By Ian Haydn Smith
In his breathtakingly beautiful documentary Anselm, Wim Wenders suggests that 3D technology can be employed to forge a new cinematic language. Bereft of the gimmickry often associated with the format, his accessible and hugely entertaining portrait of one of the contemporary art world’s most iconoclastic figures is a near-perfect melding of style and subject.
Anselm opens with morning breaking over a distant hill. Whispering voices envelop us as sunlight creeps across a valley illuminating Ra, a statue comprising Icarus-like wings, overlooking La Ribaute, on the outskirts of Barjac in southern France, where German artist Anselm Kiefer has transformed 250 acres of land into a sprawling, living art installation. For those watching the film in 3D, the shafts of sunlight penetrating the wooded landscape don’t end on the screen – the beams radiate out into the auditorium.
Like The Salt of the Earth, his 2014 portrait of acclaimed photographer Sebastião Salgado, in Anselm Wenders takes us on a journey through Kiefer’s life and career. And just as his earlier film cleverly shot many of Salgado’s images via a semi-transparent mirror, allowing us to see the photographer and his images simultaneously, Anselm employs a variety of techniques to explore the themes and influences, as well as drawing out the rich textures, of Kiefer’s work.
Born in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Kiefer became a noted artist at a precociously young age. He attracted the attention of Joseph Beuys, a former Luftwaffe rear-gunner who drew on his experiences in the war to create his singular sculptures, installations and performance pieces. (He was a founder member of Fluxus, which emphasised the process of producing art.) Together, they immersed themselves in the environment movement. At the same time, Kiefer was fascinated by his country’s apparent amnesia over its recent past, producing works that either dealt directly with Nazi iconography, or reappropriated myths and cultural figures who had been embraced by the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, it made Kiefer a divisive figure in the art world. The 1980s saw his stock rise and with his newly acquired wealth, Kiefer moved into ever larger premises; from a sizeable attic studio in an old schoolhouse in Hornbach, in rural Germany, and then a factory building in nearby Buchen, to a former brick factory in the neighbouring town of Höpfingen. That latter space itself became an installation. But even that building’s scale is dwarfed against the majesty of what Kiefer achieved with his Gesamtkunstwerk in and around the disused silk factory in Barjac. Each space, and the work Kiefer produced during these times, is detailed with a sense of awe by Wenders in his film.