The huge scale of Twilight of the West creates a confrontational impact on the viewer that is not achieved with smaller easel paintings. Kiefer constructs works of this size with an underlying skeleton of broad gestural marks reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. He adopts a wide variety of pictorial devices, in particular the nineteenth-century Romantics' use of the symbolic landscape to create a drama of epic proportions.
The title indicates the grandeur of Kiefer's ambition. The original German title Abendland, written in black paint on the right side of the painting, derives from a study of history, Der Untergang des Abendlandes [The Decline of the West], written by Oswald Spengler and published in 1918. The painting therefore refers directly to the weariness and moral disillusionment of a century wracked by titanic struggles.
A recurrent motif in his work is the path through desolation. In Twilight of the West the path is the railway tracks that cut the countryside in half, urging the eye deep into a blighted industrial hinterland. Perhaps the tracks lead to a concentration camp or perhaps the single track that divides into two separate lines symbolises the partition of Germany. Most likely Kiefer intends his iron road to function as a pictorial 'via dolorosa', a moral guide through life's hardships.
Kiefer uses his camera as a sketching tool: a number of his works are painted directly onto enlarged photographs or are based on photographs. The image of the railway tracks was recorded during his visit to Bordeaux perhaps as early as 1984, and certainly was used in the painting Iron path 1986. The obvious difference here is the addition of the vast sheet of lead above the horizon line. Kiefer began using lead in 1985. The metal sheet is worked, wrinkled and crumpled like paper. Lead is a powerful metal, both as a protection against radiation and as an industrial pollutant. It also has associations with alchemy as the base metal that might be transmuted into gold and, as such, it parallels the idea of metamorphosis that underlies Kiefer's art.
The sun, an impression of a manhole cover stamped in the soft lead sheet, is low on the horizon. Twilight, and a leaden veil of darkness, descends on our civilisation. But just as the manhole suggests a way out, so the sun will follow the night. Like the lead curtain, the landscape below it is near monochromatic. The limited range of colour reproduces the muting effect of twilight, with its dominance of red-browns and raking illumination.
The composition of Twilight of the West maximises the ambiguities and opposition of materials: the soft, flowing lead against the brittle encrustations of paint, the severe division between heaven and earth, of detail against abstract area. Kiefer's dramatic contrast of near and far engineers heightened tension at the horizon line, the meeting point of spatial illusion and the literalness of his material. Twilight of the West evokes a mood of sombre poetry, a mixture of memory and melancholy.
adapted from Michael Desmond, ANGA News, May-June 1990, by Christine Dixon
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010