'Kiefer Rodin' exhibit at the Barnes Foundation is a thrilling and stimulating mash-up

Anselm Kiefer’s “August Rodin: les Cathedrales de France (2016, oil, acrylic, shellac and lead on canvas) gets a close inspection at the press opening Thursday for the ‘Kiefer Rodin’ exhibition at the Barnes Foundation

At first glance, “Kiefer Rodin,” at the Barnes Foundation through March 12, seems like random mash-up: Combine recent works by one hugely admired contemporary artist with unfamiliar works by the greatest sculptor of the 19  century, and see who buys tickets.

Auguste Rodin, who single-handedly revived the muscularity and humanism of the Renaissance and classical sculpture, would seem to have little in common with Anselm Kiefer, an artist known for his dense, layered, scorched-earth landscapes. Kiefer, born in Germany in 1945, the year World War II ended, conjures dark visions of a moment in human history after the Holocaust and before nuclear annihilation. What do they have to say to each other?

Quite a lot, it turns out. This is a serious and stimulating exhibition, one I expect to be thinking about for a long time. It provokes ideas not just about the two artists being shown, but about the entire course of Western architecture and art.

Read our interview with Anselm Kiefer.

Kiefer’s name comes first in the title of the show because it is about his response to Rodin’s work. It consists of some works by Rodin that interest and inspire him, along with many works Kiefer created during the last three years in response to a deep dig into Rodin’s archives and workshop. Though the show, organized by the Museé Rodin in Paris and the Barnes, is an observance of the centenary of Rodin’s death, there is no pretense of comprehensiveness or even depth in its account of the sculptor’s career. (Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum is just across the street.) Rather, it is a document of an aesthetic and intellectual encounter.

Kiefer came to Rodin because of his interest in a subject Rodin studied throughout his life and wrote and illustrated a book about late in life: the cathedrals of France. Rodin filled more than 100 notebooks with drawings and notes on both the architecture and the sculpture of the cathedrals, and his book was a final testament.

The first gallery is all Rodin, and packed with things, including plaster versions of works in intermediate stages, complete with seams, patches, and, in the case of The Cry, one of the most powerful works here, screws drilled into the head to assist in remaking it in marble. There are dozens of anatomical spare parts — bent elbows, bones, and shod feet — that Rodin used in his work. The conventional view of Rodin as heroic, hands-on form-giver gives way to one that shows the artist assembling his works out of multiple parts, much in the way Kiefer does.

Camera icon © Musée Rodin (photo by Christian Baraja)
“The Cry” (c. 1898) by Auguste Rodin. Plaster and nails; pointed for transfer to marble.

Rodin’s sculpture of two hands — titled Cathedral — is here, along with about two dozen watercolors of female nudes, some of them nearly pornographic. Rodin is seeing the women as objects, to be sure, but in some of these pink and blue works, with a delicate pencil line that is often independent of the color, he identifies the curves and contortions of his women with the lines, shapes, and joints he found in Gothic cathedrals. There are also some sculptures, such as the terra-cotta Reclining Woman, that explore this identification between body and architecture.

It becomes clear that Rodin’s identification with the Gothic was not merely about sculpture, though his fusion of the grotesques and the complex storytelling of medieval church art with classical beauty is a large part of what makes his work so powerful. Rather, Rodin was seeing the whole cathedral as a sculpture based on the human figure, a place of muscular columns, stony sinews, and upraised arms. He shows that even though these buildings were about transcending our bodies, their structure mimics our anatomy. Cathedrals understand how it feels to be human. And for Rodin, at least, they were sexy.

The bulk of the exhibition is Kiefer’s response to Rodin in watercolors, sculpture, and monumental canvases. The watercolors are found in a series of books Kiefer made from cardboard coated with plaster. The pages on view continue Rodin’s exploration of cathedral architecture and female form. In one, a nude appears in a rose window. In others, human bodies emerge from the patterning of marble. Some show the staining and blotching familiar from his paintings, but in pinks and blues very different from his usual mud and metal.

Kiefer refers to the 11 three-dimensional pieces on display as vitrines rather than sculptures. All are in glass cases and are assemblages of disparate objects. One of the most complex, Sursum Corda, named for a key moment in the Latin mass (“Lift up your hearts”) consists of a large chunk of earth, beneath which are buried casts of Rodin’s anatomical spare parts that we saw in the first gallery. Rising from the earth is a tree and a rusty helix that evokes the shape of DNA. An untitled vitrine contains a heavy, rusted old-fashioned scale with an egg-shaped object in its pan. Does this mean life is in the balance?

Of the vitrines, I was most attracted to Emanation, a nonrepresentative piece made of lead, plaster, and other metal. It looks like the surface of many of Kiefer’s canvases, but it is hanging free in a glass case. You can walk around the back and see it from the canvas’ point of view.

The climax of the show is a gallery with three Kiefer canvases, each about 12 ½ feet square and all titled Auguste Rodin: Les Cathédrales de France. The towers they show aren’t from cathedrals; Kiefer constructed them himself in France. However these works do literally contain material from a cathedral. Years ago, Kiefer purchased lead being removed from the roof of Cologne’s cathedral, and he has used it in his works ever since.

Camera icon opyright Anselm Kiefer. Photo credit : Georges Poncet.
“Auguste Rodin: Les Cathédrales de France” (2016) by Anselm Kiefer. Oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, and lead on canvas.

Here, the lead seems to erupt across the surface of the works, encrusting Kiefer’s dark earthen colors in a mysterious iridescence. These need to be seen closely, so that your eye and mind wander deep into the multilayered and sensuous though harsh dreamscape that Kiefer has put on canvas. Kiefer, who creates his own colors in a laboratory, has spoken of himself as an alchemist. This ties in with his interest in the medieval. And, like the alchemists, he works to transform lead. In his case, it is not into gold, but into canvases that feel full of dirt and spirit.

Of all the things in the exhibition, these unpeopled canvases have the least to do with Rodin, and the most to do with what Kiefer has been doing, wonderfully, for quite a long time. Kiefer’s take on Rodin is intellectually stimulating. These final works are simply thrilling. I had to force myself to leave.

Kiefer Rodin

Through March 12 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Hours: Wednesday-Monday 11 a.m-5p.m.

Admission: Adults $30; seniors (65+) $23; youth 13-18 and college students with ID, $5; children 12 and under, free.

Information: 215-278-7000 or www.barnesfoundation.org