Journey to the End of History

©Gustav Mahler’s Résurrection, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, direction, set design, costumes, and lighting, Romeo Castellucci, Aix-en-Provence Festival 2022, photo Monika Rittershaus

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Moving beyond language to recount a civilisation’s destiny

Gian Maria Tosatti

In the portrait that Emanuele Coccia sketches along the lines of the essay Les épis de la Histoire, written for Anselm Kiefer’s solo exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais in 2021, the artist takes on the titanic/romantic profile of a painter who confronts History in order to grasp its secret, extract its true voice and enchant it, render it solid, frozen, suspended above the heads of onlookers, without it losing its vital dynamism, the sound of its movement.

As Coccia reflects on this, he states that History, from modernism onwards, has no longer been the subject of painting, and that what he writes is grafted onto an ancient wound, a split almost as radical as that which divides matter and spirit in philosophy. At the same time, he knows that Kiefer is but the latest interpreter of a dialectic that is not necessarily destined to repeat itself, in the frustration of its failed synthesis. The German artist assumes the identity of an enzyme that, introduced into a centuries-old process, can lead to a composition, to the creation of a suture, in the moment in which two fabrics come together and rub against each other. For Coccia, Kiefer is situated in this this friction between aesthetic categories, a tile of art history capable of uniting the too-long-separated parts of a mosaic.

Painting (qua synecdoche of the figurative arts) and poetry, almost specular in their Latin roots, starting from Horace’s famous adage Ut pictura poësis, have, throughout modernity, pursued autonomous, parallel, if not divergent paths; it is precisely in their relationship with History that the philosopher sees the measure of this distance. To exemplify this, he resorts to the meta-semiotic scheme of Lessing’s Laocoon, according to which bodies are the proper subjects of painting,[1] while the proper subjects of poetry are actions.[2] For this reason, i.e. its ontological link with the mechanics of time, poetry is the interpreter designated to restore the sense of history. But as much as the relationship with time — a constitutive element of literature — actually has a greater capacity for stealing the soul of History, by mimicking it, it is clear that only bodies and time, in combination, can lead to the ability to give the necessary weight to the composition of a fresco, capable of restoring with full force the symphony of the present to which the artist directs himself.

Yet in setting out this discourse Coccia seems not to remember that as well as Kiefer, in the twentieth century there was another author who, on the opposite side, attempted the same synthesis: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, in Voyage au bout de la nuit. These are two similar figures, also in terms of their derived and direct biographical traits (Kiefer dedicated an exhibition to Céline and Voyage at the Copenhagen Contemporary in 2017). The writer was also a thorny and hardly reassuring character. The German painter first emerged in his father’s Wehrmacht uniform, raising his right arm over the ruins of his Heimat (in the years of the terrorism driven by Ulrike Meinhof’s RAF). [3]. And it is difficult to find pages in literature as pictorial as those that the French author dedicates to early twentieth-century New York as an emblem of the American culture that would soon colonise the world, which it would be decidedly more appropriate to speak of as a portrait than a description. The Voyage is a long movement of amassing bodies, which are returned, crashed (but still, wet, sweaty, lascivious, erotic) by the undertow generated by the meeting of two centuries that are too different, the nineteenth and the twentieth. To achieve this, Céline invents a new language, which, like painting, is made of sketches, gestures, incrustations, matter. This is exactly — though in reverse — what Coccia recognises in Kiefer’s painting, exposed to words, first of all, but also to fire, to the elements, sometimes buried months underground only to be unearthed, almost in a resurrection. Both Kiefer and Céline, in order to get to grips with their role as witnesses of history, were forced to reshape the language which they had inherited, breaking down the structures within which it was so firmly embedded. “Par conséquent,” writes Coccia, “peindre ne signifie plus tracer des silhouettes qui ressembleraient à ce qui existe à l’extérieur du tableau, mais transformer alchimiquement celui-ci dans le nouveau sol de l’Histoire: les pigments, les couleurs concentrent en eux la Terre entière et la peintre devient un prophète plus qu’un artiste. Au-delà de l’acte qui permettrait aux gestes de l’artiste de déposer une trace, peindre signifie exposer la toile au cosmos entier”. [4]. He is speaking of Kiefer, but the description seems to faithfully reflect Céline’s literary operation, in which language ceases to be a composition of codes and instead rolls along with the author, along the dusty roads of Africa or the French provinces, to injure himself, skin his knees, cut himself, with the sole aim of drawing blood. And to conceive a hyperbole that is difficult to sustain, such as the use of the word “prophet” for an artist who is still alive, it is enough to translate it onto the sullen silhouette of the Parisian writer who — with the distance of time — showed how clearly he had already in the dawn of the Short Century definitively traced his portrait and his destiny.

Coccia, however, shuns the romanticism that can cling to the figure of a single author as a titan. Behind the work of the artist capable of “painting history” he wants to find not the genius, but the method, the formula of a lost alchemy that he tries to infer, belonging to art and not to its interpreters, even if they do prove capable of recovering its lost formulas. He does this by heading archaeologically into the heart of the modernist wound, well expressed by Lessing and Clement Greenberg, in which painting and poetry found themselves divided, causing art to lose its capacity to be an interpreter of History. Thus Kiefer’s work becomes a field of observation through which to extract the method for reconstituting the unity between these entities. The strength and the difference delimited by the two protagonists of this article, as compared to many of their contemporaries, lies in the fact that they succeed not so much in putting disciplines into dialogue, but in establishing a relationship of fierce, almost nuclear necessity between them. “Le dogme horatien prévoyait une assimilation de de deux arts, chacun dans son propre corps; Kiefer leur impose de se réincarner dans le corps de l’autre en renonçant à toute forme possible d’autonomie”.[5].

This is a violent image: painting and poetry as “bodies” that do not lovingly merge together, but rather “reincarnate” each other. It is a rape carried out from within, from the soul, from the heart, only to explode through the blood pumped up to the capillaries, to the hairs that rise up on the skin. Coccia also explains this technically, in defining the cannibalistic relationship that Kiefer develops with Paul Celan, one of his main fetish-authors “Les tableaux Pour Paul Celan ne se limitent pas à rétablir les relations de bon voisinage entre la peinture et la poésie dans l’Antiquité. Ils ne s’engagent pas non plus dans la tentative d’inventer un nouveau rapport mimétique entre les deux disciplines artistiques. Le fait que la poésie ne soit jamais le sujet de la peinture en témoigne, elle ne dicte pas simplement le contenu de ce qui figure dans l’espace du tableau tout en restant hors cadre. Elle occupe littéralement l’espace pictural, dans un sens presque militaire: elle entre dans la peinture, elle en devient la matière, la réalité, le corps.” [6]. The crux of his observation is the attainment of a synthesis that wrenches History away from the “purely sonorous and pneumatic existence” to which literary language relegates it. The irruption of poetry into the painting as antecedent, activator, reference, entails the explosion of the painting beyond itself, in time and space, in a circumstance broader than that delimited by the frame of the work, but it also consists of what is projected into the painting and from the painting. (In addition to the “Chinese boxes” of codes, we might also think of the physical elements of sound, silence, the physical proportions between the observer and pictorial bodies — which in the exhibition at the Grand Palais were not nailed to a wall, but placed on trolleys and also able to evoke the possibility of movement). The presence in a single work of such a sensory synthesis, which calls into question memory, ears, touch, sight, but also smell and taste, wrenches the historical phenomenon away from the two-dimensionality of illustration or the “anti-matter” of narrative, instead restoring — almost like Cubism (the example is Coccia’s) — the unique possibility of allowing an integral perception of History

Probably for this reason, in the following generation, it would be a trio from the theatre (since ancient Greece a synthesis of the arts) that played a role coinciding with that of Kiefer and Céline. This is the Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, formed by Romeo Castellucci, Claudia Castellucci and Chiara Guidi. It is curious that in the midst of their artistic parabola — also devoted to the reconstruction of a language that goes beyond the stage — it was precisely the figure of the writer outcast by France that provided the material necessary for the realisation of a nodal work in the history of art at the turn of the twenty-first century. Voyage au bout de la nuit by the group from Cesena fell on the European theatre scene of that time as an indefinable object, to the point that it was presented not as a performance, but as a “concert”. This word precariously tried to contain the charge that would explode soon afterwards, to become the morphological basis of what we would see in the following years in video art, performing arts and installation, brought together by Coccia in the term “painting.” In this case, however, it is important to consider how, after Kiefer, perhaps only the Socìetas had the capacity to titanically place itself in front of History in order to grasp its profound meaning, and that in so doing it followed exactly the recipe evinced by Coccia, namely, to construct a linguistic spell so complex as to include all disciplines. Tragedia Endogonidia, probably the most ambitious work by the three artists, which this magazine has already dealt with in its first two issues, is emblematic in this regard. It is an exploded work, a work beyond itself, capable not only of offering a plunge into the heart of its time (recognisable in masterpieces such as Zoe Leonard’s Strange Fruit, Rachel Whiteread’s House, or Thomas Hirschhorn’s collages), but of retaining the entire dimension of the Zeitgeist from which it was generated. The emergence from the darkness, over the course of the 11 episodes of Tragedia, of figures such as Carlo Giuliani (A#02, 2002), the agents of the French gendarmerie (P#06, 2003), the pope (R#07, 2003), mixed with those of Christ or demons, then potent to the bodies of freemasons and gangsters, is the constituent material of another powerful historical fresco, perhaps the most potent seen in the twenty-first century.

But in order to be able to prepare it, the performers of the Socìetas had to invent another theatre, to get away from the completeness of the work, to atomise it, to expand it, and to lead it across all of Europe’s soil order to record the voice of History directly from its wounds, capturing not only the “antimatter of the tale”, but also the colour of blood and its acrid smell. And the word “concert”, used for the work dedicated to Voyage, would also define the path taken in the following years by Romeo Castellucci alone, in his long work building a further language through his visual-performance interventions, conceived for operas or symphonic music. A journey in search of a disciplinary synthesis, an integral linguistic restitching, culminating in his very recent conducting (together with Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen) of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, also known by the title Resurrection. The event opened the Aix-en-Provence festival on 4 July, certainly touching one of the artistic high points of recent decades. The reinterpretation of the symphony broke down every boundary between languages, interpenetrating one into the other, making Mahler’s music something meta-textual, the “noise” of thought that proceeds in unison among the dozens of figures on stage dig up hundreds of bodies found in an open mass grave, in a present world where they exist nowhere else. Castellucci puts us in front of a scenario of the present (but his project dates back to a year before the war between Russia and Ukraine — and here the prophetic element raised by Coccia disturbingly comes to the fore) and drags us into the storms of History that thunder at the borders of the house of cards of our Europe. He shows us the obscene, precipitating us, like the rain that closes his work, onto a field of today that in being so devoid of coordinates, names, flags, is not merely the latest news story, but rather unveils the sign that our generation is engraving on this Earth. In doing so, he lays his hands on an aesthetic grail, going far beyond the balanced orchestration of languages. In the alchemy of his total score, he gives us back the time of reality. For an hour and thirty-five minutes, he hypnotises the audience, with a plot whose unfolding has no accelerations, no scenic timing, no dramatic surges. There is no onger any theatre. The nakedness of a technical, banal operation, counterpointed with extreme skill by a score of minimal gestures, actions that are almost invisible, but as necessary as every single note of the symphony on which they dance, is reproduced in its concrete objectivity. Time is freed from convention, the music becomes other than itself, the performance is no longer a scene, but becomes incredibly real, and the images take on an iconic force worthy of a Giorgione or, in the stormy lighting of this setting, of a Rembrandt winter landscape.

Resurrection Castellucci’s Resurrection is the further link in a chain that leads back to a genealogy of artists that have rewritten language in the past and the present. They did so in order to be capable of producing the sound that makes history, in order to give us a mirror on the eminently aesthetic present, through which we can come to terms with our destiny.


[1] “Bodies with their visible properties are the true subjects of painting”: G.E. Lessing, Laocoon: Or The Limits Of Poetry And Painting, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984, p. 78..

[2] “Objects or parts of objects which follow one another are called actions. Accordingly, actions are the true subject of poetry”. Ibid.

[3] This coincidence should also make us reflect on how art and historical processes end up sentimentally intertwined, with the intention of attacking reality in order to strip it of the mask of respectability that a civilised community sometimes tries to give itself

[4] “Consequently” Coccia writes, “painting no longer means tracing silhouettes that are meant to esemble what exists outside the painting, but rather transforming it alchemically into the new soil of History: the pigments and colours concentrate the entire Earth within them, and the painter becomes a prophet more than an artist. Beyond the act that allows the artist’s gestures to leave a trace, painting means exposing the canvas to the entire cosmos”. E. Coccia, Les épis de la Histoire, in Anselm Kiefer. Pour Paul Celan, catalogo della mostra (Parigi), Flammarion, 2021, p. 38.

[5] “Horace’s dogma provided for the assimilation of two arts, each in its own body; Kiefer forces them to reincarnate in the body of the other, renouncing any possible form of autonomy”, ibid.

[6] “The paintings Pour Paul Celan do not limit themselves to re-establishing the neighbourly relationship between painting and poetry in antiquity. Nor do they engage in the attempt to invent a new mimetic relationship between the two artistic disciplines. The fact that poetry is never the subject of the painting testifies to this; it does not simply dictate the content of what appears in the space of the painting while remaining outside the frame. It literally occupies the pictorial space, in an almost military sense: it enters the painting, it becomes its material, its reality, its body.” Ibid.