This is what I wrote while standing in front of this:
Something so beautiful and yet melancholic. Is it the association with post war guilt or is it in the piece itself. Similar reaction in London. Could consider ugly up close – beige, cream and flesh-coloured pinks. The grey-white stripe across the top – sky? sea? And then, standing 100ft back the beauty is extraordinary. It suddenly becomes a real place, and flowers glow in strange light.
I must have spent 30 minutes with this painting, walking back and forth, turning my back on it and then spinning around to face it from different parts of the room. A kind of grandmother’s footsteps. Up close it’s quite brutal, the colours are pasty, fleshy, not beautiful. That’s not to say it doesn’t get an emotional reaction close – it does – this soil feels churned up by suffering, charred, this is a place in limbo, but not a place you’d choose to be. And yet as you move away it starts to sing, becomes magical. He’s created a light I’ve never known – not dusk or dawn, sunlight or moonlight. The flowers that up close are disturbing patches of fleshy pink unfurl and are poppies, they dance and glow. From feeling like a kind of hell, it feels like a dream to wander that path and reach what is surely the prize. It is extraordinary.
Böhmen liegt am Meer (Bohemia Lies by the Sea) is inscribed on the painting – it’s a poem by an Austrian poet about the longing for a homeland that can never be, for Bohemia is landlocked, it cannot lie by the sea. Maybe this is a longing to change the past, a longing for a different history. Perhaps this painting can’t be given precise meaning. It is something of many layers. Of horror, of war and destruction, of longing, of a land that can be viewed two ways, of looking back and looking forward.
It is vast at 191.1 × 561.3 cm. The sheer scale of it seems to give it more of everything; more passion, depth, horror, joy. Impossible to get ones arms around it, it seeps out of the corner of your eye and into your peripheral vision.
Discovering Anselm Kiefer came at a particular moment for me. My mother, in the last months of her life had suddenly broken free of the guilt of being German. Born in 1938 with the burning streets of Hamburg as the horrific backdrop to her childhood, she left when she was 18, never to return, rarely speaking of her German roots. The British Museum’s exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation changed all that and I am eternally grateful, for the last months of her life were spent discovering what it was to be German, something she hadn’t dared do all her life.
Michael Prodger in The Guardian, says of Kiefer: He is a child of the rubble and of the national silence about Hitler’s atrocities that settled on Germany after 1945. It was here that he formulated his idea that “creation and destruction are one and the same”. Kiefer is an artist who hasn’t been afraid confront Germany’s past while also daring to reference the trauma that Germany suffered. And with my mother a child of the rubble too, I find it impossible to untangle the emotion I feel standing in front of this work.