oil, emulsion, shellac and straw on burlap
"Most roads have a beginning and an end, but the Ridgeway has neither: what is left of it, and it is a remarkable stretch of road of such antiquity, starts nowhere and concludes in time rather than space" (J. R. L. Anderson, The Oldest Road: An Exploration of the Ridgeway, London 1987).
Anselm Kiefer's hugely impressive painting The Ridge Way is exactly characteristic of his historically significant, world-renowned and uniquely poetic aesthetic dialect. Laden with impasto, dirt matter, drip marks and text, the corporeality of the work's appearance recounts the processes of Kiefer's hyper-expressive technique. While Kiefer casts a desolate and wild terrain of earthen countryside beneath a pale strip of sky, the tactile materiality of paint and the luxuriant straw that is viscerally embedded in the heavily textured surface invests the work with a profound luminosity. The high horizon asserts a highly a vertiginous perspective and allows the canvas to be filled with an urgent assault of media. The denseness of the surface expresses the richness of the landscape, which is iconographically layered with resonance and possibilities.
The work's title, lyrically scrawled across the top of the canvas towards the right, serves as a matter-of-fact label, leaving no doubt as to this painting's subject. At the same time that we see the landscape we also read its name: the title implicitly questioning the boundaries of representation and adding a conceptual identity to the broadly naturalistic painting in the spirit of Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe". Believed to have once run the diagonal breadth of England along a chalk escarpment from Dorset to Lincolnshire, the origins of The Ridge Way are over 5000 years old and it is usually cited as Britain's oldest extant road. The Ridge Way is a mythic pace of ancient sites, historical events and cultural landmarks. It is a road that invokes a journey of discovery, where history is renewed and identities can be reinvented. It is a place that records the fluctuations of time and so contextualises the transience of the present. Grounded in this earthly yet spiritual journey, the viewer becomes traveller in the realm of sacred time. In keeping with Kiefer's monumental subjects - history, spirituality, the occult and mythology – The Ridge Way asserts the importance of embracing the past in order to understand and negotiate the present.
For Kiefer, the land is a "metaphysical place where the artist attempts to understand complex ideas and themes and then integrate them into his physical surrounding. This place is the mind itself, at once malleable and steadfast, a filter through which concepts are pondered, invented, buried or transformed. Secret rites are performed there, and history is reordered; all is possible" (Mark Rosenthal in: Exhibition Catalogue, Chicago, Art Institute and Philadelphia, Museum of Art, Anselm Kiefer, 1987 p. 22). Kiefer aims to transform his painting's quotidian constituents – canvas, paint, straw, and dirt - into something of extreme metaphorical significance. This painting thus evokes the transformative effect and alchemical potential that is inherent to and characteristic of his best work.
Although the present work compositionally focuses on a meandering track snaking off into the distance seemingly without beginning or end, Kiefer also paints the portrait of a place pregnant with memory and narrative. By engaging the more metaphysical implications of landscape as the boundary of humankind's mortal existence he echoes the ideologies of his teacher Joseph Beuys. Our existence is conditioned by experience, which is in turn related to comprehending environments. The concept of place as the facilitator of events leads to the understanding of landscape as the container of memory. This is perhaps most apparent with battlefields where the scars of conflict, from razed forests to grassed-over trenches, are still evident in the subsequent topography. However, from Stone Henge to the man-made mountain of chalk at Silbury Hill, landscape also holds within it prehistoric monuments, neolithic tombs and ancient earthworks that are inexplicable vestiges of human behaviour, but which nevertheless still determine part of our experience today. Though enigmatic, these sites provide a direct physical interaction with our most distant predecessors, establishing a dialogue across millennia of intervening history. The fact that parts of The Ridge Way have been and remain in constant use ever since it came into being ensures that this inter-millennial discourse is especially significant.
As ever, Kiefer's frame of reference is dense and complex, and cannot be unravelled via a single route of explanation. Indeed, the present work demonstrates the importance of each viewer's singular ontological response to Kiefer's corpus: although he speaks in a language that is elusive and indefinable, it remains powerfully direct and affecting. Despite the figurative elements of landscape, the purpose of this work harbours profound and multivalent philosophical and emotional import, which marks it as a truly phenomenal artistic achievement.
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