Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nigredo, Albedo, Rubedo

Black, white, red. The three colours of alchemy. Nigredo, albedo, rubedo, the words are traced onto the massive painting by Anselm Kiefer in the Louvre. And this alchemical incantation infuses a magical presence in this, the only permanent work to be added to the Louvre in over 50 years, when Braque painted the ceiling of one of the chambers.

Coming across the work was unexpected, a moment of sudden magic amidst the almost suffocating wealth of the Louvre, the exhausting, exhilarating galleries. And then, looking up to firstly see a niche occupied by Kiefer's Hortus Conclusus - the secret garden.

A small hillock with decimated vegetation, a post-apocalyptic sacred grove. Kiefer has spoken of the Hortus Conclusus as the site of Jesus's crucifixion, a gardenesque Golgotha. The Hortus Conclusus alone was arresting, but there was more ... turning 180 degrees to be hold the opposite niche with its own small garden. This one, a sunflower emerging from a leaden pile of books, was labelled Danae - who was impregnated by Zeus, an immaculate conception in the form of golden rain, the seeds of which lie at the base of the sculpture.

The most astounding moment is the third component: a painting some 10 metres high, seemingly directly on the surface of the Louvre. Athanor is an echo of Kiefer's prone self portraits, adrift in stellar spaces. The reference to alchemy is coded into the title - Athanor was the furnace that could transform base metal into gold, and by analogy make mortal beings immortal. The three alchemical elements --nigredo, albedo, rubedo --are written onto the surface of the massive work, almost submerging under the heavy surface of clay, lead, silver, gold and paint.

As though written in invisible ink, the words only appear after intense concentration - nigredo, albedo, rubedo. Kiefer's work is like a black hole, a gravitational force field pulling in the surroundings, ideas, memories, myths. Situated on the stairway between the galleries of antiquities of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the constellations of presences are phenomenal. The starry sky of the self portrait extending in the time and space of the mind back into time immemorial, the unknowable distance of which we only see hints and glimmers. The criss-crossing threads, tangents, arcs and arrows of Kiefer's work join these vast spaces, amplifying his traversing of 'boundaries' ... from Fernando Pessoa to the Holocaust; Paul Celan and Charles Baudelaire to the ancient work of the Egyptians. The depth of the work is engulfing, and to stare into the depth of Athanor brings sublime thrill, like standing on the brink of something terrifying, beautiful.

Later, wandering through the Musée National d´Art Moderne I saw in the distance what looked like a further element of Kiefer's assemblage. On closer inspection it turned out to be a work by Cy Twombly, called Thermopylae, from 1992. Thermopylae, a battle site in ancient Greece, seems to resonate with the insistent presences of Kiefer's work, a satellite swirling around his vast constellation.

Intriguingly, the next permanent addition to the Louvre will happen in around 2 years - when Cy Twombly paints the ceiling of Salle des Bronzes ...

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