Anselm Kiefer’s Intimate Watercolors Reveal His Softer Side

Since his early works in 1969, Anselm Kiefer has gained global acclaim for his monumental sculptural installations that draw on literature and myths to explore cultural memory and the tragedy of war. Mostly working in sculpture and paintings, his oeuvre focuses on epic themes, drawing inspiration from the Bible, Egyptian mythology, Kabbalah mysticism, Paul Celan’s poetry, post-war Germany, and—most recently—James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. At White Cube’s Bermondsey gallery, the space underwent a radical metamorphosis into a labyrinthine dreamscape, the culmination of a trilogy of shows that the artist showed there, hosted over several years. The show used many of Kiefer’s calling cards—including walls demolished concrete slabs, bronze-dipped sunflowers, and oxidized metal.

Now, the artist is exhibiting a more intimate side of his practice, with a watercolors-only show at White Cube Paris. In this series of small-scale paintings centered on mythology and female sexuality, “For Jean-Noël Vuarnet” presents a collection of watercolors created over the past decade in the artist’s French studio. Literary, biblical, and mythical references, as ever, serve as inspiration. In particular, Kiefer pays homage to French philosopher and writer Jean-Noël Vuarnet, and his book Extases féminines, his in-depth study of erotic religious ecstasy. Though women in Kiefer’s early work loom in the background as ghostly specters, here they are depicted diving, cavorting, and lying resplendent in post-orgasm bliss.

Although watercolors are sometimes taken less seriously by the art world, Kiefer’s show pays homage to the medium’s rich and complex history. For Kiefer in particular, watercolors offer the artist a way to embrace the dynamic interplay between intention and chance, allowing him to navigate a delicate balance: asserting control, while yielding to the fluid unpredictability of watercolor. “The show at White Cube Paris offers visitors a rare opportunity to better understand this important, but perhaps lesser-known, aspect of Anselm Kiefer’s practice,” said Mathieu Paris, senior director of White Cube Paris. “This, however, is the first exhibition dedicated solely to his watercolors for over 40 years and it feels particularly important to show these works in the artist’s home city of Paris.”

Recalling the romantic sensibility of plein air artists like J.M.W. Turner, John Sell Cotman, and John Constable, “For Jean-Noël Vuarnet” marks a radical departure from the tonality of Kiefer’s other paintings, which are often morbid and solemn, speaking to post-war anxieties and the dark underbelly of his culture’s history. Speaking to The Guardian about “Finnegans Wake” last year, Kiefer said that “[history] is full of nightmares. It’s still a nightmare.”

His watercolors, on the other hand, with their vibrant bursts of color and dynamic movement, embody a nuanced portrayal of beauty, intimacy, and the ephemeral. It’s precisely this, then, that makes these dreamlike images so compelling. In contrast to his approach to the rest of his practice, Kiefer believes that working with watercolor requires a single, decisive approach, unlike the layered process of other media. “I think the most valuable and the most interesting thing for me as an artist is the process,” Kiefer said, of his works at the White Cube show. “But the process is really to be surprised all the time, and that’s what is nice with watercolors: you have always the possibility to be surprised. That is why I am working, to be surprised.”

The series does have some similarities with the rest of his oeuvre, as Kiefer’s watercolors also reimagine classical and Germanic myths. In Brünhilde (2017), the title character balances agile upon a wooden trunk. The Venus of Nascita di Venere (2012) reclines in a nacreous shell, her open thighs reminiscent of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866).

Pour Jean-Noël Vuarnet: Extases féminines, 2014
Anselm Kiefer

White Cube

Meanwhile, Kiefer’s 2014 rendition of Oskar Kokoschka’s The Bride of the Wind (1914) shifts the scene from sea to land, isolating the solitary bride and a lone tree against the sky. Δανάη (2017) captures a moment of tension as golden streaks shower the figure, while the three paintings titled Marmorklippen (2015) each focus on women’s heads and shoulders, their faces contorting in pleasure. Kiefer’s Daphne (2013), unlike Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s interpretation of the Greek myth, presents a relaxed woman outlined delicately in pencil, the myth of her turning into a tree depicted through trailing paint. And Semele (2013) depicts a stationary figure drenched in gold, against a blotchy blue background.

In works such as Für Adalbert Stifter: Waldsteig and Aurora (both 2015), Kiefer superimposes dark, foreboding skies against the furore of color and flesh. Speaking about his 2017 Gagosian show “Transition from Cool to Warm,” Kiefer noted that this is precisely his aim: “to capture the ecstasy of blazing color, the moment of greatest exaltation in color in such a way that it coincides with the severe winter cold.”

Also incorporating metallic elements from Kiefer’s broader practice, his “Extases féminines” series (2012–14) combines ecstatic female figures with luscious roses. It’s only together, however, that these symbols can form an intricate dialogue within the collaged diptychs, surveying the interplay between love and sex.

For an artist who seems to constantly outdo himself, “For Jean-Noël Vuarnet” offers a transformative insight into Kiefer’s more playful, romantic side. His adept command of this underappreciated medium also demonstrates the remarkable diversity within his practice, boldly challenging how we’ve come to know the artist over the course of his expansive career. If Kiefer’s other work is comprised of dark forms and endemic nihilism, then “For Jean-Noël Vuarnet” is a hymn to the joys of human experience and sensuality—those fleeting yet profound moments of pleasure.

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