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Anselm Kiefer, Bohemia Lies by the Sea

The conservator’s eye: Anselm Kiefer, Bohemia Lies by the Sea, 1996, oil, emulsion, shellac, charcoal, and powdered paint on burlap, 75 1/4 in. × 18 ft. 5 inches / 191.1 × 561.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Speakers: Corey D'Augustine and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Steven] We're in the large contemporary galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a really large canvas by Anselm Kiefer. It's hard to even call it a canvas because the surface is so built up that there is no reference to the flatness of the cloth underlayer. - [Corey] This looks as much an object as it does a painting. - [Steven] If you look at it from the side you can see it angulating, it's relief sculpture. - [Corey] It's very thickly painted and Kiefer's certainly taking advantage of the sculptural qualities of the painting. - [Steven] I'm not even comfortable calling it paint. When we think about the application of paint we generally think about relatively thin material that's applied with a brush, occasionally with a pallet knife. When I look at this surface, I think about the tools that one uses to dig in the ground. There is something really earthen about this surface. - [Corey] Especially considering the pallet is very earthy as well. And by the way a lot of this is not paint. There's shellac, there's resins that are dripped and sculpted in the surface here. So, painting, question mark. - [Steven] And this artist is known to burn his material on the canvas. He's known to apply molten lead to the surfaces of his works of art. - [Corey] He also adds a lot of natural materials, like straw, which decay and discolor and perhaps become dry and fall off quite rapidly. - [Steven] It sounds like a conservator's nightmare. (laughing) - [Corey] Well, in a way yes. If we think back to European traditional paintings from guilds and academies etcetera, there are very well codified recipes for how a painter's allowed to make a painting. Part of that is about how to make a beautiful painting but in fact an equal part of it is about how to make a painting that lasts, because after all, many of these are religious paintings, part of their meaning is their timelessness or other ones are commodities. This is a business transaction. You don't want to buy something that falls apart. - [Steven] But here in the late 20th and 21st century, we have artists who are upending that idea of the eternal nature of work of art. Thinking about the idea that a work of art can change over time. - [Corey] In fact, this begins not in the 20th but in the 19th century. This is modernism. On the one hand the idea that an artist can use any material and any process to make a work of art is very exciting because now creative possibilities explode in so many different directions. On the other hand, there are some very dramatic consequences where things don't necessarily stay as structurally sound and stable as they used to since we're disregarding many of those recipes. - [Steven] And even here with this painting you get the sense of the stress from the weight of the paint pulling on the under support, which in this case is burlap. - [Corey] We're looking at an extreme example of deviation from classical painting techniques but what's really interesting here is that now in the 21st century especially, artists are beginning to find sources of meaning in the aging processes of their materials. - [Steven] It's such an irony because now when we have a greater understanding of the chemistry of works of art than ever before in history, we're creating works that ever more ephemeral. - [Corey] And certainly this is not that new of an idea, if we go back to the sculptures of Naum Gabo. Gabo was using the first plastic invented as soon as they were invented. Now, there's no way this kind of idea would ever been permissible if you were working in a guild or an academy because there's no guarantee how that's gonna age. - [Steven] And Gabo was interested in them because they were new. But unlike Gabo, Kiefer is still referencing traditional materials. This is a vertical canvas, it is still a colored paste that is applied to that surface, it is still painting in some respects. - [Corey] But as we look in this painting we see huge cracks. In fact we see big chunks of the painting that have fallen off. Now if we can imagine that same chunk, if it had fallen off from, let's say, a 19th century academic painting, this is disastrous. You can't even see the painting anymore. - [Steven] So this raises really interesting questions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Does it collect those pieces as they fall off? Does it restore those pieces? Where does it decide to intervene? - [Corey] Well, having worked on a number of Kiefer's myself I can tell you yes, we do collect them but I've worked on Kiefer's that, believe it or not, are three of four times as large as this one, and I've large chunks of paint that I just can't find where they came from. So I save them, but I've no idea where that puzzle piece came from. - [Steven] And Kiefer himself has been somewhat nonchalant in his response, saying "If something comes off, let's just put it back on". - [Corey] He's inviting paint to fall off these paintings. - [Steven] What's the reason behind that? How does the material help to effect his message? - [Corey] Kiefer's a very poetic artist and so much of his poetry is about these very dramatic appearances of decay and fragility. So much of his work references this German and Austrian consciousness of history, especially the dark chapters. - [Steven] This is a painting that is clearly a landscape. We see two tyre tracks that are moving through the center of the canvas into the distance. We see a black sky at the narrowest band just above the horizon line. So the fields fill our entire view and for me this is always a reminder of the soil of the German heartland, which in the 1970s and '80s was a very brave act at the moment when Germany was just coming to terms with its immediate past. - [Corey] So many of his paintings addressed these dreams of history that no longer work. It's a kind of nostalgia that he's addressing poetically with these materials that themselves fail, crack and fall apart. - [Steven] I think it's easy for us to forget how much Germany has contributed to civilization and so many German intellectuals never believed that somebody like Hitler could take power. And it feels like, in Kiefer's layering process, this archeology of paint, that Kiefer's able to expose those layers of history, even as he builds up paint that he knows will eventually fall off. - [Corey] On the one hand we can consider this an excavation of a painting, on the other hand I think we can consider Kiefer's work an excavation of the German consciousness. (soft piano music)