ozerkov, Ivan Czeczot, Peter Sloterdijk and Klaus Dermutz.
The exhibition “Anselm Kiefer, for Velimir Khlebnikov” is accompanied by a compelling educational program and curated events. It includes meetings with the artist and curators, film screenings, lectures, workshops and public talks.
The exhibition is organized by the Contemporary Art Department of the State Hermitage Museum in the frame of “the Hermitage 20/21 Project” which aims to collect, study and exhibit Contemporary Art. It marks the centenary anniversary of the Revolution in Russia, celebrated in 2017.
For Velimir Khlebnikov: New Theory of War, Fates of Nations
Credit Line: © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat
A Cloud of Blue-grey Smoke
Not everyone will like this exhibition. It is not gently appealing, there is much that is unusual, it is rigorous and demands reflection. It is very serious. The white expanse of the Nicholas Hall only intensifies the banal tragedy of the dank roads and ditches, the woods, fields and copses in which small submarines, cars, and books are lost, sometimes with the artist’s palette hovering above. All this is ordinary and mysterious at the same time. Anselm Kiefer, one of the most important artists working today, proclaims the seriousness of his art intentionally. It speaks of complex things: the German spirit, mysticism, the Kabbalah, the Holocaust. The best description of Kiefer’s work, to my mind, is Alexander Blok’s ‘gloomy, German genius’. I hope that even today it is, to use Blok’s word, ‘intelligible’ to us.
In one of the pictures exhibited at the Hermitage, a book hovers over a landscape. Piles of books are central to his famous installation at the entrance of the Department of Ancient Orient in the Louvre. He also created a special exhibition called The Alchemy of Books. It is said that Kiefer suggests that his pictures be read rather than looked at. The book allusions are not just apposite, they’re unavoidable and can be very personal. In Kiefer’s forests, I at once hear and see Goethe’s terrifying Erlkoenig, both in the original and in Zhukovsky’s wonderful translation. The subject of the Holocaust is consciously interwoven by Kiefer with the searing poetry of Paul Celan, who wrote the extraordinary Fugue of Death [‘Todesfuge’]. His philosophical psychologism consciously refers to the work of Ingeborg Bachmann. Like them, he shows how it is both possible and necessary to write ‘after Auschwitz’.
Kiefer’s literary circle also includes the great Khlebnikov. With his understanding of the
Kabbalah, Kiefer appreciates Khlebnikov’s theory of numerology and his prophetic number readings, in particular – and especially – the rhythm of great sea battles. He has devoted a whole series of pictures to Khlebnikov. It was for this reason that we invited Kiefer to create an exhibition with Khlebnikov at its heart. For us, in Russia, it is significant that Khlebnikov foretold the year of the Russian Revolution (though it is true he was not the only one). We are grateful to the artist for agreeing to create for the Hermitage an exhibition dedicated to a poet of the revolution, and a revolutionary of the poetic idiom. Kiefer’s series of pictures brings to mind another quotation, this time from Mayakovsky: ‘October blew as always, its winds unchanged from capitalism’. Indeed it’s true, these German pictures are very Petersburg, autumnal. Wind, cold, dank humidity: this is our autumnal world. It’s our weather, our history.
The exhibition includes images of Kiefer’s famous towers. Whatever they might signify
for the artist, they inevitably take the viewer back to September 11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. The horror of this memory is all the more intense when you realize that Khlebnikov predicted New York’s terrifying disaster with extraordinary precision, both in the specific details of the event and in the way he understood the emotions it engendered, including the joyful reaction of many. The poem is Ladomir [‘Lightland’]:
And the castles of world trade
Where the chains of poverty shine
With a face of malevolence and rapture,
One day you will turn to ash
And so on for another eighteen lines. Kiefer’s pictures have this ‘cloud of blue-grey
smoke’ which Khlebnikov mentions and which we all saw on the television. For both the artist and the poet, our terrible twentieth century has proved (no doubt unconsciously) to be a model for the past and for the future.
I hope I am wrong.
Director of the State Hermitage
For Velimir Khlebnikov, Fates of Nations
Credit Line: © Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat
The Measure of the World
‘Anselm Kiefer, for Velimir Khlebnikov’ is an exhibition dedicated to a poet who changed the Russian language and predicted the October Revolution. Even its name is like the title of a book, the heading of a Futurist manifesto, a poetic gesture. According to the artist himself, Kiefer came across Khlebnikov‘s work in the 1970s. He read him in German translation and could therefore only get a partial sense of his untranslatable futuristic word-creation. It‘s unsurprising that Khlebnikov‘s name started to come up regularly in Kiefer‘s work above all in terms of the poet‘s prose, which is more easily translated, and primarily in the context of his theory of numerology. In 1990, Kiefer created a series of photographs overlaid with gouache. Their composition is reminiscent of strange title pages with Khlebnikov‘s name added in Kiefer‘s characteristically precise hand, and the titles of his treatises in German: ‘The Fates of Nations’ and ‘The New Theory of War’. In smaller writing are the repeated words: ‘Battles at Sea Recur every 317 years’. The same installation is shown on each photograph, from different sides: an oblong iron table with six folding iron chairs around it, suspended above a black rectangular hole in the concrete floor. Above this is a metallic roof girder and, to the sides, light shines palely through the transparent walls of a conservatory or of a stage backdrop. Desolation and dilapidation pervade everything. Scattered on the table are pieces of paper or fragments of white crockery. There is nobody at the table: it‘s as if Khlebnikov‘s ‘Chairmen of the Terrestrial Globe’ have just left. According to Khlebnikov‘s utopian idea, the international Government of the Terrestrial Globe should be made up of 317 cultural figures, responsible for the harmonization of the world. The number 317 is key to the poet‘s theory of numerology, the most important number in world history. Kiefer has only six places round the table, but they too are empty.
In 1996, in a new series of large black-and-white photographs bound into a book, Kiefer created a detailed recitation of sea battles. These blurry images, in places over-exposed, sodden, stained and having undergone chemical processes, document a roughly-finished concrete interior with a dirty floor, boxes, projectors with leads running to them, water in a rectangular basin and a stream of water gushing from the ceiling. On the surface of the photographs are quotations from Khlebnikov, written again in that painstaking hand, naming the historical locations of battles at sea.
Finally, a series from 2003–4 comprises a collection of large paintings in a blackish-brown palette with rusty models of ships affixed to them. The ships are completely stranded or even lie mast-down as if wrecked on the bottom of a dried-up ocean. Over the black smoothness of the sea, whether illusory or again real, appear the names of heroes and swimmers—for example Hero and Leander – as signs of the everlasting existence of the great watery element. A Spirit hovers over the water, echoing the biblical story of the creation of the world. Whether theurgic or mythogenic, time is a recurring theme; one that Kiefer, like Khlebnikov before him, seems to explore in his pictures. Time is the measure of the world, the Fate of Nations.
The Hermitage exhibition presents an entirely new series of works that develops all these preexisting motifs. The dry, gritty landscapes are flooded with moisture, overgrown with forests, suffused with the smoothness of lakes. It feels as though these views have acquired a Russian dimension, and the boats: the look of a Russian berth. Although the canvases are inspired by the German landscape, they convey something of the motif of the well-worn track that is so inescapably Russian, as in Levitan‘s Vladimirka (1892). On first appraisal, they seem imbued with a sense of impending doom, as in Vasilyev‘s Thaw (1871) or Savrasov‘s Sea of Mud [Rasputitsa] (1894). But this latest series introduces a motif that was not previously apparent: a powerful black layer that descends from the top, as if swallowing up the image. It‘s as if the blackened skies are approaching and bearing down upon the waterlogged landscape, the concrete towns, the ship. Kiefer often uses lead in these works, which he works in a technically sophisticated way. Old illustrators of the Bible used a similar compositional effect to depict the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the plagues of Egypt: sulphurous or fiery torrents come crashing down from the sky onto the doomed civilization, plunging the world into an impenetrable, mortal gloom.
Kiefer‘s ships are hopelessly entrapped in these rapidly darkening forests and roads. Their fate, it appears, is to be stuck here forever, having become a brackish-brown element of these plains: plains that are composed, perhaps, of indistinguishable fragments of just the same ships that end up on this mystical sea-bed every 317 years of never-ending history. The battles have already taken place or still lie ahead, every 317 years, but the iron carcasses have been suspended in time, as it continues its unrelenting, monstrous course, flooding the world, drying up the sea and harbouring secret signs.
What are these ships? In the context of St Petersburg, they are the Varyag [Varangian] and the Steregushchy [Vigilant], names that bear witness to great deeds initiated at walking distance from the Hermitage, on the other side of the Neva. They‘re the ships of Peter the Great‘s Admiralty, built not far from here – you only have to cross the busy highway at the traffic lights. In front of the Admiralty is the monument to Peter the Great – the ‘Carpenter- Tsar’. They‘re also the dozens of ships of two world wars resting on the bed of the Baltic Sea (in The Fates of Nations, Khlebnikov calculates the various periods of rule by the German nation). They are also the cruiser Aurora, which for Kiefer undoubtedly resonates both in Greek (Eos) and in German (Bohme‘s Aurora ): indeed, one of the pictures in the new series is called Aurora. They‘re the Roman iron rostra of ships on the lighthouse-columns that stand on the spit of Vasilyevsky Island. Finally, they‘re the endless procession of rusty barges that enter the Neva from the Baltic
Sea and make their way along it, every night passing the spit, beneath the windows of the Nicholas Hall in the Winter Palace, where this exhibition is taking place. There is no record of all these ships appearing and disappearing in history, time is non-linear. It is subject to a kind of complicated logic of eternal recurrence that compels us to read over and over again the list of vessels and only ever reach the middle. ‘And the black sea thundering its oratory, turbulent / And, surging, roars against my pillow’.
Kiefer marshals a rigorous artistic system with his Hermitage flotilla: a system of colour
combinations, tactile sensations, and semantic qualities. In terms of form, his pictures are narrative, but ultimately enigmatic. Their composing elements are all unambiguous: austere little iron boats set against a background of bleakly clogged landscapes, screwed on and suspended on fine wires. All these elements are the identifying coordinates of a timeless system to which the artist gives the dedication ‘For Velimir Khlebnikov’. Working with entire systems is not unusual for Kiefer: previous series have been dedicated to Rilke, Celan, Bachmann; there‘s a huge swathe of work connected with fighter planes, another with the boundless world of constellations, and a third with the theurgic concepts of European Kabbalah.
The title of the Hermitage exhibition, given in the form of a dedication, defines it as a type of ekphrasis: the artist is creating his reading of the essence of the poet‘s work through artistic, objective means. This owes as much to the combination of various painterly techniques as it does to the general texture and colour scheme. The uneven, dirty, casually contemplative surface of the canvas requires a logical explanation which can only be found in the final form of the work. Kiefer aligns his canvases with the colours of nature itself: nature deserted by mankind, or not yet populated by it. The black strokes make you think of the charred and sooty remnants of destructive fires; the rutted road – of the movement of heavy vehicles. Kiefer imagines and sketches out an abandoned battle field that only needs a name. What this name will be – heroic or infamous – history will decide, its paths are unknowable. Having read Khlebnikov‘s writings only in translation, the artist creates his own non-verbal text that in complexity comes close to and resonates with the poet‘s imagery. The dedication to Khlebnikov
transforms an original system of essentially pictorial relationships into something that is both graphic and poetic. The paintings‘ names inevitably bring to mind concrete motifs in Khlebnikov‘s super-sagas, from which the artist has drawn inspiration. Here, it seems, are the poet‘s early poems, and his later ones, his interest in symbolism, his rejection of it, the voices of birds, and all the other strange representatives of his created world, the children of Khlebnikov‘s fantasy. ‘Zin! Zin! Zin! Sings the raucous racket-bird.’ Read in this centenary year of the revolution, Khlebnikov‘s poetry is tender, romantic, and endlessly utopian. But this is only a superficial interpretation, for history is uncompromising, and the poetic ships are never-endingly bogged down in impassable roads and overgrown foliage, melted down into pools of lead, drowned under the weight of elusive time.
What is the significance of the dedication to the poet? Does it acknowledge a debt or is it a challenge? What kind of a message is it that Kiefer is sending across a hundred years, in the heart of the city in which Khlebnikov spent so many of the most important years of his life? The viewer can only assume it is some kind of a mystic gesture, an alchemic attempt to distil a whole century into its concentrated essence. The essence of what? There must be some eye-catching word that completes this idea, but it slips away, evading all attempts to establish with solemn but foolish conviction a moment of unambiguity in what is an interpretative flow. And so this word, sought but never uttered, continues to glimmer on the edge of our thoughts, to caress the imagination somewhere on the edges of these thickly painted canvases.
This evanescent flickering brings us back to the elusive nature of time, the movement of
which cannot by elucidated by any horological mechanisms. Khlebnikov‘s phrase ‘Time is the measure of the world’ sounds in Russian like an orthoepic formula for being, in which the words for measure and world (mera and mir) are almost identical, and one is explained through the other. Mir (the world) is that which has mera (measure), and mera is that which is invented by mir. Khlebnikov the theorist tried to find an explanation for this by extracting the ‘very smalls’ of language, and at the same time by trying to determine the valence and specific weight of individual sounds of nature, appropriated by language and immortalized in letter form. He tried to create a single universal alphabet based on the idea that the natural resonance of each concrete sound has its own precise meaning, universal for all mankind. ‘The sounds of the alphabet are the names of various types of space, a catalogue of the events of its life; the alphabet is common to many peoples, and is a concise dictionary of the spatial world,’ he wrote in his proclamation Artists of the World! (1919). He saw the task of artists and poets as being ‘to construct convenient symbols that are interchangeable between the values of sound and sight, to construct a network of graphic symbols that inspire confidence.’ According to his plan, the fixing of a precise measure would allow him to come close to a comprehension of the laws of harmony which direct the world. In his research into the history of a universal language, Umberto Eco showed the utopian nature of such quests. Human languages have been moving ever further apart, losing more and more of their cognate words. However, the quest for a universal language preoccupied many poets at the turn of the twentieth century (a ‘pivotal moment’ for such pursuits). The result was the creation of hundreds of artificial languages, none of which has become a global language. Much as the artists of GINKhUK (the State Institute of Artistic Culture) and the Bauhaus established an ideal correlation between form and colour, poets strove to find the absolute meaning of elementary sounds. According to Khlebnikov, the letter ‘M’ signified the disintegration of the magnitudinous into the infinitesimally small. ‘R’ signified the division of a body by a ̳smooth cavity‘, like the trace of a movement through it of another body, and so on. In his essay ‘The Warrior of the Kingdom of the Future’ (1912–1913), he asserts: ‘In the land called “Germany” G/H and SH are the initial sounds of the names of nearly two dozen of the greatest and most glorious minds that nation has produced (Schiller, Schlegel, Schopenhauer, Schelling, Goethe, Heine, Heise, Hegel). In this initial sound, we see the bearer of destiny, the path of the will that gives it a fateful significance’. Khlebnikov‘s theories are naïve in the degree of their subjectivity, and he ignores the fact that in Russian, the letter G is used to transliterate two different German consonants (both ‘h’ and ‘g’ in ‘Hegel’). The ‘too human’ format of his ‘precise’ measurements might therefore seem to turn them from brilliant, superhuman insights into quaint guesses about the future. Khlebnikov himself, however, certainly took his theories seriously, and not as mere curiosities. In May 1912, he published at his own expense a pamphlet titled ‘Teacher and Student’, in which he revealed the ‘laws of time’
that he had discovered, and posed the prophetic question: ‘Should we not expect the fall of a state in 1917?’
How does Kiefer view such poetic insights and leaps forward through time? Does he take Khlebnikov‘s theory of 317 years seriously? Khlebnikov‘s preoccupation with the precision of details might appeal to Kiefer: for example, his view that handwriting influences the perception of the meaning of a word. Kiefer writes his inscriptions in a methodical and meditative manner. But Khlebnikov‘s desire to break the world down into its tiniest elements would not appear to be close to Kiefer. It seems to me that of greater relevance to Kiefer‘s landscapes are Khlebnikov‘s attempts to broaden space, and thereby to grasp the laws of time. Khlebnikov‘s theories are important when taken as a whole: a bold, unified system of knowledge, a belief in man‘s ability constantly to make sense of himself within a dynamic of change, a humanistic ability to examine himself from without, and a commitment to culture. It is as if Kiefer merely relays this theory, giving it the opportunity to speak for itself, underlining its fragmentary nature, nourishing its utopianism. Kiefer‘s new cycle of pictures is itself similar to a poem, its theme a new theory of sea battles. Kiefer‘s picture-poem takes Khlebnikov as a theme, as its starting point, and develops it further according to his own artistic laws. The cycle has its own poetics, its own naivety, its own subjectivity, its own utopianism. Standing to one side of the world (‘mir’) and its rhyme measure (‘mera’), time remains inherent in this cycle of works, not simply as a reason for the collapse of matter, but as a condition for the existence of any imaginative system.
It feels as though any text about these new pictures should itself be endless, without a start or a finish, like the timeless journey of human history. One seeks ever newer words to describe the associations and symbols that shine through these paintings, multiplying these words beyond what is possible, and forming from them entirely new constructions, while at the same time returning the imagery of the pictures to the world of sounds and letters. Culture allows us constantly to recognise ourselves in the flow of time, and as such can be seen as the ability to define and display landmarks through life‘s course. In a Russian context, and especially a Petersburg one, poetry is the best means of doing this, for ‘in Russia a poet is more than a poet’, and the poet‘s path ̳is not preordained by the calendar.’ Here there is no belief whose strength is undetectable, nor time whose measure cannot be grasped; and there is no fearlessness in the face of death, the approach of which is inexorable. There is fate. And there is poetry, which is tied to a timeless and ‘too human’ sense of bafflement in meanings, emotions, and tactile sensations. Without a doubt, the artistic system of Kiefer‘s pictures has those poetic qualities that are so well-known in Russia. This is the strength of these works, and the root of that inexplicable sense of their consanguinity with local landscapes, colours, and notions of fate.
*1 Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000
*2 Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov, Volume III: Selected Poems, Velimir Khlebnikov, Translated by Paul Schmidt, Edited by Ronald Vroon