Portrait of Anselm Kiefer. © Georges Poncet. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
Artists have always studied and borrowed from each other, ignoring the tidy categorizations of art history and instead eagerly spanning geography and epoch. Italian Renaissance artists were inspired by the naturalism of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture; French Post-Impressionists incorporated the compositions and colors of Japanese woodblock prints.
And, more recently, German contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer has looked to the legacy of French sculptor Auguste Rodin. His fascination culminated in an exhibition, “Kiefer Rodin,” timed to coincide with the centenary of Rodin’s death in 1917. The show, which premiered at the Musée Rodin in Paris earlier this year, opened last week at Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation.
“There is no copyright among artists,” Kiefer wrote in a 2016 letter to Catherine Chevillot, director of the Musée Rodin, discussing a joint exhibition with Rodin. “What seems at first like sacrilege is, from the perspective of cultural history, an altogether normal occurrence. Painters often made use of their colleagues’ studies to create new images.”
Anselm Kiefer, Les Cathédrales de France (The Cathedrals of France), 2013. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo by Charles Duprat. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
To understand what brought these two artists together, it helps to look at some of Rodin’s own improbable sources of inspiration. The early modern sculptor, famously known for The Kiss (ca. 1882) and other sensual and organic depictions of the human form, was enamored with spired and buttressed French Gothic cathedrals.
Rodin compared them to large-scale sculptures, admiring how the ornamental is expertly foiled by the simple, with exteriors that create a continuously shifting chiaroscuro of shadows as the sun crosses the sky. He made a point to visit and sketch as many such cathedrals as he could, culminating in a lesser-known project and the only book that Rodin wrote and illustrated—Les Cathédrales de France (1914), published three years before his death.
“To say what has been my own progress in the study and comprehension of the Gothic would be in detail impossible,” Rodin wrote in a 1905 article on the subject, published in The North American Review. “The study has unquestionably influenced my sculpture, giving me more flexibility, more depth, more life in my modelling. The influence has entered into my blood, and has grown into my being.”
It was this shared fascination with cathedrals and architectural ruins that first drew Kiefer to Rodin. Kiefer famously bought the lead roof of the Cologne Cathedral in his native Germany when it was being replaced in the 1980s, and has since used the deconstructed material from it in his work.
Anselm Kiefer, Emanation (Emanation), 2016. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo by Georges Poncet. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
Anselm Kiefer, Die Walküren (The Valkyries), 2016. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo by Georges Poncet. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
Beyond simply reading Rodin’s book about cathedrals, though, it was Kiefer’s visit to the Musée Rodin storerooms in 2013 that struck a familiar chord. There, arranged meticulously in drawers yet largely unseen by the public, Kiefer found the building blocks of Rodin’s work—and important insights into the sculptor’s creative process.
There, Kiefer found an archive of bodily fragments—right arms, left feet, hands with pointer fingers extended, an entire anatomical inventory—hundreds of sculptural puzzle pieces cast in plaster, continuously arranged and rearranged by Rodin in order to work out the final compositions of his works.
Since Rodin’s death, many artists have asked to see these fragments in the storerooms of the Musée Rodin over the years. According to Chevillot and Sylvie Patry, a consulting curator at the Barnes Foundation, these have included photographers, painters, and sculptors such as Thomas Houseago. “There is a long tradition of contemporary artists looking at Rodin,” Patry says.
Auguste Rodin, The Cry, c. 1898. © Museée Rodin. Photo by Christian Baraja. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
But none before have picked up these pieces and continued the work of the master. Kiefer requested permission to actually reproduce some of Rodin’s plaster fragments, so that he could integrate them into specially created vitrines. One such example is Sursum corda (2016) – which assembles packed earth, a dried tree, leaves, a metal column, and, at the base, reproductions of Rodin’s plaster heads, torsos, and feet. Depending on your perspective, the Rodin components are either buried, or serve as the seeds of modern experimentation that enabled Kiefer’s contemporary work to sprout roots.
In another vitrine, Palm Sunday (2016), a dried palm leaf is coated in plaster and detached from its trunk—transforming it into a botanical fragment that could be arranged and rearranged continuously, a la Rodin.
Plaster, a material usually reserved for the artistic process and not the finished product, dominates both Rodin and Kiefer’s inclusions in the exhibition. “Both of them are never satisfied with their own work,” explains Chevillot, “and are devoted to constant experimentation.”
Auguste Rodin, Assemblage: Left and Right Arms, c. 1900. © Musée Rodin. Photo by Christian Baraja. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
Anselm Kiefer, Berthe au Grand Pied (Bertha Broadfoot), 2016. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo by Georges Poncet. Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation.
Kiefer’s bold use of perishable materials beyond plaster—earth, dried branches and leaves—shows his comfort level with impermanence. According to Cindy Kang, the associate curator at the Barnes Foundation, Kiefer always works with the same shipping company who have become experts at packaging and transporting his large-scale, three-dimensional, hard-to-protect pieces. But if something happens to a vitrine or a canvas en route, that simply becomes part of the work.
Kiefer’s choice of materials also demonstrates that his works are part of an artistic thread that began before him, and will continue after. With time, these pieces could erode and become something else entirely. “I regard my ‘images’ not as finished products,” he wrote to Chevillot. “Rather, I think of them as a stone quarry, a collection of possibilities.” This quarry may be harvested by another artist someday, much as Kiefer looked to the fragments of Rodin’s legacy—breathing new life into it, piece by piece.