Late in his career, Auguste Rodin constructed strange assemblages by affixing plaster fragments of his figural sculptures onto antique terra-cotta pots from his collection, creating hybrid forms with little artistic precedent. As Rodin scholar Bénédicte Garnier has written, “The true revolution lay in this mix of objects from the past with works in progress.” The same mixture of past and present also describes Anselm Kiefer’s recent works, which were inspired by Rodin’s experiments. A highlight of the exhibition “Kiefer Rodin,” which debuted at the Musée Rodin in Paris before traveling to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, was a new group of vitrines by Kiefer. These works—spare glass and steel display cases containing a mix of found and altered objects—revisit Rodin’s technique of combining disparate elements into novel configurations while reflecting more generally on Rodin as an artist (the Barnes show, held across the street from Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum, opened on the centennial of Rodin’s death). Kiefer described the exhibition as “an attempt to see Rodin differently, and possibly me as well.”
As a display technology, vitrines are built for sight, isolating vision from other perceptual modes such as touch or smell. Tracing their history back to 19th-century museological and commercial display innovations, and before that to reliquaries and cabinets of curiosity, vitrines enshrine their contents and privilege viewing as a special encounter. Over the past century, artists from the Surrealists to Christian Boltanski, Damien Hirst, and Mark Dion have used vitrines to isolate the stuff of life and make it strange. Typically the contents are too fragile, too contingent, or too undifferentiated to stand on their own as sculpture.
Kiefer, following a strategy used by his mentor Joseph Beuys, uses the vitrine as both a curatorial device and an object in itself. Beuys, himself strongly influenced by Rodin, used ready-made natural history vitrines to present “relics” of his ephemeral actions, along with materials and objects that would not normally be seen as art. For Kiefer, the vitrine likewise offers an occasion for the “momentary piecing together of various relics.” The vitrine, by its nature, is provisional, encouraging spontaneity and experimentalism. In explaining its advantage as a medium, Kiefer says that it “is like an aperçu,” an intuitive insight or observation, made in the moment.
The 10 vitrines on view in Philadelphia refracted Rodin’s work through Kiefer’s personal lens. Kiefer clearly identifies with Rodin’s emphasis on process, the Michelangelesque notion of non finito, and the reuse of both physical fragments and artistic themes over time. Like Kiefer’s work, Rodin’s sculpture has an irreducible excess (he made and discarded or repurposed hundreds of figures in the process of designing his never-finished Gates of Hell). Kiefer, too, is a relentless recycler, accumulating comparable stockpiles of work, materials, and found objects.
When visiting the storerooms of the Musée Rodin in Meudon, near Paris, Kiefer was particularly impressed by the profusion of abattis—small fragmentary limbs cast for specific sculptural studies and then recast for possible re-use. In Rodin’s later work, figures and limbs initially designed for one sculpture might find their way into completely new arrangements. As Kiefer admiringly puts it, “Rodin always assembled ‘individual parts’ in new ways.” With the museum’s help, Kiefer obtained copies of some of these objects for use in his vitrines. Meanwhile, the plaster molds used to cast the abattis struck him for a different reason—their raw materiality, marked with strange numerical signs and wrapped in torn cloth strips, occulted the perfected forms contained within. Kiefer proceeded to acquire a group of unique plaster molds similar to Rodin’s from an archive in Paris and incorporated these elements intact or in fragments into his vitrines.
Typical of Kiefer’s work, the vitrines employ a dense iconography, with overlapping references to history, the Old and New Testaments, Catholic liturgy, Greek and Norse mythology, Wagner, van Gogh, and the Kabbalah, among other persistent themes. His use of materials remains elemental, favoring lead, glass, dried plants, and plaster. In Dimanche des Rameaux (Palm Sunday), a plaster-coated palm branch hangs upside down from metal wires, dangling into the shattered opening of a plaster mold. The palm is associated with the martyrdom of Christ; and in Kabbalistic thought, the image of a broken shell or vessel symbolizes the inability of matter to contain the divine light of creation. The work’s title is hand-written on the glass—calling attention to the container while relating the vitrines to Kiefer’s inscribed canvases.
Kiefer says that he has used the vitrine to bring together “objects that reacted with each other, or against each other, which gave me ideas.” In Berthe au Grand Pied (Berthe Broadfoot), a life-size plaster hand cast from one of Rodin’s studies hangs gracefully above a large plaster mold in the rough form of a boot. The word “Esclave” (“slave,” with overtones of Michelangelo) is painted on the cast along with inventory numbers. The distressed and anti-formal quality of the mold’s outer surface forms a striking contrast with the elegant gesture of the plaster hand. The title, which refers to a revered French queen reportedly born with a deformed foot, reinforces the juxtaposition of high and low, cast and mold, hand and foot, ideal and material, inside and outside, solid and void.
Emanation alludes to the process of creation in Kabbalistic tradition (creation proceeds via a succession of “emanations” imagined both as a scintillation of light and as a flowing forth of water). Since the 1980s, Kiefer has represented the subject as a spill of molten lead down the center of a painted or photographic landscape. For the vitrine, he peeled a lead spill off a canvas and hung it above the shards of a reinforced plaster mold. Traces of paint still adhere to the lead, which resembles the surface of an Abstract Expressionist painting. Its intricate outline recalls Luciano Fabro’s suspended Italia sculptures, the lead emanation floating above shards and fragments that symbolize destruction—the antithesis but also the source of creation.
In Sonde (probe), a crimped lead pipe attaches to the opening of a mold, while a plaster-coated branch seems to grow upward. The materials appear as if grafted together, echoing Rodin’s technique of combining fragmentary limbs into new configurations. Rodin called this technique marcottage, a term borrowed from botany, where it describes the propagation of plants such as strawberries that can regenerate missing parts, in essence creating a new plant from the fragments of an existing one. Kiefer, who has long reused motifs and repurposed specific objects in his work, found in Rodin’s idea of marcottage both a working premise and a metaphor for the function of the artist.
Perhaps the most important commonality shared by Kiefer and Rodin is a belief in the endless cycle of destruction and creation, what Kiefer calls the “artist’s rhythm.” His vitrines consistently suggest rise and fall, growth and decay (as in the suggestively titled Niederschlag (Fallout) or Danae, with its van Gogh-esque sunflower dropping golden seeds). Most extravagantly, Sursum corda—Latin for “Lift up your hearts” from the Catholic Eucharistic Prayer—features a cubic section of earth planted with a spiraling wooden form that conflates a double helix with a Jacob’s Ladder and a desiccated tree, its leaves partially shed. Beneath the cross-section of dirt, casts of Rodin’s abattis lie on a pallet, fragments of contorted limbs and mutely expressive heads that evoke damned souls.
In Die Walküren (The Valkyries), a clothes rack hung with handmade wire hangers holds starched white dresses that resemble stained canvases. A shattered vessel rests below, along with the title scrawled on a piece of lead. Like Kiefer’s other vitrines, Die Walküren is linked to a larger project, this one focused on the mythological beings who accompany fallen warriors to Valhalla, discarding their material garments as they rise. The absent female figures also conjure Rodin’s obsession with the female nude.
Ultimately what Kiefer sees in Rodin and sees reflected in himself is the notion of creation unendingly “in progress.” “It will not be possible,” he wrote to the curator of “Kiefer Rodin,” “to see this exhibition as something ‘finished.’” For Kiefer, the vitrine becomes a model of the artistic process, of constant reworking and recombining. “Just as in our brains the synapses give rise to constantly new connections,” he explains, “so it is under the lid of the vitrines.”
Stephen Petersen is an art historian based in Wilmington, Delaware.