Anselm Kiefer is something of an anomaly in the upper reaches of the contemporary art world.
In a period when the super-rich who set many trends favour the vacuous and decorative, his work engages with big ideas about society and history. He’s not shy of taking a political stand either: for several years he refused to attend his openings in the US, in protest against the Iraq war.
And he is outspoken in his contempt for the speculators who dominate the art market — deliberately creating canvases so large (some over 9 metres tall) that most private collectors find them a burden to display or store.
He is rightly held in high regard by many of his peers, and by the art establishment itself — many of whom share his disgust at the excesses of the market, but feel less able to resist its pressures. Now in his early 70s, he is a member of the Royal Academy, and billed by some as “our greatest living artist”. Don’t let that put you off.
His latest show, at the White Cube Gallery in South London, is wonderful. Most critics have come away admiring but shell-shocked, seeing it as a grim response to the end times, a painterly echo of the apocalyptic CGI-films that have become regular fixtures in our cinemas.
Many of the works depict blighted snow-covered landscapes, with rows of burnt stumps stretching to infinity. This is a world where the sun has gone, and nature is dead or dying. It feels like a bleak vision of where climate catastrophe may take us.
The official title of the exhibit is unwieldy and pretentious: “Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot”.
But you will get more out of the show if you ignore both this and the notes in the official guide. Kiefer is a polymath, and his work benefits a great deal from both his endless curiosity and his free associations, but, as Time Out’s critic writes, “it gives you as much insight into string theory as a plate of spaghetti.”
What really seems to inform its sensibility is one of Kiefer’s eternal preoccupations: how to be a German artist after Hitler. Throughout his career, the Holocaust has loomed large. It is no accident that these paintings are peppered with burnt objects and runes.
With the resurgence of fascism in many European countries, the subject now acquires an added urgency. The show overlays this scary prospect with an even greater one, of human extinction.
So why did I come away uplifted by it all? I think because — despite all the angst — I was left with a strong sense of Kiefer’s energy, creativity and resilience; as Gramsci might have it, by an “optimism of the will”.
He tells a terrifying tale about our future, but in such a beautiful and compelling way that it belies the subject matter.