Anselm Kiefer, “Abendland (Twilight of the West)”, 1989, Lead Sheet, Polymer Paint, Ash, Plaster, Cement, Earth, Vanish on Canvas and Wood, 400 x 380 x 12 Centimeters, National Gallery of Australia
The huge scale of “Twilight of the West” creates a confrontational impact on the viewer that is not achieved with smaller easel paintings. Kiefer constructs works of this size with an underlying skeleton of broad gestural marks reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. He adopts a wide variety of pictorial devices, in particular the nineteenth-century Romantics’ use of the symbolic landscape to create a drama of epic proportions.
Kiefer uses his camera as a sketching tool: a number of his works are painted directly onto enlarged photographs or are based on photographs. The image of the railway tracks was recorded during his visit to Bordeaux perhaps as early as 1984. The sky is a vast sheet of lead above the horizon line. The metal sheet is worked, wrinkled and crumpled like paper. Lead is a powerful metal, both as a protection against radiation and as an industrial pollutant. It also has associations with alchemy as the base metal that might be transmuted into gold and, as such, it parallels the idea of metamorphosis that underlies Kiefer’s art.
Like the lead curtain, the landscape below it is near monochromatic. The limited range of colour reproduces the muting effect of twilight, with its dominance of red-browns and raking illumination. The sun, an impression of a manhole cover stamped in the soft lead sheet, is low on the horizon. Twilight, and a leaden veil of darkness, descends on our civilisation in this painting. But just as the manhole suggests a way out, so the sun will follow the night.