The exhibition takes its title, “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” from the controversial French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s 1932 novel of the same name. The book—which follows its protagonist Bardamu through his personal accounts of World War I, colonialism in Africa, and a Ford factory in Detroit—has influenced many artists, especially the male icons of modernist and existentialist writing, like Beckett, Barthes, and Bukowski.
“It’s one of the most astonishing books of the 20th century, but he was an asshole, yes,” Kiefer said, with trenchant humor that is not always obvious in his work. Indeed Céline’s legacy has been tainted by his anti-Semitic writing and support of the Axis powers during World War II.
After Kiefer’s appearance at the Venice Biennale in 1980, the artist was himself accused of neo-Nazism. So why reference someone like Céline now? “He was a horrible man, but a great writer,” said Kiefer. “You have to separate, you know. There can be bad characters who are great writers, or good artists, it happens.”
The book is what matters, Kiefer insists. Voyage au bout de la nuit, he said, “was nihilistic, but not in a negative way. He created an anti-world.”
War and humanity’s destitution have been at the center of Kiefer’s work for five decades. One can only imagine the artist has been ruminating on our current world, with mounting tensions in North Korea, talk of a second Cold War, and right-wing populism sweeping through the West.
“When I started to work in the 1960s, I said 1945 is not the beginning of a new time,” he explained. “I said all the morass is still there, it’s covered with a thin layer of democracy, but it’s still there. It can go up anytime. And now we live in a time that’s very dangerous. We have horrible things happening, because mankind is wrongly constructed.”