Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)
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Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)

Laßt tausend Blumen blühen! (Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom)

Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)
Laßt tausend Blumen blühen! (Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom)
titled 'Laßt tausend Blumen blühen!' (along the upper right edge); signed 'Anselm Kiefer' (on the reverse)
oil, shellac, acrylic and emulsion on photograph on canvas
74 ¾ x 89 ¾in. (190 x 280cm.)
Executed in 1999
Galleria Lia Rumma, Naples-Milan.
Tettamanti Collection, Rome (acquired from the above in 2000).
Their sale, Christie's London, 8 February 2007, lot. 17.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay

‘Kiefer makes free with Mao’s famous statement about letting a hundred flowers bloom, which led to the arrest of so many in the arts who took him literally. Upping the ante, Kiefer raises the figure to a thousand and depicts the socialist leader surrounded by flowers, and sometimes thorns, stretching forth his hand in a god-like iconic pose as if attempting the control of nature in its entity’ (A. D’Offay, Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, exh. cat., Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, 2000, p. 5).

Vast and dazzling, Laßt Tausend Blumen blühen! (Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom!) is a sweeping panorama from Anselm Kiefer’s acclaimed Occupations series. Executed in 1998, the series focuses on the Hundred Flowers Movement in the People’s Republic of China, nearly fifty years following Mao Zedong’s first decade in power. Built up of layers of oil and acrylic paints, shellacs and emulsion, an evocative power emanates from the rich tactility of the surface. Reflective of Kiefer’s distinct artistic language, the physical materiality of the surface reflects the visual and symbolic complexity of the work; the heavily impastoed flowers standing as a metaphor for fading revolutionary dreams. Similar works from this series are housed in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Tate, London.

Overgrown with pale flowers, a statue of Mao Zedong stands proudly in the centre of the composition on the raised ground between two rutted tired tracks. Painted over the surface of photographs taken by the artist during his travels in China in 1993, the iconography of the statue is based on propagandist statues which he encountered during his trip depicting the Chairman in his prime. Seen from a distance, the posture of Mao appears ambiguous, leaving the viewer to speculate whether his gestures are benevolent or tyrannical. This ambivalence is reflected in the commentary by Thomas McEvilley who suggests, ‘As the age grows old, Mao grows stale, the icon grows more and more ambiguous, the future more and more murky’ (T. McEvilley, ‘Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom’ in Anselm Kiefer: Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, exh. cat., Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London 2000, p. 18).

‘A leader like Mao shows how impossible it is to write history’ Kiefer has said of the series, meaning that while it is evidently true that it is impossible to write history under a leader like Mao, it is also equally impossible for an individual, even all-powerful dictator such as Mao, to write/dictate history. (A. Kiefer, quoted in Thomas McEvilley ‘Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom’ in Anselm Kiefer: Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, exh. cat. London, 2000, p. 20.) The basic duality of Kiefer’s statement is also invoked in the paintings themselves, many of which depict Mao saluting or commanding a vast field of flowers. Mao’s famous statement ‘let a hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools of thought contend’ was made in 1957 to encourage the citizens of the People’s Republic to speak out against the culture of his regime. It was a cunning, manipulative and ultimately successful abuse of romantic sentiment made by a man who himself both painted and wrote poetry. Mao intended to encourage all enemies to speak out and in so doing both identify and condemn themselves. Mao’s ‘hundred flowers’ were all subsequently cut down.

For Kiefer, the plant and the flower are symbols of eternity - of both the fragility of life and the unifying path the individual must make between heaven and earth, life and death. From his early paintings of Siegfried and Brunhilde to the celestial sunflowers of his Rosicrucian-inspired paintings derived from Robert Fludd, the flower symbolizes the central hermetic truth of life - ‘as above so below’. This was expressed by Robert Fludd’s belief that ‘every flower has its equivalent star in heaven’. In this context, when Kiefer depicts Mao surrounded by a seemingly infinite field of flowers, the iconic figure of Mao, becomes strangely absurd. And in this painting, where the flowers are simultaneously fading as they unfurl, their juxtaposition against the cool austerity of the statue suggests the ultimate futility of authoritarian power.

Echoing the artist’s on-going inquiry into the legacy of Nazism in post-war Germany, and by turning his lens to focus on Mao, Kiefer offers a politically charged critique of a nation in flux. As in so much of Kiefer’s work, this idea is expressed through a stark and simple contrast between earth and sky formally united by a lone standing figure, in this case Chairman Mao. These works in particular echo the very first of Kiefer’s works, his Occupations, in which the artist himself had re-enacted the Nazi salute at various locations throughout Europe, reinvestigating a past history that he, as someone born in 1945, had never known but had inherited. Combining a nostalgic sense of romanticism in its juxtaposition of the lone hero/individual/dictator, as set against the vast and sublime expanse of the world, Lasst 1000 Blumen blühen is similarly and ultimately an image of futility. The striking 20th Century icon of power standing with his arm raised as if both commanding the heavens and yet being frozen in time amidst the flux of new life, this stone-like figure of Mao seems to perform a suitably simultaneous gesture of both farewell to the past century and a ‘hail all’ greeting to the new.

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