It’s hard to not feel overwhelmed in this retrospective of Anselm Kiefer, a dizzying show of post-war art that leaves you spinning. The German artist delves deep into history – towards Wagner, the Romans and ancient forest legends, always searching for meaning, something to make sense of what has come before. But the real meat of the matter is World War II itself. After the early self-portraits of the artist Sieg Heil-ing at war monuments, you encounter the first of his huge canvases. They’re vast, cracked, blackened images of neoclassical buildings, the kind designed by Third Reich master architect Albert Speer. Architectural beauty stands in incomprehensible contrast to the pain of war and its atrocities. These are angry, imposing, ravishing works – thick with paint, and thick with pain.
The literal imagery slowly disappears, and in its place you encounter a series of repeated symbols. There are immense paintings of Mesopotamian pyramids (bridges between heaven and earth), barren snowy landscapes (a blanket of silence and sadness over post-Holocaust Europe), and giant looming sunflowers. His materials change too – an obsession with lead, sand and brick becomes apparent – and eventually all figurative elements are lost until we’re left with simple, large sheets of lead, dotted with diamonds.
Kiefer’s work may deal with an issue that isn’t your particular cross to bear – but take a step back and his art covers universal themes of struggle, memory and burden. As you exit the show through a huge forest of woodcuts, you realise that he has dragged you along with him; he’s made you complicit in his own heartache, and exposes yours at the same time. The show is long and, perhaps inevitably, begins to drag, but it is never less than powerful.