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Anselm Kiefer, Paris (2024)

Anselm Kiefer

For Jean-Noël Vuarnet

24 January – 2 March 2024


24 January – 2 March 2024


White Cube Paris

10 avenue Matignon
75008 Paris

Kiefer’s watercolours rejoice in the materiality of humanity, the possibility of escape from the everyday through self-fulfilment: turbulent visions created with a medium known for its own uncontrollable nature. It’s a celebration of ‘les extases féminines’: coming up roses.

Text by Liz Rideal

Watercolour is often ranked as the underdog within the artistic media hierarchy, with oil firmly at the top. It suffers the connotations of the amateur artist, which belies its real magic as a rich, ancient, complex and unpredictable medium. The 18th century was its heyday, predicated on the invention of the portable paint box. Chaperoned leisured ladies could paint in delicate swathes of colour in the manner of plein-air artists such as Turner, Cotman, Towne and Constable. According to Kiefer, ‘with watercolour you cannot work by levels, you do one level and that’s it. You do more and it becomes a failure’[i].

Strange then when we associate him with depictions of catastrophe, war and climate change, macho-emotional works epitomised by massive perspectival canvases of straw and debris which counter his ‘Extases féminines’. Here, there is another register to Kiefer as his romantic, lyrical landscapes testify. These paintings offer an insight into his more intimate watercolours. Rodin’s muscular, solid bronzes are similarly tempered by erotic pencil and wash drawings made from 1890s-1917[ii]. However, Rodin’s figures are passive - swathed in titillating transparencies, without expression or character, his women float, and tempt through ghostly anonymity, conforming to preconceptions. They sleepwalk compared to Kiefer’s often named, seemingly eternal, mythological, sexual women, offering an alternative facet of the male gaze. Berthe Morisot embraces a female perspective in Repos (Jeune fille endormie) 1892, the model with eyes closed and mouth open, perhaps relating to her 1885 diary entry[iii]. ‘Saw yesterday at a curiosity shop in the faubourg Saint-Germain an engraving after Boucher that was most improper and yet adorably graceful […] one can imagine nothing more voluptuous than a woman sleeping, her bosom swollen with love’, (translated from the French; d’une extreme inconvenance et pourtant d’une grace adorable)[iv]. These (presumably) post-coital, and post-orgasmic images by Francois Boucher and Morisot suggest both male and female interpretations[v]. Kiefer’s watercolours attempt to grasp that same moment of the fleeting extase in febrile, vibrant, graphic imagery. The celebratory works appear to interpret and depict a series of different types of female orgasm.

La Vie en Rose en Extase

Kiefer splices his ecstatic women with luscious roses bunched into bouquets of bursting colour. Roses may symbolise love but there remains a disparity between love and sex. Napoleon’s lover Josephine created a rose garden with 250 varieties of rose at her Château de Malmaison. DiMaggio famously continued to send roses to Monroe’s Los Angeles crypt three times a week for 20 years after her death. Vendors of single red roses roam city restaurants hawking this ubiquitous bloom. Do these love equivalents ease potential sexual encounters? Kiefer’s explosive blooms provide an amalgam of these condensed ideas and co-opt the colourful rose as counter-protagonists within the collaged diptych dialogue.

Jean-Noël Vuarnet’s time at the Villa Medici (1977-79) inspired his book Extases féminines (1980) and consequently Kiefer, to portray women who cavort, jive, tumble and twist, seem to row and pivot within blue skies in a world of soaring, screeching joy, suggesting that la petite mort is like being in the clouds or hovering above the sea. Kiefer invents dreams to catch a memory, a souvenir, sometimes a part of love, sometimes part of independence. He appears to be trying to illustrate that brief moment and by offering us the flower as atmospheric companion, he sites these gymnastic portrayals within a garden of delight.

Happy as a clam, Venus lies within a nacrous shell, her open thighs mimicking the open bivalve, her exposed vagina recalling Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1866) rather than Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1485–86). A figure flies elegantly in a yogic backbend above a huge crater evoking the land of dreams - will she be engulfed or simply reflected on the surface? Another performs exotic dances in the air. Oskar Kokoschka painted The Bride of the Wind (Die Windsbraut) in 1913-14; a self-portrait with his lover Alma Mahler beside him, the two almost embalmed by the swirling sea surround. Kiefer’s version (2014) is set firmly on land, a lonesome tree framed by a glorious sky. His blonde-haired, red-lipped bride also alone in space, the paper join separating her from the pulsing sky and open fields. Brünhilde (2017) appears twice; a side-view and a full-on arse as she balances agile upon a wooden trunk. Similarly, Danaë (Δανάη, both 2017) receives a golden shower, both figures appear tense as they await the impact of splatter; it’s all action. The three Marmorklippen (2015) on buff ground focus on the head and shoulders. These works make the connection between the flailing hair and open mouth; the moan, the shout, that cry, all are implicated by a shuddering marbled line, suggesting that electricity which escapes the body once the peak has been attained. Semele (2013), stationary, is drenched in yellow streaks and golden blobs, consumed by lightning flames produced when she forces her lover Zeus to reveal his identity - a heavenly way to communicate the explosion within her head as her body comes to climax. Likewise, Daphne (2013) stands, her feet planted on the ground, holding a branch that trails behind her. This is not Bernini’s masterful interpretation of the Greek myth, when running from Apollo, her marble body dissolves through transformatory escape into a wooden laurel world; the leaves and branches invading her body. This Daphne is a pink post-sauna woman, relaxed, placid, calm but with sex on the agenda and in the air. Delicate strands of pencil underpin the forms; her pretty bosom peaks are rounded. A tuft of dispersed black suggests a pubis, a crack of cadmium chasing up her leg leads our eye. These twigs float without pencil delineation; pure, trailing paint, performing the narrative, invoking a myth, showing us the story.

Kiefer’s watercolours rejoice in the materiality of humanity, the possibility of escape from the everyday through self-fulfilment: turbulent visions created with a medium known for its own uncontrollable nature. It’s a celebration of ‘les extases féminines’: coming up roses.

Liz Rideal is an artist, writer and Professor at the Slade School of Art, UCL. Currently exhibiting in ‘Women in Revolt’ at Tate Britain, her publications include books on self-portraiture, portraiture and a best-seller: How to Read Paintings (Bloomsbury, 2014; Rizzoli, 2015).

[i] Anselm Kiefer quoted in B. Cavaliere, Anselm Kiefer: Works on Paper in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998, p.10

[ii] Auguste Rodin (1840–1917)

[iii] Berthe Morisot (1841–95)

[iv] Berthe Morisot, notebook known as Carnet vert A, c.1885–86. Paris, Musée Marmottan Monet

[v] François Boucher (1703–70)

Featured Works

Anselm Kiefer

Marmorklippen, 2015

Anselm Kiefer

Δανάη, 2017

Anselm Kiefer

Solaris, 2013

Anselm Kiefer

Pour Jean-Noël Vuarnet: Extases féminines, 2014

Anselm Kiefer

Die Windsbraut, 2014

Anselm Kiefer

Brünhilde, 2017

“I think the most valuable and the most interesting thing for me as an artist is the process. But the process is really to be surprised all the time, and that’s what is nice with watercolours: you have always the possibility to be surprised. That is why I am working, to be surprised. This is the only thing that is motivating me—otherwise, why?”

Installation Views

About the artist

Anselm Kiefer was born in Donaueschingen, Germany in 1945 and has lived and worked in France since 1993. He has exhibited widely, including solo shows at the LaM, Lille, France (2023–24); Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar, Netherlands (2023–24); Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy (2022); Grand Palais Éphémère, Paris (2021); Franz Marc Museum, Kochel, Germany (2020); Couvent de La Tourette, Lyon, France (2019); Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo (2019); The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia (2017); Albertina Museum, Vienna (2016); Centre Pompidou, Paris (2015); Royal Academy of Arts, London (2014); Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel (2011); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (2011); Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark (2010); Grand Palais, Paris (2007); Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain (2007); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California (2006); Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (2005); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1998); Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1991); and The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1987).

In 2023, Kiefer was awarded the Antonio Feltrinelli International Prize for the Arts, as well as being awarded the prestigious Prize for Understanding and Tolerance in 2019 by the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and in 2017 he was awarded the J. Paul Getty Medal. In 2007 Kiefer became the first artist since Georges Braque 50 years earlier to be commissioned to install a permanent work at the Louvre, Paris. In 2009 he created an opera, Am Anfang, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Opéra National de Paris. In November 2020, Kiefer unveiled a new series of work for the Panthéon in Paris, including a permanent installation comprised of six vitrines, as well as two monumental paintings which are currently on loan. Together with a composition by the French contemporary composer Pascal Dusapin, it forms an ensemble of new works commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron. This marks the first time since 1924 that such a commission has been effectuated for the Panthéon.

Learn more about Anselm Kiefer

Portrait: Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Waltraud Forelli

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