Ashes to Ashes

Anselm Kiefer: Il Mistero delle Cattedrali, White Cube Bermondsy, London

Review by Simon Bayliss

On entering the south gallery at the new White Cube in Bermondsey my immediate concern when faced with a room full of sculpture, was how to write a healthy review of a major show which I was informed, had only seven paintings in it.  The most engaging sculpture for me was an enormous lead aeroplane wing laying on the floor with a great bunch of dead sunflowers- the stems tucked inside- spilling out head-first like an enormous toppled vase of scorched flowers. The sunflowers, cast in resin, with a metallic finish, are splattered with plaster and paint, as if they had been lying around the artist’s studio collecting residue. I wondered whether this object, raised and nurtured by hand, not polished, or showcasing the latest in technology or industrial processes, could be thought of as a painting. Its presence shares a similar manic quality to Van Gogh’s sunflowers, except the heads of these no longer follow the sun. I thought perhaps I wouldn’t have to elaborate on the few actual works on canvas.

Anselm Kiefer Il Mistero delle Cattedrali, 2010-11, Oil, acrylic, steel, lead, plaster, pastel and charcoal on canvas 129 15/16 x 299 3/16 in. (330 x 760 cm) © the artist Photo: Charles Duprat. Courtesy White Cube

But, how mistaken my trepidations were. The first encounter with one of Kiefer’s bus-sized paintings, framed by the gap in the wall as I turned the corner to enter the room, was staggering.

‘In the cathedral, you don’t bicycle’

Like all of Kiefer’s work to date, the aggrandised decay of the failed cultural ideologies of Nazi history, is a much discussed theme of the exhibition. New threads in recent work are made of mysterious allusions to alchemy- its processes and the recent history of its practice. ‘The Mystery of the Cathedrals’ is the translated title of the show taken from a book by an untraceable modern-day alchemist known as Fulcanelli.  Kiefer’s cathedral- the anchoring motif in five of the paintings, is Templehof Airport in Berlin; constructed by the Nazi’s as one of the largest buildings in the world, it was conceived as the gateway to Europe and the symbol of Hitler’s ‘world capital’ Germania. Since its closure in 2008 it has become a public park. It now holds fashion shows and has an ice rink- much to Kiefer’s disapproval. The artist has written to the Berlin cultural department stating; ‘in the cathedral, you don’t bicycle’. The mile-long curving terminal, designed to resemble an eagle in flight was built on what was mediaeval Knights Templar land, on an existing airport used in the early twentieth century for demonstrations by the very first flight pioneers, including Orville Wright. For the artist, with its loaded history and severe neo-classical architecture, Templehof is not a place for trivia.

Die Freimaurer (The Freemasons) is the first painting of Templehof’s enormous sweeping façade. At once both a colossal landscape painting and what also looks like a dredged-up wedge of the landscape itself, the illusion of a great curvature in space is formed as the building pans from close-up on the left into the distant horizon. Like deep scars, the lines which make up the architecture have been gouged out of a densely built-up, organic-looking surface. The painting appears to have been carved and moulded from a slab of thick primordial soup; now as cracked and eroded as the bed of a dried up lake.

Hanging flat against the painting’s surface is a giant rusted metal chart compass whose hands span the length of the enormous flat arena in front of the airport.  This nightmarish metaphysical prop seems to be playing out an abstract surveillance exercise on a terrifyingly exaggerated scale. Scrawled in chalk on the armatures are cryptic references to European masonic lodges. As a symbol, the compass, along with the set square, forms the universal Freemason emblem- originally the tools of working stonemasons. Historically signifying lessons in human conduct, the spiritual compass ‘circumscribes the intemperate passions of man’. In this case perhaps, the compass also represents the Third Reich’s envisioned mastery and mapping of both the spiritual and physical world.


The Mystery of the Cathedrals, written by Fulcanelli in 1926 in an extremely abstruse and cryptic manner, attempts to decode alchemical secrets enshrined within the architecture of great European cathedrals. Despite the author’s concealed identity, his fame as a powerful alchemist reportedly led to him being unsuccessfully pursued by both German and allied intelligence on the eve of World War Two for his knowledge of nuclear physics.  It is also said that Fulcanelli provided colleagues with detailed warnings about the perils of nuclear energy before the existence of the atomic bomb was publicly acknowledged.

Keifer poetically reflects his field of interest as ambitiously and monumentally as any artist could; on the day of the opening of ‘II Mistero delle Cattedrali’ he signed a contract to buy a decommissioned nuclear power station in West Germany. Amused by the fuss when this was announced the artist jested, “That’s what I do all the time: I buy old factories, I move in, I transform them and then leave them and give them to some collector as I did in Germany and the South of France”.

Playing in the auditorium during the exhibition is a film documenting the derelict silk factory which Kiefer transformed into agesamtkunstwerk’. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, directed by Sophie Fiennes, gradually reveals the gigantic multifaceted art centre he created in and around his studios in Barjac, France. It is not only a place where his work is made and housed but a colossal, organically evolving, architectural installation in itself; containing miles of corridors and excavated labyrinths, a concrete prison-like amphitheatre, glass rooms installed with sculptures, pavilions housing single paintings, and monumental biblical towers constructed in clearings amongst the surrounding woodland. The film gives us an insight into the studio as a factory or laboratory, in which Kiefer and his four assistants partake in an array of elemental activities and raw processes. You see them excavating a crypt, smelting lead in a cauldron, burning books, smashing glass, pouring concrete pillars.

The film reveals a sense of the artist’s anarchic, impulsive and wayward approach to making. A scene which illustrates the accretion of matter in his painting process shows Kiefer walking across a canvas smearing and flicking glue over its surface using a broom. Next his assistant throws handfuls of ash, covering the entire image. The painting is then mechanically hoisted upright at which point Kiefer orders his assistant to violently bang and shake the stretcher. Clouds of ash avalanche down its surface after every beating to reveal the image of a sunlit forest.

Most reassuring for me, is the extensive portrayal of artistic practice and expression in which the artist as creator is at the centre of the process, making real objects and paintings using fundamental, ageless physical processes. Watching the film enhances the sense you get from his work; the uncompromising world Kiefer single-mindedly manifests in a concise, undoubting and immensely ambitious manner.

Big Symbolism

Two paintings which hang opposite each other in the first room, and which do not reference Templehof, are easier to decipher with more open symbolic narratives. On the right is a post-apocalyptic scene of what looks like a crowded shanty town or a district of communist tower blocks built on the side of a hill. Protruding from the centre of the image is literally a large decrepit rusty satellite dish. The town seems to be smothered in the residue from a flood- the sediment from one of Kiefer’s eccentric processes. Green copper-oxide formations cling to the surface as a result of the folded canvas being submerged in ionising tanks.  The subject in this painting seems to be about an effort to communicate during or after a disaster- the battered and broken instrument being the only possibility for salvation- and perhaps the only symbol of hope in the entire show. Sagging under the weight, the canvas endures the remnants of a brick wall attached below the structure. Acting as props to ground the massive dish and confirm its involvement in the image, real bricks are for me an inspired use of medium, exuding machismo.

Anselm Kiefer, Il Mistero delle Cattedrali, 2010-11, Oil, acrylic, terracotta, steel, salt, wire and minerals on canvas 149 5/8 x 149 5/8 in. (380 x 380 cm) © the artist Photo: Ben Westoby Courtesy White Cube

Suspended high in front of the painting opposite, a giant set of metal scales, weighing up nuggets of yellow and brown substances, offset a swirling tempestuous image. The picture could be as easily read as the crests of two waves in a stormy gale blown sea, as the ravaged glacial peaks of an alpine landscape.  The surface is more elastic and fluid than others- great cracked pastings of dried-up gum form the painting. Salt and furry outbreaks of crystals cling to the surface. The image seems to be shifting shape before your eyes- like clouds which connote something familiar for an instant, where everything is in flux, in focus then out of focus. As mountain peaks I thought of the mineral and petroleum-rich landscape of Greenland and the race to tap its resources. The scales are perhaps weighing up possibilities for extraction or the serious ethical concerns.  More aptly, the scales are a symbol for alchemical practice or perhaps for the weighing up of life’s dilemmas. This is a flexible work, and as another critic mentioned, ‘Symbolism this big covers all the bases’.

The surface of every painting has facture so dense and intricate that when viewed close-up has the similarly infinite detail of a complex natural micro-environment; the crusty lichen covered bark of ancient tree or a microscopic view of an old mouldy impasto oil painting, complete with flaking varnish. Just days after the show when I was looking for fossils in the face of a chalk cliff, I was transported back to the surfaces of Kiefer’s images. Mildly acidic rain water running down the cliff edge has left a crusty patina of chalk sediment delicately clinging to its surface, whilst outbreaks of algae coloured in subtle shades of ochre, green and rust stain its otherwise pale complexion.  Kiefer’s paintings are predominantly made up of all the colours of decay: mould, rust, mud and ash, whilst on occasion specks of saturated colour- detailed amongst the architecture of the first Templehof painting- leach into the surface as if slowly rotting amongst volatile substances.

Kiefer’s materials and surface textures signify the effects from all measures of destructive forces- volcanic debris, drought-baked earth, earthquake fault lines and war damage. Templehof itself carries the scars and residues of its own history- the labyrinth of underground tunnels used in the war to assemble aircraft were reportedly flooded by Soviet forces during a raid. On another occasion fires from an explosion fuelled by highly flammable nitrate film stock raged for days in underground vaults containing the majority of German aerial reconnaissance. During the cold war Tempelhof became a U.S. air base, home to several hundred American soldiers, many of whom left graffiti on the blackened beams of these burned-out chambers.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a 17 metre long painting of the interior of the terminal building. Standing a few paces back it has an immersive scale, becoming an intense panoramic envelope.  Central to the image is a felled heap of upside-down blackened sunflowers nightmarishly large in comparison to the depicted room. Entangled within the tentacles of heads and stalks are toy-sized Stutka bombers and fighter jets, propellers and wings bent and rusty.  Motion and energy arrested within this image evokes an extraordinary battlefield.

Anselm Kiefer Dat rosa miel apibus 2010-11 Oil, acrylic, terracotta, salt, lead and resin on canvas 129 15/16 x 673 1/4 in. (330 x 1710 cm) © the artist Photo: Ben Westoby Courtesy White Cube

To me the sunflowers take on a terrifying post-human aliveness like the machines from The Matrix, smashing down through the roof of the airport, scooping up aircraft on a path of destruction. Some escaped planes scatter the floor of the gallery.  Alternatively, as the title Dat Rosa Mel Apibus (The Rose Gives the Bees Honey) implies, the emblems are simply inspired by plant and insect ecology. A more sinister, alchemical interpretation of this symbolic coupling however, was used by the secret order of the Rosicrucians: the supreme flower, feeding the diligent workers with nectar which they unwittingly transform into powerful resources. Only in this case there are no resources left and the squadron of workers is beginning to collapse and die.

Return to Dust

In most of Kiefer’s paintings, the single panoramic perspective described on the canvas is offset by multi-dimensional props, uniting the picture plane with sculptural forms.  Apparent in all the pictures is a strong sense of place. This is crudely infiltrated by highly symbolic oversized entities such as the compass, which inhabit our world as objects, not illusions. This combination gives the work a mixture of scale and differing planes of reality which offer alternating levels of human interpretation- the canvas is the illusionary stage or arena in which the props act out esoteric narratives. Across all media Kiefer creates a highly personal and nightmarishly abstracted world, dramatically encrusted with heavyweight historical allusions. In 2009 Kiefer was commissioned to create an opera to mark the 20th anniversary of the Opéra Bastille in Paris- inspired by the Old Testament and part installation, part theatre which one critic called ‘A spectacle of dust’.

Anselm Kiefer Tempelhof 2010-11 Oil, acrylic, terracotta and salt on canvas 149 5/8 x 299 3/16 in. (380 x 760 cm) © the artist Photo: Ben Westoby Courtesy White Cube

Hung opposite the 17 meter giant in this vast gallery space, the last painting, simply titled Templehof, is another of the airport’s derelict hall-like interior. Unusually it is without a sculptural prop, allowing for a quieter, more contemplative atmosphere without the demands of esoteric symbolism which otherwise seem to gnaw at ones subconscious.  Cold light filters through the tall windows. Where the illusory panes of glass, made up of a fragile scab of what looks like salt, have literally broken off the painting, the muddy ground behind them is all that remains.  Through happenstance no light enters these, as if the window has been clotted by earth.   The ceiling of this painting is also being infiltrated- this time by a blizzard of copper-oxide tarnish pouring down from the roof.  Like the sculptural quality of the windows, this feature also creates a peculiar phenomenon, a playoff between its facture, and the scenario it describes. The substance looks as though it really was thrown down onto the canvas from above and really has collected on the rafters; the crystalline powder, like snow, is piled-up amongst the deep scars carved and sculpted out of the painting’s thick surface.

The image reveals a space no one would want to inhabit for long. The building is cracking and disintegrating, but so is the painting itself (at least it appears to be). The interior space is simulated by materials that are potentially unstable- Kiefer has admitted with great delight that he cannot predict what his new work will look like in years to come. In Kiefer’s images the fabric of reality is falling apart- like in The Matrix– where the entrapment of perceived reality becomes realised, causing its demise. A more suitable interpretation however, is found amongst the sickly ruins of emblazoned Nazi ideology.

Kiefer has said that he doesn’t make illusions. For me, his painted images teeter between illusion and the physicality of the materials which make them. What is unique about his work within the field of painting is that the materials Keifer uses are as intrinsic to the underlying narrative as the motifs, symbols and inscriptions. In all cases physical natural processes and elemental forces seem to be eroding the illusion formed on the picture plane. It is as if these images anticipate their eventual return to dust- sadly, or perhaps not, there is no sense of renewal and regeneration- only lead wings linger obsolete amongst the ashes.

I imagine that like Fulcanelli’s Il Mistero delle Cattedrali, which a reviewer suggests ‘amounts to an exercise in mystification’, this show, with all its layering of symbols, historical references and esoteric titles and inscriptions, could be easily overwhelming to anyone expecting to gain straightforward and literal insight.  In interview Sophie Fiennes describes showing Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow to her Uncle- a Greek orthodox archimandrite and scholar – who delighted in understanding all the references but also claimed, for example, that Kiefer’s knowledge of the ‘Shekhinah’ was completely wrong.  For me this anecdote illustrates the way Kiefer, like many artists, reconstructs, or constructs his own meaning from the plethora of serious sources to which he devotes his research.  Underlying the combined allusions to hermetic history, Nazi architecture and alchemy, is a playful openness in narrative and an anarchic irreverence in the work’s construction. Prevalent is a sense of devotion to processes and uncompromising poetry as opposed to a cold presentation of facts and knowledge. This is why this exhibition is open to interpretation from anyone who can bear Kiefer’s world- it is encompassing, dark and complex, ultimately apocalyptic, but infinitely engaging both in its textural beauty and its colossal multi-dimensional theatricality.


Simon Bayliss is an artist based in Devon and Dorset. He studied painting in England, Czech Republic and Ireland and his work is exhibited and collected internationally.