Kiefer Rodin at the Barnes Foundation: A Conversation between 19th and 21st Century Art

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Ambling into the Barnes Foundation at 2021 Benjamin Franklin Parkway is a sublime experience. The hedges are immaculately manicured, the stone pathway is impeccable, and the minimalistic architecture evokes harmony and order. After opening the colossal wooden door, museum staff promptly smile and gesture towards the ticket booth and cloakroom downstairs. There seems to be no place for pandemonium. However, at first glance, the current visiting exhibition, Kiefer Rodin, seems to depart from this emphasis on orderliness and symmetry. The exhibition is entirely unexpected; it explores two renowned artists from different eras, different countries, and different mediums. One might conclude that the curators juxtaposed contemporary works by widely celebrated German artist Anselm Kiefer with unseen, unfamiliar works by famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin simply to venture into uncharted artistic territory. Yet upon further inspection of the artists’ histories and practices as well as a close analysis of the pieces currently on show at the Barnes, commonalities between Kiefer and Rodin begin to arise.

Anselm Kiefer was born in Donaueschingen, Germany in 1945, the final year of World War II. The vast majority of Kiefer’s works between 1960 and 1990 reflect the culture of Germany – the architecture, mythology, history, literature, music, and topography. Kiefer also addresses taboo and controversial issues; many of his works explore Germany under Nazi rule: a dark, disputed, and emotionally-taxing subject. He initially received criticism for his choice to reopen the old wounds of traumatic history yet he persisted with this subject, stating that excavation is crucial for a deeper understanding of history. Kiefer typically uses a vast variety of materials – nature, canvas, metal, ink, shellac, paper – to create dense, scorched, layered pieces in large, confrontational scales. The cracked, tempestuous surfaces of his pieces speak to his persisting themes of decay, deterioration, and loss.   

The exhibition also features the works of Auguste Rodin, a French sculptor born in Paris in 1840, over 100 years before Kiefer. Similar to Kiefer, Rodin prompted artistic controversy by challenging the acceptable forms of sculpture at the time. Instead of regurgitating the traditional themes of mythology and allegory, Rodin modeled the human body with realism and celebrated individual character and physicality. He revived the precise study of human anatomy and muscle from the Renaissance era and gave it a modern life. One of his most famous sculptures is known as The Thinker; in fact, there are 28 bronze castings of it across the globe. The Thinker reveals Rodin’s true mastery as a sculptor: the pensive state of the man is not only evoked in his facial expression but also in his tense, stressed muscles, the thoughtful positioning of his arm, and the tight clenched toes. This is a man that thinks with his entire body; or rather, this is a body defined and elevated by the act of thinking.  Along with bronze, Rodin is known for experimenting in other materials such as marble, plaster, and clay. While these two artists initially appear distinct from and unconnected to each other stylistically, their unwavering commitment to their art regardless of public critique as well as their innovative use of materials bridge this gap. The show at the Barnes is titled Kiefer Rodin – the order of the names reflects Kiefer drawing inspiration from Rodin, while the juxtaposition of these two names both unites the artists and implies that unification in itself creates something new. It was organized in collaboration with the Musée Rodin in Paris, France and just recently opened at the Barnes on November 17. Kiefer approached Rodin’s work after discovering a shared interest: the Gothic cathedrals of France. Rodin filled over 100 sketchbooks with drawings and notes on both the architecture and the sculpture of the cathedrals and later in his life, wrote and illustrated a book about his artistic studies of the cathedrals.    

The first gallery of the exhibition is filled entirely with Rodin pieces. The first section is comprised of six Rodin sculptures. However, unlike his renowned pieces like The Thinker, these works are in intermediate stages; they are created with plaster screws and patches are apparent. The first room also holds Rodin’s watercolor collection – there are about two dozen watercolor sketches of nude women. Interestingly, in some of these watercolors like Girl Kissed by a Phantom one can see Rodin identifying the curves and contortions of the women in light pencil with the lines, shapes, and joints that he found in the gothic cathedrals. In addition to the full size sculptures, the first room also hosts a large cabinet filled with spare anatomical parts and replicas of human feet, faces, legs, and arms.

The bulk of the exhibition is Anselm Kiefer’s responses to Auguste Rodin’s works. The first gallery feeds into a large, bright space that exhibits the first Kiefer work: a large, confrontational canvas covered with wooden DNA spirals as well as other collaged material like the initials AK AR at the top, presumably for Anselm Kiefer and Auguste Rodin. Following the trajectory of the exhibition leads you to a long, narrow hallway filled entirely with Kiefer’s sketches of women and cathedral architecture. One subtle watercolor titled The Cathedrals of France stood out in particular. It explores the same themes as Rodin’s watercolors – the relationship between cathedral architecture and the female form. Iconographically, the viewer sees a gothic cathedral and a female form almost trapped within the circular form of a stained glass window. The watercolor seems hurried and imperfect. While the scale is completely different from his usual canvases, Kiefer still stains and blots the watercolor paper in a manner that is very similar to his typical scorched paintings. Like his large canvases, the colors here are muddled and the linework is inconsistent. However, in The Cathedrals of France he relies on pastel tones such as dusty rose and baby blue rather than his usual lackluster earthy tones.    

The final gallery is the largest in the exhibition. It houses ten glass vitrines and three enormous canvas paintings. Kiefer’s vitrines – large glass cabinets housing multimedia arrangements – initially are unexpected and seem to depart from the other mediums of the exhibition. However, the contents of the vitrines speak to the similarities between Rodin and Kiefer. Kiefer includes relics from his own life as well as spare anatomical parts from Rodin’s work in his very modern, unconventional glass pieces, bridging the gap between 19th century and 21st century art. The final three canvas pieces, each twelve and a half feet squared, are all titled Auguste Rodin: The Cathedrals of France. While the three paintings employ different color schemes – one is the usual earthy, metallic tones, another with a vast array of colors including peach, chocolate brown, silver, and dusty rose, and a final with lavender hues married with darker browns and beiges – they all pay homage to Kiefer’s traditional artistic style with their metallic, iridescent coats. In fact, the metal that exudes this iridescent feel was lead found at a gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany. The lead seems to erupt towards the tops of the paintings and drip and flow downwards. In numerous interviews, Kiefer has stated that architecture has continuously played a key role in his artistic work as a symbol for the cycle of life and death. In these paintings, the viewer sees faint outlines of towers in the backgrounds that blackened and swallowed up by layers of paint and lead – an artistic representation of the layers of life.       

Kiefer Rodin is an exhibition worth paying a visit to. Every aspect of the show is unexpected and innovative – the materials utilized, the new use of the vitrine model, the confrontational scales of the paintings. Even the layout of the exhibition is unprecedented; there is only one door into and out of the exhibition and thus on the way in, the viewer first sees Rodin’s works but on the way out, the viewer sees Kiefer’s works first. This architectural choice allows for the arrival of new perspectives on the show. Initially the show appears as a call and response of Rodin laying out the symbolic groundwork and Kiefer expanding upon those themes. However, the journey out of the space offers space for viewers to see the relationship between the two famed artists in the inverse order. An interview with Kiefer sums up the essence of the exhibition; he states that “Rodin, he destroyed his work. He cut it and put it on another sculpture. He worked by changing all things. He combined parts of different sculptures. He was a collagist, as I am, too.” In addition to Kiefer’s interest in Rodin’s thematic work of cathedrals, Rodin’s artistic methods were also of interest to Kiefer. Rodin sculpted rough, unfinished forms by traditional conventions of the time. The Barnes Foundation describes that, “They revealed – rather than covered up – the messiness of the creative process.” Just like Rodin assembling and reassembling sculptural fragments, Kiefer’s own practice is characterized by reconfiguring pieces; thus Kiefer found a novel, pressing relevance in Rodin’s work. Although the artists are from disparate eras, countries, and disciplines, their works subtly blend together and provoke insightful discourse.  

The Kiefer Rodin exhibit will end on March 12, so I encourage everyone to visit it before departing for spring break. The Barnes Foundation is a lovely 20 minute walk away from Suburban station. Bring your Swarthmore ID for $5 student admission.

Featured Image courtesy of whyy.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *