Brilliant: Kiefer’s “Sternenfall”

“I getting big like sky!” This is what my youngest son said a couple weeks ago when I picked him up. It melted my heart. Yes, you are getting big, and yes, the sky is big. Here is some art, some big art, of the night sky:

Anselm Kiefer's "Sternenfall"

In case you couldn’t sense the scale from that image (trust me, you couldn’t) it is more than15 feet by 17 feet. It is probably still hard to imagine. The first time I took my camera to photograph this at the Blanton, I brought my 50mm lense, which is great for low lighting conditions without using flash, but makes everything seem zoomed in. I couldn’t get far enough away to get the whole painting in one shot. This thing is huge. See? I had to scan an image to get the whole thing, my camera could only capture the bottom right corner.

Anselm Kiefer's "Sternenfall"

I took my kids back to see this, hoping to get another sweet “big like sky” remark, but they only glanced at it as they tugged me down to the installation with the pennies that you can touch. Tactile over visual for those two.

On a trip sans children, I sat down at the base of this enormous work and looked up. The sheer size lends it grandeur, it is a bit like looking up at the night sky when out in the country, away from the city’s polluting lights. Up close to the painting, while you are dwarfed by its scale, you start to see the textures. Did I mention I like texture? Um, yeah. There are bits that look like tree bark or dirt cracked from dryness:

detail of Anselm Kiefer's "Sternenfall"

And bits that seem almost like a birds nest:

detail of Anselm Kiefer's "Sternenfall"

And one tiny dot of color:

Anselm Kiefer's "Sternenfall"

But the part that makes me squirm a bit, that makes this piece sobering rather than just majestic, are the numbers. The first time I saw this work, I just walked by and thought, “huh. Weird. Numbers” and went looking for something more colorful. But once I happened past a docent led tour, and overheard the guide sharing how the numbers come from the NASA identifiers for stars. detail of Anselm Kiefer's "Sternenfall"

Stars are numbered. For a fee, you can go name one of these stars if you like, but there are so many known stars, that scientists catalogue them by number because it is easier to manage.

And the Jews in concentration camps had numbers.

detail of Anselm Kiefer's "Sternenfall"

The artist, Anselm Kiefer, is German, and in the beginning of his career he created photographs that blatantly dealt with Nazism in Germany. This painting is more recent, and I do not know if he intended the correlation between stars and Jews, but the title, Sternenfall means Falling Stars, and if those two ideas are connected, this becomes a huge, black painting of mourning. Those fallen stars, the Jews, have become the parched earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

detail of Anselm Kiefer's "Sternenfall"

The tour guide made that connection to the Holocaust, I wouldn’t dream of taking credit for it, and at the time, there was a huddle of people around the  work, and I wasn’t on the tour, so I didn’t sit and meditate on it. But later, years later, actually, I returned. I sat down on the gallery floor, the fallen numbers strewn behind the white “do not cross” line, and pondered.

In this context, black doesn’t just signify night, but grief and metaphorical darkness. And the caked textures feel heavy, not weightless like the sky. And I have no idea about the one dot of color, but perhaps you do. I sat and stared for a while, but not too long. I didn’t want to dwell on the monumental emotions. I didn’t want to feel like I did that time I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. I just wanted to “enjoy” some art.

detail of Anselm Kiefer's "Sternenfall"

So after soaking it in for just a bit, before letting my mind and heart run away, I got up and moved on. The penny installation is always a good distraction.

Is there art you appreciate, but don’t want to look at for too long? Have you ever had a tour guide say something that made you love an artwork you hadn’t given much thought to before?

“Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow” is a documentary about Keifer’s art. You can see the trailer here or watch it on Netflix. It’s still in my queue, so tell me what you think!

If you’d like to read about how a work this massive is transported and cared for, this article is an interesting read. 

Update: The Blanton has special programming on Third Thursdays. On April 17th  the Butler School of Music will perform Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4 for string sextet in the Susman Gallery, alongside discussion of Anselm Kiefer’s Sternenfall. Free!

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8 thoughts on “Brilliant: Kiefer’s “Sternenfall”

  1. I, like you, have seen this piece at the Blanton and had the same initial thought; “Huh. Weird. Numbers,” and kept walking. But today, you are that tour guide for me, and I am in awe of the emotional weight of this piece. Thank you for your insight!
    I often find works of art overwhelming and find myself “rushing to the penny exhibit” so as not to “feel” too much. Likewise, I can feel the same in nature. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon twice. Once it was snow-covered in January and another time it was painted a thousand colors by a beautiful March sun. Both times I have stood in awe of it’s beauty and magnitude and choked on my heart welling up in my throat at the weight of my own mortality in it’s midst. We hide behind cameras, find trinkets in the gift shop, and desperately grasp for something more tangible.

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    • Ah, thanks. It is my pleasure, joy_read! I love hearing how the Grand Canyon can feel like art. I agree that there are many temptations and distractions that prevent us from really taking time to soak in life’s emotions.

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  2. Loved this Elysia. I love your beautiful writing too. When I saw this at the Blanton it made me miss my wonderful dad. He worked at NASA for over 30 years. He explained his job as” talking to the stars.” It was actually much bigger than that. He talked to the planets and was the project manager for getting spacecraft to Neptune. Furthest we had gone at that point. He was sweet and smart. Eric reminds me of him. To me this about the sky. Love the sky quote you shared. We give ” stars” as gifts on super super special occasions. Both of our dads worked in space. Thank for listening. Thx for your wonderful, intelligent blog. God bless you. Love u

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  3. Now when I look at the stars I won’t be able to forget this painting, the numbers, the Holocaust victims. Good art is like a brain ninja – it destroys the way I thought before that first moment when I saw the art, and it does this so quietly and subtly that sometimes I’m not even aware of the transformation. I am reminded of the Stolperstein (stumbling blocks) I encountered when I lived in Berlin. Because I literally stumbled over them, my walk/thoughts/life was interrupted and I suddenly had to think. I hadn’t been thinking about the victims of the Holocaust. And then because of the art, I was.
    I love this piece. Thanks for sharing it!

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  4. Wow! I had no idea how powerful this piece really was. I am really appreciating your blog! It makes me want to return to the Blanton to look at it again.

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