27 Jan-8 March 2005. Paintings, sculptures, books and installations by the German artist trace history through female icons, from the poets of ancient Greece to the queens of France, from Madame de Stal to Berenice.
Kiefer is Beuys made easy. Second world war aviator, survivor and magus Beuys, in innumerable ephemeral works, expressed the despair, decay, ruin and guilt of his defeated country, in a grand and intelligently upraiding Goetterdaemmerung. His spirit was not light, but musing, of an evocative thoughtfulness. Of his countless followers and students, the younger Kiefer translated the load of prophetic candour into great sombre tableaux.
Kiefer has made grand vistas in giant bas-reliefs. They have been constructed with accumulations of whispy bits of straw, mildewed moss, black twigs, rusty wires and slabs of broken machinery in no-colours: beige or battleship grey. This poor, found, material is made to behave like great sweeping landscape, reaching into dark caverns and distances, like backdrops for Wagnerian drama. It is grandly theatrical. Its theatre with a sentimental edge, the perfect dreamscape for the romantic contemporary who doesnt have a clue what the contemporary is about.
Kiefer, besides Gerhard Richter, is one of the most celebrated artists in Germany today. Born in 1945, he went to live in Barjac in France in 1993. The French Academy, housed in Rome in one of the most austerely beautiful palaces in the world, a villa built by the Florentine Medici in the Renaissance, is offering it to him as a showcase. And he uses its halls fully and to the hilt to celebrate the other half of the world women. Not only does Kiefer pay homage in reliefs and installations and free-standing sculptures, but he scrawls the names of glorious ladies in charcoal all over the bare raw walls of brick or plaster in graffiti style: from Kunigunde and Brunhilde to Thusnelda; from Persephone and Elektra to Sappho; from Lukrezia and Artemisia to Sofonisba; from Charlotte Corday to George Sand; and he has a predilection for the letter K, probably because of his name, spelling even Circe as Kirke.
The outstanding work is an installation in the inner, ascending corridor of the Villa Medici. It is made of two rows of same-size pieces covered by poisonous lead sheets. Are they beds, baths, coffins, or all three? Each is an oblong raised rectangle with an indentation in the middle, with water in it. In each little puddle there is a bunch of something rotting, withered, old, quietly coming to pieces, or a dagger or other rusty implement. These two rows of graves, mementoes to brave women, are eerie and a little quaint. They are not so much macabre, but rather speak of the organic rot of nature, the teeming past. They are the last cry of Arte Povera.
You tremble to think what Pascali and Manzoni, Arte Povera pioneers in less affluent times, would have done had they been offered this splendid old palace. Superb set-makers too, they would certainly have used a wittier and lighter touch than the earnest and romantic Kiefer.
Acadmie de France Rome. Viale Trinit dei Monti 1, tel. 066761282. Edith Schloss