White Cube’s reputation for staging unflinchingly bold exhibitions continues with Walhalla; the latest show from master of expression Anselm Kiefer.
Words Patrick Hamilton Courtney
One of Europe’s most successful artists, Anselm Kiefer is best known for his overtly expressive, large scale paintings that transmit a deep sense of gloom. Throughout his career Kiefer has not been shy, exploring themes that are at times difficult to grapple with. The artist has readily courted controversy; addressing the murkier recent areas of his German culture, and dancing for decades across the bridge to taboo. His works are, however, softened with a great sense of self awareness and a grounding in history, legend, and mythology.
Walhalla, Kiefer’s biggest show in Britain since his Royal Academy retrospective, takes its name from the heavenly paradise of slain warriors from Norse mythology. The exhibition’s main focus is an installation piece consisting of a long, lead-lined corridor set up with an array of folding steel beds draped with crumpled grey sheets. It’s unsettling, unnerving, and even unpleasant to look at. The space creates a sense of claustrophobia and discomfort, but also helps to steady viewers between each new part of Kiefer’s journey.
Another prominent installation Sursum Corda consists of a metal spiral staircase strewn with ragged clothing that depicts the rise of the Valkyries to Walhalla. There are elements of the funerary about this piece, and it continues the exhibition’s bleak, macabre feeling.
Landscape is a recurring sounding board for Kiefer. The vast paintings in this exhibition feature desolate lands punctuated with foreboding towers that drift in and out of dark billowing smoke. The scenes are informed by political opinion, Norse mythology, German culture, Brutalist and National Socialist architecture, and parallel themes of creation and destruction. To call them overwhelming is a sorry understatement. But, despite their emotional intensity, a fragile beauty pervades through all of them.
Kiefer’s work is never pretty, and this exhibition is no exception. The work is dark throughout, and as a whole the experience is challenging. But you should go. The paintings are essential viewing. They are devastating, overpowering, and very hard to look away from.
Anselm Kiefer: Walhalla runs at White Cube Bermondsey until 12th February
Admission free; whitecube.com