Love, Keifer, and the Empress Elisabeth
By Elizabeth Lopeman
remember being surprised when I read in the New York Times that Anselm Keifer had appeared with a naked Courtney Love in her room in the Mercer Hotel a few years ago. The interviewer was there waiting for Love, and there were stylists about as she used Keifer for a kickstand, wrecked again—classic. An unlikely pair, the two of them, and not surprisingly, to me, Keifer announced shortly after their arrival that he had to split. Rock stars and artists, come on, of course—but those two? Where Courtney Love could be described as mercurial, Keifer seems to be nothing if not professional, steadfast and serious with his painfully deliberate layers upon layers of gritty-gray paint and red earth, his grim photography mounted on steel that leaves the taste of metal in your mouth, the stooping sunflowers, the repeated Hitler salutes, and endless allusions to mythology and history as a method of describing complexity and substance—human existence in the moments when it swells with meaning via suffering. He was born in Donaueschingen, Germany, in 1945, just before the end of the Second World War. Courtney Love has her merits, and I mostly can appreciate them, but she feels like a foil to meaning anymore, like its antithesis, even though she is known to be intelligent, well read, and is, no question, unruly. When I read that she’d been wearing a strapless, white Marchesa gown, though, I understood.
Keifer has a thing for white dresses. He has a thing for a lot of things: Wagner’s Ring, Elisabeth of Bavaria, the Holocaust. But the empty white dresses, particularly in his series “Women of Antiquity,” seem different from his other work. They do share the tragic element of his epic themes, but their femininity almost seems to spring from the mind of a different artist. “Women of Antiquity” explores women of myth and legend—Lilith and Pandora, for example—who had been deemed out of line and were punished for it. There are other white dresses in his oeuvre—many of them—and all of them are wonderfully feminine, but fettered with burdensome complications: a massive tangle of barbed wire around the bodice and above the neckline, or the white dress with one of his tremendous, many paged, lead tablets in place of a head, for the Greek poet, Myrtis who challenged Pindar.
The article about Keifer and Love came out on November 5th, 2010 (the encounter had taken place a few days earlier), and presumably Keifer was in town for his show at the Gagosian Gallery, which opened November 6th. It was a big show, perhaps because he'd refused to come into the United States while Bush was President and now he was making a notable re-entry, or perhaps simply because he is Anselm Keifer. “The Shekhinah,” shown at the Gagosian in 2010, calls up the strongest imagery of all his white dresses for me. It's an antique wedding gown with large shards of glass slicing into the skirt, over which hovers the Kabbala Tree of Life. A wedding shattered on Krystallnacht, perhaps?
In and out of Keifer’s work, Elisabeth of Bavaria is almost always depicted in a white dress. Keifer has done numerous paintings of Elisabeth in white, as well as series of photographs of her—in white. But recently I saw a Keifer composition entitled “Elisabeth” with neither a white dress nor a woman, consisting instead of only a tangled mane of very long dark brown hair (clearly human) crudely caught in the corrupted, mast-like spikes on a lead boat mounted on a large canvas, painted with an impasto, untrustworthy sea and a splattered sky of grays and turbulent whites. At 190 x 330 cm, the piece is arresting and beautiful and disturbing—revolting and strongly appealing.
Elisabeth of Bavaria, born on Christmas Eve 1837, became Empress Elisabeth of Austria when she married Franz Joseph I of Austria, the emperor of the Hapsburg Empire. She was reportedly fond of her husband but had grown up with a lot of freedom in Munich, with frequent excursions into the Bavarian countryside with her crazy cousin Ludwig II. She hated the stifling scrutiny of court life in Vienna and frequently flitted away, traveling by boat to regions quite exotic at the time, such as Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. She was tall, fastidious about her figure, had long dark hair almost to her knees, and is known for her beauty. But she was melancholy, especially after her son Rudolf and his young lover, a baroness, committed suicide. And then finally, she was murdered while on her way to board a boat on Lake Geneva. She'd been tired of fussy security and was traveling incognito with the Countess Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály, her lady in waiting, when an odd man peered in under her parasol. The killer was an Italian anarchist who plunged a very narrow needle file between her ribs as she made her way from the Hôtel Beau-Rivage. She didn't feel well—imagine—and lost consciousness for a few moments once on board the boat, but was revived. Because the bodice of her dress was so impossibly tight, she didn't lose enough blood to kill her until she was taken back to the hotel and unlaced. The file had pierced her heart.
I saw Keifer's “Elisabeth” at Galerie Thomas Modern in Munich, at the opening of a show featuring Keifer, Richter, and Baselitz. As I gazed at the piece, a young woman approached me and explained that Elisabeth had once said she wished she could put a needle in her heart to let out all the pressure. I've asked a number of people if they've heard this story, but no one can recall. I ran into that woman again on the street at the end of the evening and she and her friend invited us to eat with them, but we were off to a party at Haus der Kunst. If I knew how to reach her, I'd ask her more about this story. Keifer's “Elisabeth” is quite beguiling even while evoking forlornness. The lead ship packs fortitude—or maybe that's just heaviness and lack of true buoyancy—while the storminess of the grays somehow reassures, if only with the promise of inevitable calm to come. That's the magic of Keifer: he delivers and reveals brilliance even when the visuals are only of despair. The painting is for sale for 1.4 million euros. It could be yours.
Elizabeth Lopeman has written for Sculpture Magazine, American Craft Magazine, FiberArts, Bitch, Eugene Magazine, Drain Magazine.com, and various other magazines and websites. She currently lives and works in Munich.