Battles at Sea by Velimir Khlebnikov by Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. Image courtesy of the Hermitage
Battles at Sea by Velimir Khlebnikov by Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. Image courtesy of the Hermitage

The weird numerology behind Anselm Kiefer’s new show

Meet the poet who wrote a language for birds, predicted the web, and inspired Kiefer's new Hermitage exhibition

The Russian Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov was no simple writer. He invented new words, imagined languages for birds and gods, and, though he died in 1922 at the age of just 36, envisioned a world of skyscrapers and international communication, with giant displays on every street corner, and a worldwide web of communication and information exchange.

Khlebnikov also held certain esoteric, numerological beliefs. In particular, he thought that major sea battles took place every 317 years – or multiples thereof. This romantic, pseudoscientific and, lets face it, slightly ludicrous view of war appeals to the German artist Anselm Kiefer. Kiefer created works inspired by Khlebnikov for over ten years, and has dedicated his new show, opening at the Hermitage in St Petersburg today, to the poet.

 

Ghost over the Waters by Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. Image courtesy of the Hermitage
Ghost over the Waters by Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. Image courtesy of the Hermitage

Entitled For Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations, the show focuses on Kiefer’s battle works, which present these titanic struggles in a beautifully fatalistic manner. Here’s how our Phaidon Focus book on Kiefer describes some of these pictures.

“A memorial to an avant-garde Russian poet who died prematurely, Kiefer’s paintings provoked important questions about art’s responsibilities in the early twenty-first century,” explains Matthew Biro in our book. “Viewers were also encouraged to confront the manner in which Kiefer investigated a conflation of disparate options: the Romantic seascape (with its fascination with light, painterliness and the sublime), World War II naval battles, and the mystical-historical through of a tragic poet and theorist.

The sheer beauty of these war scenes – wherein resin, oils, and acrylics were blended with plaster, dirt, rust, sand and straw to produce gorgeous weathered textures – meant that on one level the paintings aestheticized violence and glorified war. On the other hand, the more the spectator considered Khlebnikov – who attacked conventional language and traditional ways of understanding historical development – the more Kiefer’s installations seemed self-consciously aware of the problems of memorialization.”

 

For Velimir Khlebnikov, Fates of Nations by Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. Image courtesy of the Hermitage
For Velimir Khlebnikov, Fates of Nations by Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. Image courtesy of the Hermitage

And of course, the works serve as a kind of memorial to this little-known Russian visionary also. For more on Kiefer’s life, work and influences order a copy of our Anselm Kiefer Phaidon Focus book; for more on Futurism and its place within art history get Art in Time.