Monday, July 26, 2010

Thanks to Anselm Kiefer's Palmsonntag

While my husband participated in a conference at the University of Toronto, I spent a glorious Thursday exploring as much as I could of the Art Gallery of Ontario (pictured at left), one of the largest art museums in North America.

I spent time viewing Drama and Desire, a special exhibit on visual artists who depict the performing arts. I strolled through Playing with Pictures, The Art of Victorian Photocollage. I was intrigued by a video about factory life by 32-year-old Cai Feu of Gaungzhou, China.

But the art that truly spoke to my soul was "Palmsonntag" - that's German for Palm Sunday - by Anselm Keifer, a 65-year-old cradle Catholic who no longer follows the faith of his childhood. His artwork moved me to consider the sacrifice of Christ and of His mother, and the hope that emerges when we contemplate the Resurrection that followed the devastation of His crucifixtion.

Kiefer's installation, which will be on display until Aug. 1, sits in a large room on the museum's fifth floor. One enters and immediately confronts a 30-foot-long fiberglass and resin reproduction of an uprooted palm tree, lying diagonally across the floor. Forty-four vitrines, or glass containers, sit on the walls on either side of the tree. Each panel contains a paintings of palm fonds and stems, along with the words of Ave Maria, snippets of the Latin Mass and so on.

The fallen palm reminded me of Christ just before His Resurrection; the words to our Blessed Mother reminded me of her profound sorrow. The palm was the traditional Greco-Roman symbol of military triumph. While Christ did not become the King of the world, we know His triumph lies in the heavenly realm. "These contrasting themes of destruction and re-creation, violent upheaval and spiritual renewal underpin much of Kiefer's work."

I'd never heard of Anselm Kiefer, which shows how little I know about art; according to the museum's website, Kiefer is among the most important artists to emerge from post-war Europe. He was born in a small German village in 1945, two months before Adolf Hitler's suicide. The brutal Third Reich unraveled, leaving Kiefer to grow up in a devastated nation haunted by its murderous past. His family were devout Catholics and Kiefer grew up dreaming of becoming an archbishop. But he left the church decades ago, not because he didn't share its beliefs, but because he was uncomfortable with dogma.

He turned to Jewish mysticism and, in a recent interview, said he now is drawn to Hinduism. It makes me sad that Kiefer's experience of Catholicism did not include its vast contemplative, artistic and intellectual traditions, and that he was unable to find a way to link his art with Catholic orthodoxy.

I admire his search for the transcendent; I thank him for this wonderful Palmsonntag, which is making me consider Palm Sunday from an entirely new perspective. And because I am Catholic I pray that Anselm Kiefer will one day understand the Church has all the comfort and meaning he ever could desire.