The German artist Anselm Kiefer considers artistic activity a constant element in the history of human events and, investigating its origin, he thinks that art and life can be reborn from the ruins and remains of the past. Art will survive its ruins is the title of an important book by Kiefer, where he reflects on what art means and what the genesis of a work is for him.
The urgency of the creative act, which is expressed in a total immersion in the work, is followed by distancing himself from the painting or sculpture, which become objects. Kiefer “mistreats” his works, exposes them to the elements, closes them in containers, buries them underground or stacks them in towers, until nature takes over and modifies the work. After some time, Kiefer rediscovers them to modify them in part or totally, in search, as the artist says, of the unspeakable reality, of the mystery that connects our world to the afterlife. In this way, the artist manifests his faith in the immeasurable power of art as a spiritual activity: the materials he uses for his canvases (pigments, lead, debris, ash, straw…) can deteriorate but the art survives their ruin.
From this thought springs the large site-specific installation recently created in Palazzo Ducale in Venice. The evocative title Questi scritti, quando saranno bruciati, daranno finalmente un po’ di luce – These writings, when burnt, will finally cast a little light is taken from a work by the Italian philosopher Andrea Emo, in whose thought Kiefer identifies himself. The exhibition has the history of Venice as its theme: the visual impact is extraordinary; the canvases cover the walls of the Sala dello Scrutinio of the Palazzo, where the doges of Venice were elected, and which is a real treasure chest. The exhibition begins with the exemplification of the title: burnt remains of books occupy a gloomy cemetery on which flashes of light (emanations, as Kiefer calls them) light up above. It is the old culture that dies, to rise again from its ashes.
Darkness and light are also the constants of the subsequent canvas: Jacob’s ladder rises from the marshy lagoon of Venice. The ladder is a biblical quotation that connects the earthly reality with the celestial kingdom, but it is a fragile ladder, on the verge of breaking. Symbol of the birth of Venice, which from an unhealthy lagoon built the foundations of a glorious history. But also a symbol of the difficult path of humanity, which does not have a linear path, but is subject to interruptions, deviations, falls and interrupted paths.
On another wall, we are surprised by a winter vineyard, immersed in a ghostly, gray landscape, full of dry branches that form a natural arch above (reference to Venetian architecture). A zinc coffin dominates the upper part of the painting in a luminous reflection: it is the sepulcher of San Marco, patron saint of the city. His remains, lost during the construction of the basilica, were found later. It is an empty coffin, testifying to an absence that makes the landscape below even more desolate, made desert by the war or by the plague epidemics that frequently occurred in the city.
The next canvas is a procession of shopping trolleys and tricycles overflowing with goods, a symbol of the city’s wealth. A plate with the names of the Doges, the heads of the Serenissima from 697 to 1797, is hung on each trolley. The real portraits of the doges, painted in the niches of the room, dominate the scene and look at us with satisfaction, proud of their work. The lower register of the painting displays a landscape of snow and ice, in which a submarine appears isolated, signifying that the power of Venice derived from the sea. Political and economic power come together in a single image, which highlights how a government based on the power of a few, but open to the most diverse cultures and peoples, has contributed to the greatness of the city.
The most impressive canvas, nine meters long, is divided into three registers. In the upper one the banner of the winged lion of San Marco shines brightly in gold and red colors, while above an apocalyptic scene: the Doge’s Palace is burning. Wrapped in flames and smoke, it slowly crumbles, leaving a corroded, black building in place of its wonderful architecture. The symbol of the city is on fire: will this be the end of Venice, instead of being submerged by water? Finally, the lower register is the realm of the dead, populated by crowds of young and old people who died throughout history. It is the fall of civilization.
This magnificent exhibition, which has literally bewitched visitors, who have patiently waited in very long lines, has different levels of reading: a strong visual impact is the first impression, on closer examination details emerge with references and symbols peculiar to Kiefer’s thinking.
As the author says, “Art continually flees forward and steps back, climbs and descends Jacob’s ladder of evolution, and when fortune smiles on it then it can reach unfathomable abysses”.
This is what this artist achieved in the Venetian installation.
Anselm Kiefer These writings, when burned, will finally cast a little light
Venice, Palazzo Ducale,
12 April, 2022- 5 January, 2023