Bohemia Lies by the Sea
By Anselm Kiefer
I first saw this work on my last visit to the Metropolitan museum. I had to visit it again, and once I saw it, I could not imagine leaving to quickly find another work of art.
Bohemia Lies by the Sea is quite a large painting, somewhat taller than I am, and a length of about nine yards, in my estimation. Along the top there is a narrow strip of darkness that hugs the implied hills that lead down toward a very abstract night cityscape, which is mostly patches of different shades of black, gray, and beige, punctuated by city lights that are salmon, white, and shades in between. Just left of center there are two main roads, which are lighter but jutted by darker spots, which lead like a capital letter ‘A’ towards the vanishing point, where they meet and curve around up the hills.
This painting is so very thick. At places the paint is lathered on so thickly that it protrudes from the burlap canvas by two or three inches and I wonder how it can stay on. Kiefer used oil paints, charcoal, and powdered paint, and it is laid down in every imaginable fashion. Sometimes sloped, sometimes choppy, the surface of the painting seems alive, ebbing, waning, and flowing like choppy water – still less orderly. I feel tossed about. Watching it from a distance the texture is less noticeable; I can feel it more than see its recklessness. From close up it is ugly, like a dying volcano or healing scar tissue. There are parts where the paint is cracking and dry, and parts where it still looks wet, and glistens. The dry parts could have been finished years ago, and the shining parts may have just been added five minutes ago, when I just missed Kiefer leaving. There is time in this painting, it makes its passage felt through alternating wetnesses.
The lights seem to sputter into weird forms, sometimes bleeding down into the city and sometimes sparking above it. They are larger and further apart from one another in the foreground, and smaller and more numerous in the background as they lead into the distance, but they scarcely seem a part of the grayness beneath them. Though they bleed, they do not reflect or shed their pink-ness onto the city. They glow above apart from it, each an entity on its own, each a sun in its own solar system.
My eye has no rest. It is constantly buffeted through the shapes and the depths, hitting black and jumping away, following gestural lines to other spots of black. Desperately I follow the lighter white beige gray roads to where they meet and curve at the upper edge of the painting; I am led into the softly barely curving coast that sits on the edge of a sky which the name of the painting implies is above a sea. But the thin layer of darkness is not a refuge. I feel lifted as if striving to reach the sea I am promised lies there, but the darkness simply encloses me in the world of the city, forcing me back down. My eye glances about from here to there and there to here, trying to catch some subject to fix upon, or identify myself in. There is no place I can put myself. Finally I begin to observe a curving pattern of lights to the upper right part of the painting, and try to follow them. But they are like the Milky Way, leading me deeper and deeper inside the city. The wall that the painting is mounted against echoes many of its beige tones and I direct my eye there, seeking rest. I feel bereft of the world I have left, and I want to get back in; but when I do my eyes almost begin to hurt from the strain of following streaks of white to patches of gray and black by way of slashes that seem at once to cut and to drip. Finally I surrender and watch the painting as my eyes unfocus. I see a gorgeous mess of color and rhythm that is suddenly more light than dark. If it were a carpet I’d want to roll on it and wrap it around me. The paths leading upward become a sort of disturbing disruption of the rhythm of lights and darks; they are in the way.
I have never seen a painting like this. It lives and moves and forces me to live in it. I must move among its crevices and be blinded by its light. I feel lonely and lost when I look away.
When I move closer to the painting and can see in detail the chunks of paint and the roughness of the surface where paint lies more thinly on the burlap, I want to run my hands along it to feel it. I want to grab and tear off the protrusions. The textures are almost primitive, bark, stalactite, scars. I want to feel the roughness against my palm, and trace the movement of the paint, run my fingers along the valleys and hills and press into the parts where the paint looks squishy. Though I can barely tell what it is anymore, I rove around it with my eyes, walking up and down to see all parts of it. It is moving, striking, bleeding, and I am moved by it. I want to destroy it, to take a knife, peel the paint from the canvas, and make it smooth and soft again. It is beguiling.
There is no light and shadow in the painting; it is all light and shadow. There is no before and no after, no inside or outside; to leave the painting is to abandon that place completely, and to stay within in it is to want to escape. It is intolerable to me to leave and excruciating to stay. I must remain a part of it, find my place within it. It is, all within itself, in all its size and depths, shadows and brights and blood, a life, and a life I cannot leave because it fills me and enthralls me.
The sea is a false truth, there is no sea and it doesn’t matter. The sky offends me by its intrusion into the painting. It is not ragged or rough or bright or dark enough. It sends me back, desperately searching, into Bohemia.
The black becomes solid, deep and comforting; but it is inseparable from the lights and the beiges and the grays that give it no quarter. I retreat to one yellow beige corner, and try to leave by way of the shadows beneath the painting. They start dark and lighten till the outside edge, which is jagged like the paint, but I cannot face meeting the wall; it is ugly, pale, plain, smooth, and unsatisfying. So I go back into the painting to live with it.