Recently I took a spin, quite literally, in the Cyclorama, the long-standing Atlanta institution, to view the immersive circular painting before its relocation to the Atlanta History Center. The painting depicts the Battle of Atlanta, which took place 150 years ago on July 22, 1864. Perhaps such a heavy subject deserves an epic-scale presentation. At least that is what the artists who painted the work thought when it was completed in 1886. Having my fill of Atlanta history, however, my thoughts turn to yet another epic-scale vision.
Kiefer’s Dragon is my favorite piece of contemporary art in the permanent collection at the High Museum of Art. Every time I visit the painting, I have my picture taken in front of it, as if we were old friends reacquainted. Being a student of history, I’ve long appreciated Kiefer’s take on Germany’s past. It is as if the German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung (which roughly translates as “coming to terms with the past”) was practically invented to describe Kiefer’s oeuvre. But a strange thing happened around the mid 1980s. Kiefer expanded his scope from purely German concerns to make attempts at a more universal art. His painting Dragon (2001) is but one example of this new vision.
Draco is positively gigantic, measuring 15½ by 18¼ feet, and, as it contains copious amounts of lead, must also be extremely heavy. Kiefer’s work depicts the constellation Draco hanging in the sky above a turbulent gray seascape. Like much of Kiefer’s work, the painting is made with one-point perspective, suggesting infinity. Kiefer is perhaps indebted to German Romanticism, as aspects of the sublime pervade this work. Casper David Friedrich’s painting The Monk by the Sea (1808 – 10) comes immediately to mind. Standing before the work, it is as if one is faced with the prospect of being swallowed up by both the endless cosmos and the unbounded sea. But Kiefer makes this threat so inviting with his luscious use of materials that it is a welcoming threat. Annihilation may be the possibility, but that possibility never deters me from wanting to investigate Draco‘s details close up, marked with Kiefer’s thick stokes of impasto.
The subject of the dragon in art has fascinated us for millennia, from ancient Chinese ink drawings to the Welsh National Flag.
Somewhere in between all of this is Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon (c. 1470), but I digress. For the most part, it seems the dragon is depicted as a fierce, fiery, threatening beast, sometimes with evil implications. In both Greek and Chinese mythology, dragons are responsible for solar eclipses, as they devour the sun. In Dragon, is Kiefer warning us of an impending evil? Is darkness inevitable? The position of the constellation in the painting suggests that it is late December, perhaps the solstice, the darkest day of the year. We also know that Kiefer is very much interested in ideas of the apocalypse. In Sophie Fiennes documentary on Kiefer, the artist tells us, “the Bible constantly says everything will be destroyed and grass will grow over your cities. I think that’s fantastic.” Perhaps Kiefer is a pessimist and after years of witnessing mankind’s folly would be inclined to find the apocalypse a welcome relief. I confess that the idea of turning off the world appeals to me every now and then.
Casual critics of Kiefer sometimes argue that his gloomy outlook is alien to the American experience, and to a certain extent it is. We were the winners of the Second World War, and Germany subsequently had to do some serious thinking about its role in history. It is no coincidence that Vergangenheitsbewältigung was a word only invented in the 1950s. But I do not think the concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung is all that alien to Americans, at least not to those of us who live in the South. Although it is 150 years ago, the Confederate States of America found itself a defeated nation, and like Germany, the losers of that war had a lot of reckoning to do. And we are not done with that reckoning, as the struggle for civil rights proves. Sometimes we are reminded of how far we have to go when we hear of news of racial discrimination or outright violence (as sadly evidenced recently in Charleston). As artists, we owe it to ourselves and to the world, to sometimes consider the import of what we are doing. Art isn’t always about entertainment and it isn’t always easy. I applaud Kiefer for taking the hard road and for making a difficult and challenging art.
Atlanta is a city with a storied past, with both a good and a bad history to recommend it. Too often, though, the past with its ugly and uncomfortable truths are glossed over or sacrificed in a bid to continually reinvent ourselves with optimistic visions of the future. We think nothing of demolishing what few remaining historic landmarks we have left in the city, we revise the facts in our A.P. history courses to present ourselves in a more positive light, we have little respect for the past and little desire to learn from it. Perhaps this is Kiefer’s current mindset, too. Perhaps this accounts for Kiefer’s shift from making art investigating Germany’s past to making dark and apocalyptic works like Dragon.
The Cyclorama closed on June 30 so that the zoo can expand its elephant habitat. It had hung in Grant Park, near the location of the Battle of Atlanta, since 1893. The Cyclorama will relocate to the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead, where it is scheduled to reopen in early 2017. In the meantime, if you find yourself with the need to look at a monumental, epic work of art, Kiefer’s Dragon at the High Museum of Art would be my recommendation.