The centenary of Auguste Rodin’s death (1840-1917) has been celebrated around the world the past year, with exhibitions at institutions like The Brooklyn Museum, The Met, the Grand Palais, and more. This weekend marks the final few days to see “Kiefer Rodin” at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which opened last November.
The remarkable exhibition presents all new work by Anselm Kiefer, who created paintings, watercolor, and sculptures in direct conversation with the work of Rodin. The starting point for the show was in 2013, when the Musée Rodin set out to revisit Rodin’s 1914 book, Cathedrals of France, through the eyes of a contemporary artist. Kiefer, taken with Rodin’s descriptions of cathedrals (often in relationship to the female figure) and process assembling and reassembling, was so inspired he created a completely new body of work. Kiefer also found himself drawn to the plaster casts, drawings, watercolors, and sculptural fragments in Rodin’s archive, housed at the Musée Rodin Meudon just outside Paris.
Themes of ruins, national identity, and mutability run throughout the show, which begins with a gallery of Rodin’s drawings, sculptures, studies, and collections of casts he used as tools. It moves on to a series of watercolor books by Kiefer that impose female nudes on top of cathedrals. Next is a monumental painting of two DNA strands, marked with the initials of both artists, visually connecting their artistic roots in history. The final room features a breathtaking array of massive architectural paintings and vitrines of feathers, clothes, trees, and earth. Kiefer’s well-known towers, which dot his sprawling compound in the south of France, appear like cathedrals through what looks like rusted, decaying paint.
Whitewall sat down with Kiefer at the opening of the show in Philadelphia, where he discussed sharing with Rodin a constant need to experiment, trying to reconstruct a new world from the ashes.
WHITEWALL: Tell us about the first time you visited the Musée Rodin in Meudon, and first saw the vast archives there.
ANSELM KIEFER: It’s half an hour outside Paris. It was fantastic. They have drawers and drawers of all his stuff. He was not a sculptor in a normal sense. He was an iconoclast. He destroyed his sculptures. He would take an arm and put it somewhere else. He always worked this way. Destroying and redoing. That’s my process.
WW: What about his casts and tools interested you?
AK: I’m not a sculptor. I’ve never worked with plaster molds. But I like the way they look before you open them. You’re not sure you’ll get what you want.
WW: And the watercolor books you created for this show?
AK: I’ve done watercolors since I was a kid. I’m always doing small things. People think I only do big paintings, but it’s not true. The work on my books is more important than my paintings. In this case, the Rodin Museum gave me Rodin’s Cathedrals of France. He did a tour through France of all the cathedrals and wrote a book. In it he compares the architecture very often to women. It gets a little bit chauvinistic. But the idea I found interesting, and I combined my models with the cathedrals.
WW: You’ve said before, that when you were younger, you questioned if you wanted to be a writer or a painter. Are your books an answer to combine those two inclinations?
AK: Yes, sure! I’ve always liked books. I still write every day and sometimes I do publish.
WW: We’ve been seeing more of your watercolors lately, like with your show at Gagosian last spring. I think at first, people were surprised by the color in those works, as your paintings are often seen as dark.
AK: You know, there is always colors in my paintings. All my grey paintings are colorful. It’s just hidden beneath.
WW: But in watercolors, you can’t hide the color.
AK: No. Watercolor is so different. Normally, a painting for me is never finished. However, the watercolor you cannot change. It’s impossible. The first thing you do is done and stays. You cannot make it grey after.
WW: Do you seem your watercolors as more personal than your paintings?
AK: Yes, they are more personal. When I start the paintings, it’s always from a very personal emotion. With the watercolors, it stays personal.
WW: When making the work for this show, while you were in the studio, did you feel like you were in conversation with Rodin?
AK: Certainly. But usually I have more conversations with poets. Because it’s more about words. They tell me if it’s good or not. They’re very critical. Mostly it’s devastating.
WW: It’s remarkable how much your paintings of your towers resemble cathedrals. When you first built the towers, were you thinking of cathedrals?
AK: No. When I was a child, I had nothing to play with after the war. All around our house was bombed. I had only the bricks and I would build two-story buildings.
WW: That you could climb inside of?
AK: Yes! I still do this. I never got it out of my system.