Do artists get better as they grow older? Does their work deepen, as awareness of their own mortality presses in on them? Yes and no, sometimes but not always. Late work can be great work, but it can also be overrated - an untidy truth confirmed by three major exhibitions seen in London over the winter.


"Anselm Kiefer", at the Royal Academy, was a retrospective of the sexagenarian German painter's work, with centre stage given to the profusion of work that he and his private army of studio assistants have been turning out in recent years. Kiefer's pictures of the 1970s and 1980s, here accorded the status of mere prelude to the main opera, remain broodingly impressive: fields of churned paint sown with sinister detail, standing for the artist's then unfashionable desire to excavate unwelcome memories of Germany under the Third Reich; deeply shadowed depictions of subterranean structures, mausolea and the like, declaring his determination to unlock the vaults of a dark and dirty history. When first seen in London, some thirty years ago at the Saatchi Gallery in Boundary Road, they seemed dauntingly monumental. It is a measure of the extent to which the artist has inflated the scale of his work that they now seem almost modest in size. At the Academy, they were certainly dwarfed by what followed: a succession of sense-numbingly vast canvases, sculptures and assemblages.


Some of the later paintings are so enormous that were one to be placed on the ground a game of tennis might - albeit uncomfortably - be played on it. But what kind of game, or endgame, is Kiefer himself playing? The surfaces of these gargantua are strewn with symbolical debris: straw and rubble; facsimile submarines; actual dried sunflowers, traditionally emblematic of the soul that turns to face...

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