Kiefer’s watercolours rejoice in the materiality of humanity, the possibility of escape from the everyday through self-fulfilment: turbulent visions created with a medium known for its own uncontrollable nature. It’s a celebration of ‘les extases féminines’: coming up roses. Watercolour is often ranked as the underdog within the artistic media hierarchy, with oil firmly at the top. It suffers the connotations of the amateur artist, which belies its real magic as a rich, ancient, complex and unpredictable medium. The 18th century was its heyday, predicated on the invention of the portable paint box. Chaperoned leisured ladies could paint in delicate swathes of colour in the manner of plein-air artists such as Turner, Cotman, Towne and Constable. According to Kiefer, ‘with watercolour you cannot work by levels, you do one level and that’s it. You do more and it becomes a failure’.
Strange then when we associate him with depictions of catastrophe, war and climate change, macho-emotional works epitomised by massive perspectival canvases of straw and debris which counter his ‘Extases féminines’. Here, there is another register to Kiefer as his romantic, lyrical landscapes testify. These paintings offer an insight into his more intimate watercolours. Rodin’s muscular, solid bronzes are similarly tempered by erotic pencil and wash drawings made from 1890s-1917. However, Rodin’s figures are passive – swathed in titillating transparencies, without expression or character, his women float, and tempt through ghostly anonymity, conforming to preconceptions. They sleepwalk compared to Kiefer’s often named, seemingly eternal, mythological, sexual women, offering an alternative facet of the male gaze. Berthe Morisot embraces a female perspective in Repos (Jeune fille endormie) 1892, the model with eyes closed and mouth open, perhaps relating to her 1885 diary entry. ‘Saw yesterday at a curiosity shop in the faubourg Saint-Germain an engraving after Boucher that was most improper and yet adorably graceful […] one can imagine nothing more voluptuous than a woman sleeping, her bosom swollen with love’, (translated from the French). These (presumably) post-coital, and post-orgasmic images by Francois Boucher and Morisot suggest both male and female interpretations. Kiefer’s watercolours attempt to grasp that same moment of the fleeting extase in febrile, vibrant, graphic imagery. The celebratory works appear to interpret and depict a series of different types of female orgasm.