My favourite painting: Jacquiline Creswell

The visual-arts advisor and curator at Chichester Cathedral chooses a huge painting that is 'an assault on the senses'.

Jacquiline Creswell on Für Paul Celan, Aschenblume by Anselm Kiefer

‘Standing before Anselm Kiefer’s monumental painting is an intense and almost overwhelming experience. The huge room suddenly feels small and claustrophobic. A perplexing, anxious curiosity draws me closer and compels me to enter the epic landscape and follow the deeply etched furrows toward an unseen point on the horizon; a single connecting point between Heaven and Earth.

‘The dark and ominous sky is scored with signs of life in the form of the artist’s handwritten notes. Charred remains of books act as markers. These precious receptacles of our shared humanity lie strewn and discarded. I have always believed that great art holds up a mirror to humankind, provoking and challenging us to react.’

Jacquiline Creswell is a visual-arts advisor and curator at Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, where the exhibition ‘Together we Rise’ is open now.

Charlotte Mullins comments on Für Paul Celan

At 25ft wide, this painting assaults the eyes and the senses. It is a vast landscape by Anselm Kiefer depicting a scarred and barren earth covered in snow that stretches to the distant horizon. A claustrophobic strip of leaden sky offers no respite. Littering the foreground are books, real books, that have been wired onto the canvas. More accurately, they are the burnt remains of books, their contents now illegible and desiccated. In this landscape, these charred books could also stand in for houses that have been destroyed, silenced in a scene of unimaginable horror.

Mr Kiefer, who was born in the Black Forest, has said ‘my biography is the biography of Germany’. His paintings often address the Holocaust and the weight of history. The 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine said that wherever countries burn books, in the end, they also burn people, a prophetic statement that was meted out in Hitler’s Germany, where Nazi book burnings were followed by the Holocaust.

This painting is dedicated to Paul Celan, a German-speaking Jewish poet who was interred in a labour camp in the Second World War. His parents were transported to a concentration camp, where they both died. Celan escaped and ended his days teaching German in France.

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Mr Kiefer also lives in France, but, like Celan, he writes in German and the painting’s title Für Paul Celan, Aschenblume (For Paul Celan, Ash Flower) is scrawled across the sky. It echoes a complex line from Celan’s poem about an ash flower, ‘I stand in the full bloom of the faded hour’, and shares its sombre sentiment.

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