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Anselm Kiefer

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By Daniel Arasse. Thames & Hudson, 2001.328pp. £60

When Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao opened in 1997, among the few items in its first displays that really held their own were some paintings by Anselm Kiefer, writes Andrew Mead . It helped, of course, that they were simply so big, while a cynic would add that Kiefer can be just as grandiose and bombastic as Gehry.

As an advocate, Daniel Arasse puts it differently: 'Their theatricality, their monumentalism, their aggressive materiality and the visibly violent treatment of the materials all mean that Kiefer's works have an immediate physical impact on their viewers.'

Kiefer's imagery is often architectural: in the 1980s, Nazi buildings, such as Speer's Reich Chancellery and Trost's Temples of Honour; more lately, massive pyramids in Mexico or Egypt.

Others are sombre landscapes: burnt or furrowed fields stretching to a far horizon. In some, fraught historical issues are tackled head-on - German identity, the Holocaust and its legacy - while in the 1990s comes a more cosmic perspective, with giant sunflowers and vast starry skies.Kiefer makes frequent use of photographs, both positives and negatives, and runs through an Arte Povera roll-call of materials: glass, sand, clay, mud, straw, dried flowers, ashes - above all, lead.

In a book structured more imaginatively than the average monograph, Daniel Arasse devotes a whole chapter to Kiefer's use of lead, stressing its melancholy and poetry.Another chapter treats Kiefer's output as a labyrinth, tracing themes that continue to ramify. The memorial quality of some of the work emerges: it can seem vulnerable and poignant, not just too macho for comfort.

If he does not altogether dispel doubts about Kiefer's achievement, Arasse - whose previous volumes include one on Vermeer - makes an elegant case for it.His argument is reinforced by the book's excellent reproductions, in a design that deftly balances the detail and the whole.

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