In honour of the centenary commemoration of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Anselm Kiefer has produced around 30 new works that celebrate the Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov for the State Hermitage Museum (St Petersburg). Curated by Dr Dimitri Ozerkov and Nina Danilova, and co-organised with Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Anselm Kiefer, for Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations follows Kiefer’s visit to and ensuing inspiration from St Petersburg.
“Not everyone will like this exhibition,” museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky writes in the exhibition catalogue. “It is rigorous and demands reflection.” The works were created with the Nicholas Hall venue of the Winter Palace firmly in mind, where the white walls prove a challenging juxtaposition against Kiefer’s evocative, intense and muddied war-themed landscapes. It is also conceptually tasking as it “speaks of complex things: the German spirit, mysticism, the Kabbalah, the Holocaust,” Piotrovsky continues.
Referred to as a “poet of the revolution, and a revolutionary of the poetic idiom” by Piotrovsky, despite the poet’s untimely death in 1922 at the age of 36, Khlebnikov’s numerological theory of history and imagined realities foretold the future and served as a decade-long resource for Kiefer. For example, avant-garde prose “predicted” Russia’s fall in 1917, while the 1919 poem Ladomir (Lightland) prophesised what is understood by Piotrovsky and Kiefer to be 9/11:
And the castles of world trade
Where the chains of poverty shine
With a face of malevolence and rapture,
One day you will turn to ash.
But the exhibition should not be written off as mystic compassion – it is rife with intellectual, historical and memory-based prowess. Kiefer’s painterly interpretations employ his characteristic darkly romantic and fatalist, aesthetic. Paired with Khlebnikov’s poetry, whose word play paints a glittering, if ominous, image, Kiefer presents important questions about art’s responsibilities, namely about the aestheticisation of war. The artist’s technique involves an amalgamation of the contrasting soft and hard textures from materials such as paints, oils, dirt and straw, which ultimately glorify a tragedy.
The three-dimensional paintings are positioned with the sublime, occupying a bizarre space between terrifying and decorative, tackling mythology, antiquity and the act of painting. Kiefer’s work may be brutal, yet his execution hints at an awareness of the very problems associated with the convergence of myth, memory and memorialisation.
Anselm Kiefer, for Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations runs until 3 September at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia. For more information visit hermitagemuseum.org