Saturday 28 February 2015


The latest in an ongoing series of art exhibitions reviewed after they close

”I don't paint so that people will understand me. I paint to show what a particular scene looks like.”
- Turner

A Turner For His Time

'Late' and 'free' – the association made in that title is taken as read. Because of course we all know Turner's best work was done in his final years, when he really got away from what had gone before and got down to paint as he wanted. In the same way we all know Van Gogh cut off his ear for a chat-up line or Damien Hurst made a lot of money as a creative statement.

In a similar fashion its become de rigeur for art retrospectives to flag up how clueless contemporary critics were to their genius's genius. After all, it makes us attendees feel so much more “advanced”. This can often feel risible, not just because current art critics can seem pretty clueless much of the time, but because it stokes up an antagonism that seems rather consequenceless. Check it out - we're smarter than a bunch of dead people. Way to go, bro.

However this may be something of an exception. If both statements have become commonplace, its because they're based in truth. In 1835 Turner reached sixty. An age, people then thought, which meant inevitable senility. So when the show tells us works “audiences thought [these works] senile ramblings or simply mad” they mean exactly that. Further, while a younger Turner had pursued a successful career, his following didn't always... well... follow. The show details how even former champions such as Ruskin turned against him, and critics were so scathing that repeatedly commissioners were driven to a change of heart and walked away from the purchase. And of what works did sell he asked plaintively “Ain’t they worth more?” (As that quote suggests, his fear of failing to sell work seems to have been financial rather than artistic. However, he was actually solvent enough to leave a tidy sum in his will. Perhaps, not having come from a moneyed background, his fear of penury was psychological.)

But the show does something better than this. In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones rehearses the familiar Father of Modernism argument for those who haven’t heard it yet: “Here at last is the Turner who matters – the man who invented modern painting.” In the grand lineage Turner influenced Monet, who fed into the Fauves, who begat the abstract expressionists and so on. It’s not so much the wrong answer to come away with. In fact to a surprising extent it’s persuasive. It’s more that it asks the wrong question, starts from the wrong premise.

In short, where is Turner in all of this? What about the man who painted those pictures, and the world he hung them up in? I feel more persuaded by Martin Oldham at Apollo magazine: “One of the achievements of [this] current exhibition… is to bring us back to the artist himself, to allow us to see his art on its own terms again… And it is not painting that is set free here, but Turner the painter, liberated from the often questionable roles into which he has been conscripted in the name of British art.”

All At Sea (Distant Savage Lairs)

So let's start with 'Snow Storm – Steam Boat Off A Harbour's Mouth' (above). How did that come to be exhibited in 1842, and what was all the hoo-hah precisely about? How was it so stormy that it sent the stomachs queasy even of former friends?

As said in an earlier post, Victorian artists “tended to make their compositions like grand tableaus. They're not that different in effect to looking at dioramas or even altar pieces. They appear in our space, arrangements of symbols which we are intended to decode into moral instructions.” And that included depictions of nature. This is how Lady Croom, in Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play ‘Arcadia’, describes her country estate:

“Sidley Park is... a picture, and a most amiable picture too. The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage. The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged – in short, it is nature as God intended.”

True, this is a modern writer thrusting comic words into a historical character’s mouth, who may well herself be deliberately self-parodic. But the words are illustrative. And they're illustrative of the 'classical' rules of proportion being applied to nature, of nature being (by man or by God working in man's image) 'cultured', itself made into a pretty picture in advance of the pretty picture being made of it. And if nature itself was being terraformed to better match a human sense of aesthetics, how were paintings on the subject likely to turn out?

But the times they were a-changing. We only need to get three paragraphs in to Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ (1861) to come across the following:

“My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried… and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”

From arranged sheep to scattered cattle. Dickens is describing nature not as an extended garden but in terms of the sublime. It's perhaps a difficult term for us to access today, partly because so many of the terms once associated with it have become so trivialised - “awesome”, “dreadful”, “terrible”, even “sublime” itself. A soundbite description might be that it took religion as far towards pantheism as you could without tipping over. It had to be defined first by uncoupling itself from beauty; it was both the opposite of beauty, in Lady Croon's sense of “tastefully arranged”, and the transcending of it. Or, for that matter, transcending even our ability to take it in. Kant said: “Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.” (A quote I confess to finding while Googling the term 'sublime' rather than taking some well-thumbed volume of Kantian philosophy down from the shelf.)

Nature is now to be 'decultured', restored to its savage state – but that is not all. Just as we are dwarfed by the overpowering intensity of it all, we realise we belong to it. Experiencing the sublime can install the feeling of the leap into the abyss, the desire to allow ourselves be reabsorbed by it, even as we know answering that siren call will extinguish us. This is why Dickens refers to Pip’s dead parents, who have essentially been taken back by the landscape. This is why the sublime is often conveyed through vertiginous drops or, for that matter, pounding waves and stirring storms.

This is why the sublime more frequently appears in art, where it can be made an immediate and arresting sight. As Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn comment “the sublime was generally regarded as beyond comprehension and beyond measurement” and so “visual artists became deeply intrigued by the challenge of representing it, asking how can an artist paint the sensation that we experience when words fail or when we find ourselves beyond the limits of reason?” (In general, Riding and Llewellyn stress this insistence on the inexpressibility of the sublime. I would say “yes, people keep saying its inexpressible. But they keep saying it.” Because isn't art always about expressing the inexpressible? I mean, if we could just say it, we would, wouldn't we?)

In 'Snow Storm', as the indicia comments, “Turner has chosen a viewpoint that removed the shoreline from which the viewer could ‘safely’ contemplate the storm, to immerse them, as it were, in the raging sea immediately alongside those struggling for survival.” Indeed the title emphasises how we're away from the harbour. (Turner liked to tell the story he was lashed a a ship's mast to witness the event. The show suggests that was merely a creative fiction on his part. But he could tell the story because the painting made it seem believable.) The boat looks almost entirely at the storm's mercy, a tiny flag at end of an extended, bent mast, backlit by dapples of white, the opposite of the brightly coloured declarations planted in conquest.

When depicting sea scenes artists would typically use the Mediterranean, or at least something which looked like it - a serene pool, a calm turquoise surface for boats to sail along in regal procession. Whereas Turner paints the tempestuousness of the North Sea, laden with heavy greys. It's not just two very different scenes, its like two conceptions of reality at odds. At this time people commonly referred to the world around us as “creation” - as if the process was completed, the deal done. Mountains had been made into mountains and lakes lakes, before any of us were even born, followed by some celestial resting. While Turner's world, conversely, is convulsive, inchoate. Rather than the normal neat delineation between sea and sky, the storm is so thick they're barely distinguishable. The show uses the term “spinning vortices” for many of these compositions, and its never more evident than here.

David Blayney-Brown suggests a gradual development in Turner’s art led to this point. “In 'The Shipwreck' [1806/7] we are still, just, observers of the rescue of survivors from a swirling vortex of waves and flotsam. In the later ‘Wreck [Of a Transport Ship]’ [c. 1810] we have become part of the subject, awash in towering seas with the doomed sailors and soldiers whose terror we share.”

And perhaps ‘Snow Storm’ continues the trajectory. Here the storm has not been conjured up to assail the ship, like some capricious Greek god vengeful against the Argonauts. It simply looks too powerful, it must surely be supremely indifferent to the fate of these flimsy bits of wood. It rages simply because that is what it does, and we are nothing to it. As the title suggests, the storm itself has become the subject of the picture. Dickens's “savage lair” is no longer distant, we are placed in the thick of it. (Though Turner never shied from painting the sea as a thing in itself, as in 'Rough Sea', 1840/5, or 'Seascape With Storm Coming On', c. 1840.)

Blaney-Brown further comments on the significance the sea held for the British of the time: “as a maritime nation, the surrounding sea was at once a protection and a threat. The life of the country depended on the navy and the merchant fleet; all distant travel was by ship.” While Turner himself had what the show describes as a “lifelong fascination for the sea”, growing up in London when it was still very much a port, the riverside a workplace not a yuppie property hotspot. In later life he lived in coastal Margate under the nome-du-plume Admiral Booth.

Yet the attraction for him must also have been aesthetic and conceptual - the way the sea is never still. Blaney-Brown points out “the lack of topography, of the geographical boundaries of landscape. The sea was the sea.” Similarly, he often painted nature scenes at different times to capture different effects, at odds with the notion of there being some Platonic ideal view. (See for example 'Blue Rigi, Sunrise', 1842, above.) Seventy years later the Futurists would insist “with our pictorial dynamism, true painting is born.” Yet if 'Snow Storm' doesn't pictorially depict dynamism, I simply can't imagine what does.

”Crashin' A-Headlong Into the Heartland”

But there’s also a paradox at the heart it. Go back to that Dickins quote. Of course, in writing a piece of prose, he has to name things or else we’d have no means of picturing them. (Had he written “and next to the thing there was another thing and – oh dear reader - what a thing” it is possible his literary reputation might not be as high.) But he does more than this. He catches Pip in the moment of learning their names, of human culture inscribing some form of meaning onto them. The savagery of the sea is discovered at the same moment as the word “sea”. As much as the sublime might mean surrender, it might also mean delineation. As much as abandon, as loss of self, it might mean elevation, projection of self. As Christine Riding comments: “during the Romantic period…‘insensate nature’ came to be seen as a vehicle for the expression of human thoughts and emotions, that ‘the connection between perception and inner being’ was explored.”

It’s tempting to then try to split our responses in two. Indeed, terms such as Dark Romanticism are based around this. But the neatness is that of the dissecting knife, taking the life from the subject it tries to understand. The two exist not even as a spectrum, but in something more like an inter-relationship. The sublime needs both roles to function as a concept. At one end, its little more than an artistic form of a suicide note. At the other, its equivalent to a trustafarian backpacking through India in order to “find himself”.

Nature, then, is both as an outside, overpowering force and there to reflect what’s inside our heads – it's both beyond our ken and is our ken. And the sublime exists precisely to embody the paradox between these two seemingly contrary states. And this was never demonstrated more clearly than with Turner.

Take for example 'Rain, Steam and Speed', (1844) Though there's also (to the lower left) a boat in this painting, the focus is on the steam train. And we don’t even see the train from its perspective - flying way above our heads like modernity being framed by reference to the existing, the familiar way of displaying the unfamiliar. Instead the boat is pushed to the side of the composition, and with it the ways it represents. From the viaduct we both see the train and take on the elevated view of those aboard. In this way the viaduct (actually built by Brunel) becomes as much the subject as the train - they're painted as if symbiotic.

Note the similarities of title between ‘Snow Storm’ and ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’. The train erupts out of the haze just like the snow storm might have sprung from nowhere. But if 'Snow Storm' was a vortex of churning energy, and even if a similar vortex occupies the centre of the composition here, this is energy harnessed into linear force. While the boat was most likely being broken up by the storm, the train is emerging out of the haze. If the funnel is picked out clearly, the rest of the train is almost a blurry motion line behind it. It always reminds me of the Waterboys lyric on the “hurtlin' fevered train/
Crashing a-headlong into the heartland/ Like a cannon in the rain.” (A song which also parallels a train with a boat.)

William Thackeray said of this work "the world has never seen anything like this picture". And, not uncoincidentally, the world was only starting to see such sights as it depicted. It's composition is like a pre-echo of those early films which would show a train carrering out at audiences not yet used to such things. And even today, to look at the composition gives us some sense of what it must have been like to first see such sights.

We see enough of it to recognise the train as a train, its not akin to that tradition in fantasy art of depicting biomechanical dragons and the like. Yet if it erupts onto the scene it doesn’t interrupt the sublimity of nature. Instead it opposes one sublimity against another. The world of the machine, the world we ourselves made, rears up at us as if striking us from without. Turner's recurring elements are water, mist and steam, essentially capturing both poles of the sublime in one transformative substance – the waves that crash against ships as they try to steer a course, but also the steam that powers our mighty engines.

Having already compared 'Snow Storm' to the later Futurists, having looked at Turner's “spinning vortices” let's hold this work up against their contemporaries the Vorticists: “This was not a future which would download neatly in the background like a software upgrade. It was to come convulsively – bursting into being with a mighty flash, like Frankenstein’s creature, and vie with everything which had been before it.”

As the recent BBC documentary 'The Genius of Turner' put it - “industry becomes the sublime”. And because the sublime was always double-edged, because it already represented the otherness of nature and a projection of the mind, it's not just that industry could lend itself to the sublime – it's more that it had to be that way.

”All Fixed Relations Swept Away”

The indicia comment how so often in late Turner “solid matter dissolves into light and air”. A quote which seems strangely close to Marx's summary of the bourgeois world - “all that is solid melts into air”. So let’s turn to that other great Charlie of the Victorian era and counter Dickens with Marx, again an opening, this time from the Communist Manifesto (1848). It's worth quoting a longer section:

“...steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production... Modern industry has established the world market... This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land.... The bourgeoisie...has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society... Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

What’s most immediately striking about this passage is that Marx is praising the bourgeoisie even as he seeks to to bury them. As he puts it “the bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part”. He admires their achievements, he just wants the workers to get their share of them.

We're told “hindsight is always 20/20”. In fact its often a blind spot. Victoriana to us is like heirloom furniture, we never knew a time when it wasn't there so it can be hard for us to even look at it straight. But those grand Victorian edifices we so often use as landmarks, that seem so much part of the fabric of our lives, what was it like to live while they were going up? Remember the full title of ‘Snow Storm’ was ‘Snow Storm Steam-Boat Off a Harbour’s Mouth’. We look back at the Victorian era as a kind of foundation, the period that created the world we live in. But at the time they were in many ways sailing into uncharted waters, leaving old certainties behind.

And in general, interest in the sublime rose as technology grew, and the human ability to influence the landscape grew with it. We didn't turn to face it when we were little Pip-like things, dwarfed by it all. Unsurprisingly, there's a fair amount of evidence we tried our best to shut it out. On the contrary, it grew as a theme in the Eighteenth Century, coming of its own by the Nineteenth. The mighty force of nature arose in art to clash against the mighty forces humanity was unleashing. 

On the most basic level, those developments in navigation and communication cited by Marx granted us greater access to the natural world than at any time before. If the Rigi mountains held a majesty to behold, then trains took us to see them in a third of the time of horse-drawn carriages. But it also made the sublimity of nature beholdable as well as seeable, something not to be shied away from. Now human society was in possession of a force if not as great as nature, then enough to make us more than its mere passive victim. But there's something further. The ever-turning pistons of technology gave us the framework to re-conceptualise nature, to see past the static Creation and find the sublime.

One thing an artist can do is epitomise an era, literally sum it up in a picture. (Okay, in this case in two.) Henry Moore's sculpture stood for the post-War Britain of benevolent institutions, set up to serve the deindividuated common man. And Turner could capture in dabs of paint this Victorian drive to engage with and transform the world, and the parallel ability to see it as self-transforming. It’s true that Turner was not very often the conscience of the Victorians. He painted their achievements, not the human cost of those achievements in empty workhouse bowls or on child’s limbs crushed by factory machinery. But he is the spirit of the Victorians. Once artists had served the nobility. His patrons were often the industrialists and entrepreneurs whose world he depicted.

As someone already far enough into middle-age that I could credibly retitle this blog 'Late Burrows', it always seems to me I have lived through profound changes. In my youth the personal computer was the stuff of science fiction, the internet simply undreamt of. Yet such changes are as nothing compared to the transformation from sail to steam, a change Turner lived through. (Which may go some way to explain the previously raised puzzle of how the Pre-Raphaelites “notably look more Victorian than their predecessor Turner”. Arriving later, they missed that all-important decisive moment of transformation.)

As the show says he was “the first major European artist to engage with the new technology of the age: steam power”. And I’ve described Turner as “steam punk” so many times I’ve now forgotten whether I originally intended it as a joke or not. While the failure of most Victorian art is that is not that it's of the past, staid daubs for a staid era, but that its stodgy instructiveness manifestly fails to capture its time. Sometimes social innovators will themselves shy from what they're actually doing, and will expend much time and effort in trying to insert themselves into some imagined lineage. So, like the starchy collars they wore, their art was often concerned with upholding recently invented traditions or exhibiting the supposedly eternal values embodied by the carefully arranged poses of Classicism. They couldn't capture the world they themselves made, too often they clung to evoking the fixed fast-frozen relations they were themselves undoing. And indeed part of the appeal of steam punk may be the desire to give the Victorians the art they deserved, the art they so often failed to give themselves.

Sublimity and the City

But back to those developments in navigation and communication. We also see here Turner the traveller, exploring Europe incessantly even in his later years at a time when such journeys could still be a challenge. And he'd depict the towns and cities as readily as the mountains and seas. Unlike the fidelity of the Pre-Raphaelites, Turner would endlessly sketch scenes, but thought nothing of swapping or even inventing elements when it suited his purpose. As with nature, he'd paint the spirit of the city. It, too, had a sublimity to give up.

The curators make much of a pair of Rome paintings, 'Ancient Rome – Agrippina Landing With the Ashes of Germanicus' and 'Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino' (both 1839), being shown together for the first time in many a long year. But more impressive is 'Venice: The Bridge of Sighs' (1840, below) for combining both into a single composition.

By this time Venice had become a tourist destination but was itself impoverished, in decline. Which made it something of a Gothic ruin, gave it a romantic fatalism. And this double nature is what Turner paints; the grandeur of the buildings above removed from the human activity below - pallid, ghostly, almost fading into the pale blue and white of the sky. Whereas the darker hues are reserved for the lower, 'human' section, the water a murky grey. The blacks of the gondolas are enhanced by their reflection in the water, giving the work something of a funereal air. (The show passes on a theory that the elderly Turner used the city to symbolise himself in his own declining years.)

Conventionally, the sun is used as a kind of natural equivalent of a theatre spotlight. If it plays 'tricks' upon our vision, as we tend to call them, the artist knows to disregard the effects of the faulty lamp. Whereas Turner paints something the sun actually does, but in order to convey a subjective impression. In 'Approach To Venice' (1844, above) he depicts the city almost as a Brigadoon. It's like the 'upper' Venice of 'Bridge of Sighs' given its own life. “The artists' vision is lyrical and poetic”, we're told, “depicting Venice as a mirage, dissolving into dusk and poised between day and night, land and sea, reality and reverie.”

The Work Never Finished

Not since the Degas show at the Royal Academy has there been so many preparatory drawings in a show. And not since the Degas show has this been so clearly the correct direction to go in. We are often unaware of what works Turner considered complete and unfinished, which has led to an industry of guesswork. (As said earlier, he was often unable to see through commissions into sales, which may be one reason why there's so many unrealised sketches.) But we need to look upon this less as a problem to be solved and more as a boon, an aid to appreciating what Turner was about.

For the best answer to the question is “some of us don't even like 'finished'.” Generally, the more suggestive the forms, the more fascinating and compelling the work. And this is particularly true for Turner; there's something at odds with his conception of a wild, inchoate nature and the notion of a finished work, its suggestion of something settled. Turner's often quoted as claiming “indistinctness is my forte”, but perhaps “unfinishedness” goes alongside it. The less sure we are whether a Turner is finished or not, the better placed we are to appreciate its merits. ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ (1845, above) may never have been intended to be shown in this raw state. But with its formless early morning feel its, to quote Richard Dormont, “sublimely empty”.

'Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834' (c. 1835, above), as well as taking something of an appealing subject, was a gift to Turner's better instincts - an event he had to get down quickly or not at all. And notably the event is what he captures, the gathered crowds as prominent as the burning buildings.

Tell Us No Tales

But perhaps we shouldn't go too overboard with all those savage seas. At his best, Turner was exhilarating. But no-one entirely escapes their times. And even during this Indian summer phase… in all honesty, at times he could be boring. As boring as any stuffed shirt Victorian.

The stumbling block is normally narrative. Paintings then were thought to need a narrative, to be incomplete without one. But, as with the later Pre-Raphaelites, Turner is simply encumbered by its demands and only truly set free when he ditches it. It's like listening to beat-based music, and impatiently waiting for it to break out of the constraints of songwriting structures. While I've no quibble with the 'later = better' thesis of the show, 'narrative vs. non-narrative' remains over-riding.

Try 'Story of Apollo and Daphne' (c. 1837, above), which scores pretty low on the sublimometer. In the antithesis of 'Snow Storm' we watch from a safe, solid vantage point, giving the feeling of a stage set. While it doesn't help that the trees look so much like broccoli, it's the story which scuppers it, tethers it to Victoriana. You wish he'd just painted the mountainsides and the sea. There's also an ideal size for Turner, a frame large enough to impress the eye yet small enough to take in with one glance. Notably, Turner often painted in a square format, unusual for his time but ideal for the kind of impact he needs. The vastness of the Victorian tableaus, a string of smaller scenes to be picked up piecemeal, are contemplative, and mitigate against Turner's strengths.

However, even if the quality of work is not consistent, it remains true that here there's a great many paintings from a century and a half ago that still strike you straight between the eyes. His reputation may be vast, but it's not over-inflated. It's true to say that late Turner was more the start of something, even if we shouldn't let that get us too distracted from the works themselves. For the accomplishments of Turner are the accomplishments of the Victorians, and his contradictions and strange double nature also of them. Ken Kesey gave up writing with the words “I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph”. But Turner was always both.

Saturday 21 February 2015


Street posters and junction box art I've come across while walking around Brighton. As ever, highlights here but for the full set go to Flickr

Saturday 14 February 2015


... and another art exhibition reviewed just as it ends!

“Intervention in the field of politics, intervention in the field of the imagination. The revolution which we can bring about must have as its object the development of consciousness and the wider satisfaction of desire.”
- Surrealist Group of England

Spain Shows The Way

I am starting to wonder if the Pallant House gallery have happened upon some device for reading my mind, for this seems an exhibition built to feed two of my fixations. First, and most obviously, the relationship British artists had with developments on the continent. But beyond that, we have not just Modernism’s relationship with the politics of the day but specifically with war. In an earlier piece on Henry Moore (who of course features in this show), I gave vent to “the theory that Modernism was inextricably bound with War, the extremity of the World Wars burning away the old world, driving art to more radical reactions, creating an urgency where art and politics could not be separate”.

Looking around this exhibition is clearly looking back to a time where visual art felt more vital. Before the days of live video feeds, art played a great role in the attempt to stir up public awareness of political events. And in the case of the Spanish Civil War, a wealth of art certainly rose to fill this gap. As well as paintings and sculpture there's posters and poster-ready prints, banners and masks made for political rallies, plus photographs and references to murals. But even the paintings of the day weren't consigned to the rarified atmosphere of art galleries. We're told for example how Picasso's 'Guernica' toured the country as a Republican fund-raiser, and was popularly received. All of which, in Emma Crichton-Miller's words, “reflect[s] how deeply the conflict and the ideological passions it aroused penetrated all aspects of visual culture”.

Of course, some might be given to question the premise behind that title. Why British artists? Why go to outsiders to ask what happened in a Civil War? If we want the word from the horse's mouth shouldn't we be going straight to Picasso's 'Guernica'? It's a good question. But it has a good answer. Let's tease it out by looking at two early pictures, both by Clive Branson. (Yes, apparently some relation to Richard Branson. Not a hoax, not an imaginary story!)

'Noreen and Rosa' (1940) takes place inside the most English of living rooms, the titular two women oblivious to the domestic environment but simultaneously intent upon reading a book on Spain. So does this underline the differences between the two countries? Actually, no. The book cover isn't scenes of Spain, like some Thirties antecedent of the Rough Guides. It's solid block of bright orange would have immediately marked it to contemporary audiences as a product of the Left Book Club. The contrast between that bright block and the pastel shades elsewhere is in some way reminiscent of William Roberts painting of the launch of the Vorticist manifesto. It isn't the exoticism of Spain or the thrill of adventure that's being held up. What's enthralling is ideas. (And, perhaps to underline the point, if the work's date seems late seems a little late for a war that ran between '36 and '39, after going to fight Branson had found himself interned for the war years themselves.)

Similarly, his 'Demonstration In Battersea' (1939, up top) couldn't be a more British setting. But this time things are relocated to the street. With its Belisha beacons and background gasworks, a 'Beano' character could even pass by. Rather than an orderly procession, its a tumult of figures, such a jumble you might even think it a collage. And the orange of the book cover is replaced by the red of the banners. Spain might have in those days been geographically distant, but commonality of issues tied us to it. As the show's introductory blurb puts it “it went beyond being an internal conflict between Republicans and Franco's Nationalists... to being a battleground for ideas in the years before the Second World War”. And those ideas were, according to co-director Simon Martin, “whether they supported the democratically elected Republicans or the Nationalists and their fascist allies.”

Except of course it was nowhere near so simple. The problem words in the show title aren't 'British' but 'Civil War'. For things went beyond Republicans vs. Nationalists pretty quickly, and arguably left all that behind. The limited gains made by the Republican Government were soon exceeded if not superseded on the ground, with workers seizing control of their factories and peasants collectivising land across wide areas. Moreover, when the fascist coup was first attempted it was stymied by a popular uprising that happened outside, and largely against the wishes of, the Republican government. It's perfectly arguable that from that point they became little more than a chimera, in effective charge of nothing at all. This 'Civil War' was in actuality more of a revolution.

And this, the feeling that Spain showed the way, brightened the oranges and reds of the book covers and banners, this became the pull that caused so many foreigners to go and take up arms there. (The show gives an estimate of two and a half thousand combatants from Britain and Ireland alone, despite escalating state attempts to prevent them.) To fight in Spain was to fight for something more than the mere status quo.

As is par for the course these days, the show says little to nothing of this. Words like 'communist' and 'anarchist' appear from time to time, including on one of Branson's banners, but they're assumed to be reducible to the word 'Republican'. (And as the focus here is the show, I'm going to have to ape that lack of distinction myself much of the time.) Instead it focuses on another and admittedly genuine separation. Though it doesn't use these terms itself, let's borrow from the show's title and call the two groups conscience and conflict.

Conscience Versus Conflict

Frank Brangwyn's lithograph 'For The Relief of Women and Children in Spain' (1937, above) could be taken to represent 'conscience'. It centres its composition around (for want of a better term) a 'modern Madonna', eyes closed non-judgementally as she suffers the little children to come unto her. She virtually radiates light. (The show suggests he may have been attempting to 'reclaim' the Catholicism he professed from association with fascism.) It's a great work, by far the best Brangwyn I've ever seen. And it should be acknowledged that the mass carnage of the First World War had understandably driven many to a kind of default pacifism, where conflict had proved too terrible to be allowed to break out again. But it is reminiscent of the way Third World conflicts are often presented to us now, the causes of famine airbrushed out to avoid those difficult questions, and thereby making future famines almost inevitable.

Whereas 'conflict' , as the word might suggest, involved going and fighting the fascists – or at least encouraging others to do the same. Felicia Browne, for example, determined to be a machine gunner but ended up a stretcher bearer. While some of her fluid observational sketchbook drawings survived to be on show here, in August '36 she alas became the first British casualty of the war. She stares with quiet insistence from a self-portrait (below).

Not that these distinctions should be taken to be neat. Felicity Ashbee's series of propaganda posters 'They Face Famine In Spain' (including 'Send Medical Supplies', 1937, below) similarly call for “winter relief” with images of child victims. They were made for the National Joint Committee For Spanish Relief, a group chaired by Conservative MP the Duchess of Artholl. But their design is far starker and more graphic than Brangwyn's, the mother's hand allowed to elongate into almost a skeleton shape. Herself a communist, Browne was most likely attempting a form of entryism. If so it was not to be a successful one, for her work was banned by the London Transport Board.

”We Ask For Your Attention”: Surrealism and Revolution

One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is the response to events by the British Surrealists. They are of course often overlooked in favour of their continental brothers, to the point where any mention of them can seem refreshing. But what's significant here is what they did. Surrealism was long ago rewritten as a purely bohemian movement centred around accessing a private dream-space, often even as a mere precursor to blissed-out hippiness or frothy pop art.

Whereas in fact they actively supported, propagandised and raised funds for the Republican cause, pinning their colours to the mast with the unequivocally conflict-based slogan 'Arms For Spain'. The show includes a picture of them on the '38 May Day procession giving ironic fascist salutes from behind appeasing Neville Chamberlain masks, a hapless copper inadvertently making up their ranks (below).

Of course as the British contingent of an international art movement based in France, they had reason to feel continentally connected. And no less than three of the main surrealists were Spanish - Miro, the film-maker Bunel and (then) Picasso. (The more vexed question of Dali, a vocal Franco cheerleader, could perhaps be explained away by Surrealist Pope Andre Breton excommunicating him in 1934. Though notably he still took part in the 1936 International Surrealist exhibition in London.) However, it shouldn't be underestimated the way surrealism saw itself as a political project, a dedication which intensified as the political atmosphere of the inter-war years grew headier. As far back as 1930 Breton had changed the title of his periodical 'The Surrealist Revolution' to 'Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution'.

On the other hand, wishing isn't necessarily getting. While the British Surrealists should be commented for their defence of Spain, did they come up with artworks which were the measure of the occasion? At least initially, the short answer would seem to be no. Throughout the period, factory and office workers demonstrated for the Republic. And of course to do that they had to take time off their day jobs. And with the Surrealists, you can't help feeling it's much the same thing.

The show itself dryly notes of Merlyn Evans' 'Torturing the Anarchist' (1937/8) that “the... abstract form of this work does nor reflect the violence of the title”. FE McWilliam's sculpture 'The Long Arm' (1939) is a semi-abstract sculpture somewhere between Hepworth and Giacometti, with a clenched fist appended like some kind of afterthought. McWilliam acknowledged himself “my first isn't quite clenched because... I was only a fellow traveller”. It certainly pales beside the Popeye-sized bulging biceps dominating Miro's 'Aidez L'Espagne' (1937) in the same room. They both feel like works drafted into the cause at the last minute, and not entirely whole-heartedly. Certainly the best politically charged work in this room is Andrew Masson's anti-clerical drawing 'Mass in Pamplonia' (1937). But neither was Masson British nor is the drawing in any way surreal, it's more a scurrilous political cartoon in the tradition of Gilray.

And what would you expect? A bunch of bohemians set out to shock a bourgeoisie which would literally think nothing of mass murder. (In the case of Germany and Italy committing such, with Britain and France happily turning a blind eye.) Of course they were always much more capable of shocking you. The Surrealists were effectively onto a loser from the start.

Inevitably, they're at their best when they don't try that hard. Laura Gasgoine comments the works “look more like style statements than revolutionary manifestos” (a slightly ironic line to come from 'The Spectator'). But perhaps that's more description than critique. Colin Middleton's 'Spain Dream Revisited' (1938, below) is of the post-Dali and de Chirico 'slick Surreal' school, so smooth as to almost look like vector art, the style we're now used to disdaining. But it's an effective enough piece.

With the central figure clutching an empty red frame, with it's endless receding doorways and windows, it's clearly constructed around holes and absences. Both the nun and the woman outside the window have the same inverted triangular space for a face, while the latter pulls back curtains as if the folds of a dress to reveal a leg-shaped aperture. The Surrealists loved their Freud, and never more so than when he was being misogynistic. This piece is most likely built around his concept of “the lack”. Female genitals can appear to men as merely an absence, and this can become a generalised symbol for their supposed inferiority – as if they're 'incomplete men'.

But there may well be an anti-clericism at play as well, the nun being held in comparison to the other woman who is presumably some kind of prostitute. (At least that's normally a good guess with the Surrealists.) The empty frame becomes an insistent atheism, further underlined by the cruciform figure in the foreground, trapped in some kind of frame. With the title and the post-de Chirico Mediterranean setting, we might even want to make of it (as with Masson) an attack on the Catholic church's ties to Franco. But the words of the title really need reversing, it's clearly another Surrealist dream image before its any kind of political polemic. And, at least as a work of art, it's more successful for that.

Art After Guernica

But two events were to cause a conceptual leap in artistic responses to the conflict, and in order of occurrence they were Guernica and 'Guernica'. It's now perhaps hard to appreciate the significance of the fascist bombing of the town of Guernica in April 1937. Certainly, it marked more than a turning point in the war. In the same way that World War One had been a first for mass machine-gunning, Guernica was a first for the mass bombing of civilian targets. Now they didn't even have to conscript you before they killed you.

(Though, much like the First World War itself, the horror now happening here had actually being going on in the colonial world for decades. For example in 1920, as further evidence there's nothing new under the sun, Britain had ensured acquiescence in Iraq by bombing it. Though there they'd used poison gas over explosive bombs as Churchill considered that option more “humane”.)

In a pre-echo of Adorno's question of how it was possible to write poetry after Auschwitz, it was a stark new reality which demanded an artistic response. It no longer seemed all that appropriate to say “anyway, I had a funny dream the other night”. The show says of Henry Moore that he was “seeking a vocabulary of forms with which to convey the darkness and violence of the times”. But that description holds for pretty much everybody.

With photography and poster art the answer came quickly, and part of the answer was speed. If death now came more quickly, so should our response. The reports of George Steer soon spread news of the atrocity, including German Nazi involvement, countering nationalist propaganda. And the Republican posters such as 'The Military Practice of the Rebels' (1936, below) and 'What Are You Doing To Prevent This?' (1937) used the image of airplanes in a patterned formation – fascist order equalling systematic death. The problem was for the painters.

And then came, at least apparently, the answer. Picasso's painting 'Guernica' was first exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish pavilion of the Paris International Exhibition. (Spain still, at least for the moment, being represented by the Republicans.) After which it travelled (as we've seen) Europe and then the world. It became something of a sensation, with 15,000 visitors in London alone. The speed at which it was completed and the way so many got to see it so quickly, in an echo of Steer's journalism, was doubtless as significant as the work itself. This was modern art on modern events seen by modern means.

It responded to the atrocity not with an impossible literalism but with a twisted expressionism. (Though some did criticise it, with its focus on the victims, as a variant on the 'crying child' images seen earlier by the 'conscience' brigade.) Respecting Picasso's wish, it went to Spain only after Franco's death and now can no longer travel. It's represented here by a replica tapestry and a painting and etching from the same 'group', 'Weeping Woman' (1937). (Some claim to see bombers reflected in the subject's eyes. Sounds fanciful to me.)

As was often the case with Picasso, the response was often imitative. McWilliam's sculpture 'Spanish Head' (1938/9) is a good work, certainly much better than the earlier 'Long Arm', but it does seem much like an element wrenched from 'Guernica' and realised in 3D.

But, as was also often the case, others found smarter things to do than try to be another Picasso. John Armstrong's paintings are almost the polar opposite of 'Guernica's' visceral shock, and closer to the haunting, elegiac quality of Nash's post-World War One works. Painted in tempera with their limited palettes offering just the right degree of naiveté they look almost soft, like they're of things which should be bright but somehow aren't – more ghost-like than ghosts. His urban environments almost taunt us with the absence of the human figure, a solitary stiff-backed chair in 'Revelation' (above), a flurry of paper in 'The Empty Street' (both 1938). Though Guernica was a crowded town, here the stripped-back remnants of the buildings are alone in a vast, empty expanse. (Several reviewers have remarked on Armstrong as the 'sleeper hit', for example Laura Cumming in the Guardian describing him as “by some way the discovery (or rediscovery) of the show”.

Despite only arriving a year later Merlyn Evans' 'Tyrannopolis (The Protestors)' (1939) seems a world away from his earlier 'Torturing the Anarchist', with its title so divorced from the actual work. Evans said that Guernica presented “the aggressive instinct for power and destruction”. However, while other artists had looked to 'Guernica' as the measure of such technological barbarity, his two parallel amorphous figures are more akin to Dali's Civil War painting 'Autumnal Cannibalism' (1936). Yet where Dali's figures are plasticated, seemingly morphing into one another even as each devours the other, Evans are brittlely crystalline. A set of dissembling parts, sections of them are already littering the ground like leaves. And, despite their clawed hands and feet, each seems to falling apart without any outside assistance. Bones and veins are visible, like an x-ray image. The equally crystalline towers behind them look more science fictional than anything actually to be found at Guernica, as if resembling their own occupants. About the only suggestion of hope is the bird flying off to the upper left.

Walter Nessler's large painting 'Premonition' (1937, above) is Gothic beyond Gothic. Himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, his message post-Guernica was clearly “can happen here”. Rather than substitute symbols for landmarks, he substitutes landmarks for landmarks. Familiar London skyline sights such as St Pauls are re-staged in a jarring and fragmentary fashion, in lurid reds and oranges, over a dark sky mottled like combat camouflage. Gridlocked buses go this way and that, as if seeking an illusory escape. The nearest to a human figure is an oversize gas mask, topping a tall building like a sculpture, a pair of human eyes as if trapped within it.

And of course this terrifying premonition was to come true. The famous by-line in the Republican poster above was “If you tolerate this your children will be next”. And we did. And they were.

History Versus Politics

If the show should be criticised for not considering what was revolutionary in Spain, it should be applauded for exploring the other end of the political spectrum. Not all artists were even Republican, and you need to tell it like it is. In Edward Burra's solo show, we looked at how the timelessness of his Spain paintings had the counter-intuitive effect of de-historicising them, of making war never decisive but merely timeless and cyclic. Though this fresh exhibition chooses new works, they would seem to confirm the thesis. 'The Watcher' (1937, below), for example, features two sinister robed figures in an ominous kind of faceless face-off. The long, narrow frame cuts away almost all else.

Burra's is most likely the 'apolitical' conservatism that, through refusal to take sides, always effectively gives the right a free pass. (Though note that, in the mailing comments to my review, his biographer Jane Stevenson argues he was more sympathetic to the Republicans than he is sometimes given credit.) Whereas the Vorticist artist Percy Wyndham-Lewis, who didn't blanche at directly supporting Hitler, was triumphant over Francoist victory in 'The Surrender of Barcelona' (1937, below).

The defeat of Barcelona, an anarchist stronghold, is morphed with the fifteenth century siege of the town, in a work many consider as referencing Velazquez ''The Siege of Breda'. The gates lie open, the bridge lowered across the moat. The painting's arranged in neat layers, from the knights in the lower foreground, to the rooftops and the white sailboats out on the bluest of seas. It's mostly composed of upward motifs, the lances of the knights, the tall towers. In fact, with their high windows like visors, the towers almost resemble the knights. Bizarrely for an artist normally so dedicated to dynamism its so ordered that it might as well have been called 'The Restoration of Order', misrule put to an end. Like the pyramids before them, the towers here come to stand for the order that comes through social hierarchy.

Strictly speaking, Wyndham-Lewis is historically comparative while Burra is ahistorical. But still the similarities are striking. It may be worth noting that Dali, a native Francoist in every sense, commented that he saw the war as “a phenomenon of natural history opposed to Picasso, who considered it a political phenomenon”. Putting aside for the moment that all three artists, at least in this period, worked in Modernist styles, what could be going on?

In the Mexican Revolution, the art was often about reacquainting yourself with your indigenous culture and history - an antidote to the colonial years which had cloaked all that. While the art of the Russian Revolution often taken inspiration from local folk art. But Spain seems to have been different.

It's not just that pro-Republican art was Modernist. It's that Republicanism itself was modernist – finally it gave us the chance to make a clean break from the past. (Perhaps ironically given the prominent role the peasants would play in the revolution.) But fascism, then still a new phenomenon on the European stage, was like a nouveau riche family keen to give itself credibility through claiming historical roots. The Francoists' name Falange itself came from the Roman military formation of a phalanx. Earlier, Mussolini had flirted with Modernism through Futurism, only to ditch his allies once in power for a full embrace of pseudo-classicism.

It became almost an aesthetic agreement. (Particularly if you take the more muddied aesthetics of the 'conscience' brigade out of the equation.) The Nationalists could have history (and with it tradition) and the Republicans the modern (and with it, at least implicitly, the future). Notably, in the text below his 'Aidez L'Espagne' print, Miro calls the fascists “just the outdated forces” against “the people whose immense creative resources... will astonish the whole world”. While Henry Moore described fascism as “the beginning of another set of dark ages”.

So what had to happen for historic influences to reappear in Republican art? The answer's simple. The Republicans had to lose.

Ursula McConnell had a fairly good reason not to take up arms – she was only thirteen at the time. But she did visit Spain with her family and despite her youth later produced some extraordinary paintings. Perhaps most significant is how classical her pictures look, such as 'Family of Beggars' (1939, above). Their dark and sombre palettes, the fixed gestures and impassive expressions of the peasants have been compared to El Greco. They stand barefoot on barren land, one leafless tree in sight. Rather than being agitational like many of the other works here, they present an unchanging state. Yet McConnell came from a left-aligned family and her work doesn't feel ahistorically conservative like Burra or Wyndham-Lewis. There is something sullenly accusative in those peasant faces, at the same time as there's the sense that there's no longer hope for them. They're the faces of those who know they must bear the unbearable. They're reminiscent of Marx's quote: “the heart of a heartless world... the soul of soulless conditions”.

In a way, this modernism... in fact everything that was positive about the situation in Spain simultaneously came to be its undoing. What made it all important was the very reason the fascists came to win. Only Stalin was arming the Republicans. While most foreign volunteers came through the International Brigade who, organised through the various national Communist parties, were effectively under his command. And he was soon to reason that the victory of a genuine form of communism would be a bigger defeat than defeat would be. In October '38, with battle still raging, the troops were simply ordered home. And those fighting outside the Brigade... well, if you want to know what happened to them go and see the Ken Loach film 'Land and Freedom'. It isn't pretty.

With the war ended, any distinction between 'conscience' and 'conflict' essentially collapsed and the pressing new issue came to be care for refugees. The British government originally refused entry, later amended to demanding financial securities for every entrant. (Essentially saying “we won't stop them bombing you, but we won't let you flee the bombing either”. That's neutrality for you.) So most of the posters in the latter part of the show are devoted to raising funds or otherwise caring for the refugees. One of these, with the now-standard fascist airplane patterns in the sky, carries the slogan 'Help Them To Forget' (below).

And forget is what we did. At the same time we're being asked to buy into the fiction that the First World War was in some way fought against imperialism, we're being asked to forget that either the Spanish war or World War Two was fought for anything more than the status quo. This exhibition is, perhaps understandably, more adept at demonstrating the art of the conflict than the politics behind it. But it still contains enough to undermine such absurd notions. It's not merely that it contains a wealth of great art. (Though it does, in quite a rich variety and with great works by several artists previously quite unknown to me.) It's that it covers a period where art was not just a series of gimmicks proffered by egoists and self-publicists, but where artistic and political innovations were essentially in a positive feedback loop.

Should anyone be interested in why the Spanish Civil War wasn't really all that civil...

'Freedom Fighters or Comintern army? 
The International Brigades in Spain'
…or you could do a whole lot worse than Orwell's 'Homage To Catalonia'. It's somewhat ironic that this remains the best-known book on Spain, when it scuppers about every popular misconception about the conflict.

Friday 6 February 2015


Royal Academy, London
(Yes, yet another art exhibition reviewed long after it's over!)

“Kiefer fights against our illusory belief that we live in the present moment.”

The Indelible Stain

If the acclaimed German artist Anselm Kiefer has had a post-war career, then perhaps that simply fitted with a post-war life. He was born, briefly before the end of hostilities, in a small town in the ruralised, conservative south. Yet while its true all those things would inform his work, and arguably continue to do so, its possible to allow this frame to limit our understanding of his quite expansive art with its near-universal concerns. Nevertheless, let's start at the beginning...

Even today he is perhaps most widely known, if not notorious, for his 'Occupations' series, where he'd be photographed before known European landmarks giving a fascist salute. As Martin Grayford puts it “the point... was of course not to extol Nazism but to force Kiefer and his fellow Germans to confront it”. This act was not just challenging, it would even have been illegal under German law. Part of an attitude Kiefer (and many of his generation) saw as an air-brushing of history, a masking of a bad smell rather than a stemming of its source.

Despite their infamy the show rather sidelines this series, which is probably a wise step. While they're not simply rude gestures, outstretched arm as two raised fingers, they are more provocation than anything else. Kiefer seems influenced by Dadaism at this point; elsewhere in this room are some of his sketchbooks with one page loudly proclaiming “Nothing!” And here he seems indebted to its shock tactics. In this way 'Occupations' also seems strangely prescient of British punk's appropriation of the swastika as a goading implement. They're the work of a young artist, impatiently shouting at the world around him, full of furious and immediate references - and ultimately they're little more than juvenilia.

Moreover, they're not just culturally specific but in a way that doesn't aid us - and certainly doesn't flatter us. Its probably not coincidental that Kiefer began this series in 1969, when the German Student movement was still strong. Though some did misread these photos even then, most would have implicitly understood that a young man taking up such a pose would not be demonstrating Nazi sympathies - so must be making an accusation of some kind. Yet not a decade later British punk's armband-sporting tactics, riffing on a similar theme, would be undermined by a swell in support for the far right. And today similar, sometimes openly fascist, groups operate across Europe, a trend to which Germany is alas not immune. Ironically, when we look at a photo of a man sporting a Nazi uniform we see more liberal times.

However, contemporaneous pieces contain more of the seeds of his mature work. The army uniform he wore in the 'Occupations' photos came from his father, and the series was perhaps aimed at his father's generation. However his artworks are less outward-aimed and less full of certainties. Kiefer has questioned our blithe assumptions that had we been there at that time we would have resisted becoming Nazis, while there's no way we can really know this. In short he reintroduces doubt into what might seem one of life's most certain questions, and as Mark Hudson puts it “expressed a sense of ambiguous unease about [his] country’s past.”

The forest landscape is a frequent setting, which of course doubles as references to Nazi iconography and to Kiefer's own childhood. 'Ice and Blood' (1971, above) seems titled to deliberately reference their slogan “blood and soil”. Again a lone figure gives the infamous salute, only this time over a frozen wintry environment. Though (as we'll come onto) Kiefer would find his medium in oils, here he uses watercolour powerfully to almost saturate the painting with bloodstains. Its as if this is the setting of some Nazi atrocity, the blood from which would never wash away, leaving some barren world behind. The lone soldier returns, or perhaps never left, to obsessively commemorate the bloody scene. (He's placed centrally, but so far back he seems more a reaction to the scene than an instigator of it.) Nazism is shown here not as an aberration, but an indelible stain upon history.

'Man Lying With Branch' (1971, above) is perhaps more ambiguous still. With those jutting angles the branch could be said to be shaped like a swastika. There's no way to tell whether it has somehow stabbed the human figure or is redemptively rising from him. (Though some interpret the dabs of black beneath the stem as blood.) The branch could be murder weapon, headstone-like commemoration or symbol of rebirth. We'll come back to the teasing ambiguity of this later...

Of course these works use much of the imagery and symbolism of German Romanticism. Others refer specifically to Norse mythology such as 'Odin – Ygdraissal' and 'Ragnorak' (both 1976). And throughout this show we'll find that, for an artist working in the modern era, Kiefer was highly influenced by Romanticism. A movement of course often seen as soured by the later Nazi era, any original innocence to it now despoiled. Leading many to fence such symbolism off with the cultural equivalent of police crime scene tape.

Yet Kiefer takes the opposite approach, takes the whole thing head-on. He asks, as Daniel Arasse puts it, “how can anyone be an artist in the tradition of German art and culture after Auschwitz?” And the ambiguity of 'Man Lying With Branch' acts as a microcosm for this. While continually re-raising the question, Kiefer continually avoids easy answers. We all live upon that bloodstained earth, and none of know whether we will ever clean it. For this reason Michael Gayford described Kiefer's art as Post-Cataclysmic Romanticism. Perhaps not a catchy term, but an effective one...

Out Of the Attic:

And Kiefer's style leaps ahead with his Attic series ('71-'73) as he both takes to oils and to the grander scale which would mark his more developed work. Despite their size they also mark his tendency to work in series form, each individual work however gargantuan a mere piece of a grander plan. Motifs and images recur across and even beyond series. Which gives us a problem, for to pull away one work from all this feels wrenching and diminishing, like isolating a phrase from a piece of music. Like themes within a symphony, you need to let them recur at different times in different combinations. But let's do what we can...

The attics he paints are the actual attic of his then studio, a former schoolhouse. They're not the 'Freudian attics' so beloved of horror films, cluttered crawl spaces stacked with ambush objects, as if teeming with a thousand petty repressions. If we had to give them a name they'd be 'Jungian attics', expansive spaces, the grain of every plank carefully delineated. And that space is made a surround for some great glaring symbol. The lid is lifted on the collective psyche and it turns out to contain one big gleaming thing. The solitary objects gleam white against all those shades of brown, like dream objects or apparitions. Take, for example, 'Parsifal III' (1973, below).

Wagner, of course, wrote an opera around the Parsifal legends so Kiefer is once more taking head on the darker associations of Romanticism. The beams of the attic make it resemble an Anglo-Saxon hall, further rooting the paintings in legend. While the focus on symbols at the expense of human figures make the whole thing seem a set of power objects. This with-holding of the human figure is recurrent in Kiefer's work. It serves to strip away human agency, giving the images an eerie, ominous fatalism.

However, the focus on Parsifal's youth ('Parsifal 1', 1973 displays his cot) also suggests at a more autobiographical reading. After Parsifal's father dies his mother attempts to keep him from war, but he defies this and goes in search for the Grail. It suggests Kiefer finding post-war Germany not just hypocritical but stifling, and striking out on his own.

'Father, Son, Holy Ghost' (1973, above) shows Kiefer's habit of conjoining two works into one. Beneath the now-familiar attic, there's a forest of the trees that make up those planks and chairs. (And if the trees look like pines, then that's the literal meaning of Kiefer's family name.) The three chairs, only sketched in, seat three fires - labelled the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The pink of the pines seems to set up the glow of these fires. The flames sit in chairs, like monarchs on thrones, rather than consume them. It recalls the Bible myth of Moses and the burning bush, a symbol for an eternal force. And let's not forget an earlier work was titled 'Ygdraissal', the trees also represent the one tree which unites all realms. The trinity becomes associated with the more ancient notion of the three realms, our earth between the upper and lower worlds.

Which makes the work a diptych depicting a triptych. What's significant is what's absent – like the human figure earlier, now the main part of the house is cut out like a segment missing from a tree. Remember the old posters “What's missing from this ch**ch? UR!” It suggests we are oblivious to such celestial matters, we've pushed them to the periphery of our vision even as they continue to influence us.

The Muck of Ages:

If in the last room Kiefer switches to his main medium of oils, it's with what follows where his mature style truly emerges. 'Iconoclastic Controversy (Bilderstreit)' (1980) could work as a general title for the next section – perhaps of the whole show. In this period Kiefer became interested in the architecture of the Nazi past, the grand buildings of Speer and Kreis, and in what has become of them now. Let's focus on 'Ash-Flower' (1983/7, above, though its vastness makes it one of those works you really do need to see to get a sense of).

Its of a dwarfing size, more than seven meters across, with what Fisun Güner calls a “theatrical grandiosity”. With its receding perspective you feel yourself almost tumbling into it. (Ben Luke has commented “these are not so much paintings as total environments — they swallow you up.”) Unlike the dwarfed human figures, so commonly used by Romantic artists to evoke scale, there's no human element whatsoever. And somehow that just makes it vaster. That far wall could be a country mile away. The post-apocalyptic in his post-apocalyptic romanticism was never stronger than here. It's almost like seeing a generation starship crashed.

An actual sunflower is hung, withered and upside-down, before it in a manner than recalls crucifixion. (Hanging actual objects off his paintings is a trademark feature of Kiefler. In so doing, we are sometimes told, “he invents a compelling third space between painting and sculpture”. Which may be laying it on a bit thick, but it does add an intriguing new element to his works.)

There's little tonal variety, the way painting is supposed to work, it's greys and browns containing only the odd flecks of white. Instead there's textural variety, we tell the ceiling from the walls partly because the paint is less worked there. It's, to quote Alastair Sooke, “more in the manner of relief sculpture than painting”.

It's so encrusted you imagine that rather than be painted into place by the guiding hand of an artist it accrued, built itself up in layers. Crucially, it looks less like a painting of a ruin, like those neatly detailed Victorian Gothic depictions of ruined follies, than it does a ruined painting. It looks like it might have been painted when those halls were gleaming new, then left there facing them. To rot alongside the place it depicted, the portrait of Dorian Grey which failed to fulfil its promise. (I later read Kiefer does sometimes deliberately weather works.) And this evocation of temporal scale is what really matters. In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones comments:

“For all it’s vast physical scale, [it's] just as vast on the scale of time. It feels almost impossible to look into it and think back to when that building was gleaming new. The painting seems to span epochs. It is ancient. Kiefer includes time in his art ... His tangled, archaeological surfaces... are mirrors of time itself.”

The indicia mentions Hitler's delusionally hubristic command for buildings to be made from stone, not just to evoke the necessary Classicism but “so as to make beautiful ruins”. An attitude described by Owen Hatherley as “the psychotic, suicidal notion of building with the ruins already in mind: a death-driven architecture... the corpse has been designed before the living body”. Kiefer is partly depicting this, the theory that inside the Nazi lust to conquer lay the death drive, domination as a route to submission.

Alternately we could be looking at the ashes of Modernism. Perhaps those greys were once the purest whites, but all those high hopes for a transformed world turned into this wreck of a Corbusian palace. And of course this allows us to combine the two notions, like Modernist idealism could never truly be uncoupled from those fevered fascist dreams. What they had in common was the hubris, the assumption they'd remake rather than be remade, and the results were gross in every sense of the word.

Yet Ozymandian notions, however applied, seem inadequate. I'm tempted to say its both those things and more, however much like luvvie speak that sounds. The work seems so vast that any such explanation virtually shrivels before it, seems too parochial, too human in scale. It's clearly not an allegorical painting, there to be pinned to a single meaning. But at the same time I'm temped to argue the scale is its meaning. Culture always becomes nature in the end. We live in the residue of the past even as we live outside its context. It becomes as strange to and imposing upon us as any lake or mountain range.

This notion recurs in an instillation piece Kiefer created specially for this show, 'Ages of the World' (2014, above). It's composed of a teetering pile of discarded canvases, littered with rubble and detritus, dead sunflower heads emerging from the mulch as if still valiantly hoping to sprout. It's messy, haphazard, seemingly thrown together. Yet wall posters give it a key, as if its a cross-section of the earth. The indicia describe it as “speak[ing] of a geological time frame so long it is almost beyond our comprehension – part totem, part funeral pyre”. It's not, truth to tell, one of Kiefer's best works. It feels like a bit of a meta-text, a key to his work rather than a work in itself. Yet if we're being handed a key, let's use it.

In Marx's famous quote, society requires revolution in “ridding itself of the muck of ages”. Countless artists of Kiefer's generation set themselves the task of capturing and defining that revolution. It might even be argued as the very definition of Modernism, the impetus to break tradition, the desire to begin again. Whereas Kiefer contrarily but quite definitely chose to depict the muck of ages, his huge canvases weighted down by layered agglomerations of thick paint. Representing, in the show's words, “the weight of human history” - history as sediment.

The Alchemy of Materials:

Kiefer is wont to use not just non-standard paints such as emulsion but incorporate non-art materials - straw, clay, ash, earth, polystyrene, cardboard, silver leaf, plaster and what the indicia described as “scorch marks”. (I have most likely missed some from that list.) Which is when he isn't hanging discrete objects from the front of his paintings, such as the afore-mentioned sunflower. Rather than merely being gimmicky there is something alchemical, almost animistic about this.

He comments "for me ideas aren’t up in the sky and materials down in the earth. Materials have a spirit that is evoked by the physical presence, which can be accessed and opened up. In the Romantic tradition everything is connected in a kind of universal underground."

But while talking about the symbolic function of materials, we need to note Kiefer very frequently uses a literal one. Rather than depict objects in paint wood can be used to represent wood, clay stand for clay and sand sand. With Kiefer, contrary to everything semiotics tried to tell us about language, the signifier very often is the signified. Almost entirely self-taught, Kiefer in many ways resembles an outsider artist – the grand scale, the obsessiveness, the recurring private image bank, and this literal use of materials suggests at naïve art. And yet, as ever with Kiefer, it's double-edged. We're so used to seeing painted branches that to come across actual wood placed inside a picture frame becomes almost jarring. Paradoxically, this adds to Ann Christopher's comments that “Kiefer's works, even his paintings, exude a strong feeling of being made”.

Yet, while Kiefer is happy to use straw as straw, he'll use lead in the most counter-intuitive ways. He makes books from lead, pages curling like they've been read in some furnace-hot bath. In vitrines in the courtyard outside, lead submarines lie like beached fish on cracked earth. Kiefer has commented that lead is the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history, and yet at the same time for a metal it is highly malleable. Lead's the metal that can bend, the solid that can become a liquid and, perhaps above all, the earthly substance that can alchemically become gold - and thereby heavenly. Lead is always something transformed or in the act of transformation with Kiefer, to the point where you start to assume it represents transformation to him. And he has said “what interests me is the transformation, not the monument”.

And all of this seems to go hand-in-hand with his willingness to weather works, or transform them after completion via electrolysis. The dubstep artist Burial once said his first attempts to make music sounded too limited, too circumscribed, too much like something he had done. But when he started to mix in natural sounds such as rainfall, the uncontrollable, unpredictable new element recast everything around it and created something more compelling. Kiefer seems to be doing something similar with these practises - ensuring he doesn't have the final say in how his own works look.

To the Architecture of Antiquity

In 1992, Kiefer chose to make France his centre of operations. This seems to have underlined an already present shift in his subject matter from an interest in German history to more universal concerns. In particular he progressed from a fascination with Speer's ruined megalomania to the architecture of antiquity. If his paintings of ruins themselves looked like ruins, his paintings of ancient monuments look like... well, I expect you're ahead of me. They loom out of the canvas, inscrutably strange yet inescapable. And the depictions of an indelible past come to be replaced by his much-heralded “cyclic view of time”, in works such as 'Osiris & Isis' (1985/7, above).

Broken pieces of pottery are scattered around the base of pyramid (needless to say with Kiefer, these are actual bits of pottery), as if hurled from its apex. These are joined by wires, attached to a strange and somewhat incongruous block. (Actually part of an old TV set.) The pieces are numbered, as if found and catalogued by an archeologist. The title suggests the legend of Isis literally re-membering Osiris, gathering his body parts from the corners of the realm where there'd been thrown and bringing them back to life. Its a myth is associated with the inter-relationship between life and death, order and disorder. That dashed pot will reassemble, re-climb the steps of the pyramid, only to be dashed again and then again. As the indicia put it: “In Kiefer's cosmology the universe is an immense alchemical oven in which spirit and matter find themselves in a continuous process of creation and destruction.”

Notably, the pyramid shape was also seen in 'Ages of the World', as a metaphor for the weight of history. And those narrowing, hierarchical levels make the pyramid the ultimate power symbol, appearing even on dollar bills. If pot is Osiris, and the block hauling him back is Isis, perhaps Set, his murderer, is the pyramid itself.

From Words to Stubble

Next, Kiefer revisits both the landscape setting and themes of his earlier watercolours such as 'Ice and Blood', but now in oil and at his characteristically huge scale. In 'Black Flakes' (2006, above) the furrowed field is the size of some nations, pulling to some impossibly distant vanishing point, the raised horizon allowing only for a grey slither of sky.

As earlier the field is barren but ploughed, never primeval, never de-cultured. The blackened stubble (actually protruding wood) resembles war graves, as if nature's one vast cemetery. In Paul Celan's post-holocaust poetry, always an influence on Kiefer, the veiling presence of snow is a frequent metaphor for forgetting. And yet a lead book is set on the painting. With this extra element the snow-white field starts to resemble a giant page, the stubble fragments of letters. Lines of poetry by Celan are written in the receding furrows of the field. And let's note from an early point Kiefer has been writing on his artworks. (He once made a series based on the letters of the Kabbalah, not included in this exhibition.) And books are a common metaphor for remembering. (A companion work, 'For Paul Celan – Ash Flower', 2006, features burnt books.)

So are we looking at a barren field doubling as a war grave, or at a visual metaphor for a book? That's probably the point. If 'Ice and Blood' portrayed an indelible past seeping through to the present and 'Isis and Osiris' time in a perpetual cycle, this work hints at a transformation without delivering it. Books are like seeds, planting ideas. Will even the immense bleakness of this scene yield to Spring, the embryonic letters assert themselves through the snow? For all it's size, the painting's like a coin about to be tossed. It could bloom. Or it could as easily fall back into frozen tails again.

Beyond Human Scale

There's a rough but noticeable increase in scale to Kiefer's work throughout this exhibition, from attics to grand ruins to cosmological scenes. But while the gargantuan buildings were on the edge of human scale, these constellations and cosmic pieces perhaps tip over into a place beyond it. They don't dizzify you in the same way, for they don't engage you to the same degree. The all important (to quote the show) “link between the celestial and the earthly” becomes stretched if not broken. Notably, in 'The Secret Life Of Plants, For Robert Fludd' (1987/2014), the proportions of 'Black Flakes' are inverted; there's a caking of earth right at the painting's base, like the ground barely clinging on.

The best work in this series is best explored by comparison to an earlier piece - 'For Paul Celan: Stalks of the Night' (1998/2013) to 'The Orders of the Night' (1996, both above). Though, as is typical with Kiefer, the earlier picture itself recalls the afore-mentioned 'Man Lying With Branch'. Though 'Orders' is still more a funereal picture, the single branch replaced by the multiple black 'faces' of the sunflowers bearing down on the recumbent figure like anti-suns. We saw earlier how Kiefer used the image of the one tree uniting the realms, from its lofty leaves in the upperworld to its roots digging into the underworld. Replacing the branch with sunflowers suggests they can represent the same unifying concept in his work. But Kiefer is also interested in the Seventeenth century cosmologist Robert Fludd, as we've seen dedicating another work in this room to him. And one of Fludd's conceptions was that every plant on the earth had a parallel star. So those sunflower heads are also associated with stars.

In 'Stalks of the Night' the piercing branch is back, and the sunflowers fallen away to reveal an almost abstract blackened canvas. The human figure is less individuated than before, slashing downward strokes making up his ribcage. We tend to use the term 'diagramatic' critically in art, for works which are merely schematic. But with Kiefer these negative connotations seem to drop away. This is almost like the cosmological maps of the Medieval era; gold leaf adheres to the top of the work as if representing heaven, while below tree and torso are reunited. The domed line performs a similar function as the join in his earlier conjoined paintings, a formal separation standing for an actual connection. Notably, while heaven is gold, the line is in silver. Though only barely realised, the figure is thought to be a self-portrait. Mortality may rule in our middleworld, but this does not stop it being connected to grander realms.

The Earth Breaks All Teeth

As if not overwhelming enough, this exhibition came with something of a scoop – the first British showing of Kiefer's most recent series, Morgenthau. These works are given a room of their own, like an instillation piece. And with their break from the the sombre muted palettes of the wintry landscapes, with their copper greens, aqua blues and golds, they become an arresting sight. After the waning of interest in the cosmological scenes, they kick the show back into life.

Their title comes from the Morgenthau Plan, an American proposal for the “industrial disarmament” of post-war Germany. In this almost 'Hunger Games' scenario of calculated impoverishment she would have been stripped of her capacity to wage further wars by being stripped of her capacity to do very much of anything. She would have become a “pastoral state”, essentially a nation of farmers. Though of course never implemented, it was for a while seriously considered at high levels.

One way of framing this aesthetically would be to see Germany as taken home again, reduced to resembling one of its own old Romantic paintings. German Romanticism has always liked to imagine life sprang from some timeless country idyll and always kept its heart there. And these rural works are once more indebted to Romanticism, particularly Van Gogh. (Let's not quibble over whether he was late Romantic or early Modern, Kiefer's interest seems precisely in this interchange point.) But we perhaps get to their essence quicker by not comparing but contrasting them. Wheat is about as kitsch a subject in art as sunflowers. We see it on cereal packets or in Soviet Realist posters – arranged in neat yellow rectangles, obligingly awaiting felling by armies of jolly peasants, so harvestable you can even sing a song while you're doing it (see below).

Whereas Kiefer transforms wheat as much as he did sunflowers. (See 'Morgenthau Plan', 2012, above). He paints a nature, cultivated in theory, yet untamed. They're no neat lines but a thicket, an impenetrable mass of jutting angles. Hung before them are farming implements, archaic and rusty, traps tooth-broken on heavy rocks. One contains an actual pair of muddy boots, as if defeated by the clogging earth and discarded there like a solider lost to battle. You'll struggle to feed your impoverished belly by dragging your blunted plough across these pitiless stones. If the Romantics found the overpowering force of nature in mountains and mighty rivers, Kiefer finds it in a farmer's field.

Kiefer could conceivably have grown up in this alternate history, where it was the Marshall Plan which was the footnote and Kraftwerk were an acoustic folk act. And perhaps this series stems from him envisaging such a fate. But that seems to describe the works' inception rather than their nature. As ever there's a political dimension to Kiefer, but to reduce his work to a narrow capital-P political would be to unecessarily diminish it.

The most common theory of the prevalence of hunting scenes in cave paintings is that they worked as a form of sympathetic magic – by spearing an auroch in symbolic form you empowered yourself against the actual auroch. The tangled crops of the Morgenthau series seem the farming equivalent of those hunting scenes, humanity locked in a symbiotic war with nature.

From Ashes to Diamonds:

Kiefer seems to divide opinion into enthralled devotees and those who find it all just ostentation, prog rock for the eyes. I am normally suspicious of vast canvases and grand statements in art. Artists often get big and lofty when they run out of things to actually say, the equivalent of shouting instead of speaking. Yet seeing this show has firmly made me into another of Kiefer's devotees.

Perhaps the ideal way to view is work would be to visit the two environments he's built for his artwork, as featured in the recent BBC 'Arena' special. Part studio part instillation piece, they seem less a place to look at his work than a way to climb inside it. But alas they're not open to the public. (Perhaps because of what seems a somewhat permissive approach to health and safety.) But this show's a decent substitute. I suspect it will be one of those memorable events people later claim to have attended, whether they did or not.

And perhaps we even need someone like Kiefer right now... As our culture as a whole becomes more visually oriented (interactive web sites replacing magazines, comics becoming more accepted as a medium and so on), this has led to an irony - rather than enhancing visual art itself it seems to have stripped it of its special status. A century ago, Modernism seemed the very tip of the cutting edge. While contemporary art now can often feel mired in post-modernism, a burnt-out fire with all the illumination coming from elsewhere - in Dubuffet’s description “like a dead language that no longer has anything in common with the language of the street”. The artists who remain well known often feel like celebrities and scandal-mongers, sometimes dabbling in a bit of art to perpetuate the figleaf for their fame.

Yet, as the Telegraph's Mark Hudson puts it: “At a time when most art is only about itself and its relationship to the market, his work challenges the past and his own role and, by extension, our role within it”. Kiefer is invigorating, enthralling and overwhelming – but not necessarily in that order. You come across his works the way you would ruins in the desert; they look unforgettable at the very same time they look beyond any scale or context, gargantuan new facts to rearrange everything else around. I've probably only scratched at those rich thick surfaces, traced the faintest of paths through those dense forests. Several sections I've simply skipped over. But it will have to do for now.

Except its even more than this. Perhaps befitting an artist with such a cyclic view of time, this exhibition is less retrospective than summary to date. It demonstrates not an artist able to keep doing it, but one embarking on directions quite new for him. Its not even that he’s still at the top of his game. Its more like his star is still in ascent.

Here's some sample pictures at a more fitting scale.