Anselm Kiefer

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

2000

Original title
Lasst Tausend Blumen Blühen
Medium
Oil paint, shellac resin, wood, metal string and screws on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 3803 x 2805 x 54 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund, Edwin C. Cohen and Lord and Lady Jacobs 2002
Reference
T07841

Summary

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom is a very large, vertically orientated oil painting on a wooden panel backed by a white canvas, which is thickly covered in many areas by wooden sticks and dried red roses and depicts a grey statue of Mao Zedong (1893–1976), the first leader of the People’s Republic of China. The image of Mao fills the central area of the work and is much larger than life size. It shows him standing upright and facing forwards while wearing a thick frock coat and a cap and raising his right arm as if in a greeting or salute. The statue is painted using thin washes of grey, which suggest that the represented object may be made of concrete or stone. The rest of the wooden board is rendered with patches of muted beige and grey paint, which can be seen through the thinly painted statue in some places. The roses all have small heads and they are combined with the long, thin sticks into produce dense, unruly-looking thickets that loosely frame the statue, with some jutting out over the edge of the wooden board. Inscribed in spidery handwriting over an area of brown paint at the top left of the composition is the work’s German title, Lasst Tausend Blumen Blühen, followed by an ellipsis.

This painting was made by the German artist Anselm Kiefer in 2000. It is part of an ongoing series of works, also entitled Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, that the artist began in 1998 and which all depict sculptural representations of Mao (see, for instance, Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom 2000, Metropolitan Museum, New York). In this work the image of the statue is unusually dominant: while others in the series depict sculptural representations of Mao seen from the side or placed deep within a surrounding landscape, here the figure faces and towers over the viewer, almost filling the large canvas. Furthermore, in many of the other works in the series the flowers are painted into the landscape surrounding the main figure, where as in this work real flowers are attached to the surface by means of metal wires.

Kiefer visited China in 1993 and took photographs of the many monuments of Mao that stood in towns and villages across the country. Five years later he began his series of paintings based on the communist leader while he was working in Barjac in the south of France. The artist has stated that the southern French landscape influenced the Mao paintings in that photographs of meadows in the region of Auvergne just north of Barjac provided the visual inspiration for the flowers that feature throughout the series (Marlow 2012, accessed February 2014).

The legacy of Mao’s rule in China as represented by the monuments erected in his name and image might be regarded as a central subject for this series. In 2012 Kiefer spoke about his own ambivalent attitude towards Mao:

In the 1960s, in Europe and Germany, Mao was a moral institution. Students were looking to the Little Red Book [which contained quotations from Mao] for solutions … but I was already a bit critical of this. I thought there was a lot of propaganda around Mao ... I was fascinated, and I admired Mao, but at the same time, I also thought something was wrong.
(Kiefer in Jason Chow, ‘Anselm Kiefer: “This Tristesse Isn’t Just Mine”’, Wall Street Journal, 16 May 2012.)

The title of the series comes from a well-known 1956 speech by Mao in which the Chinese leader claimed that the future of the communist state lay not in oppressing dissidence but in letting ‘a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend’. This promised freedom of speech did not last, however, and the ‘hundred flowers campaign’ ended just over a year later with widespread prosecutions and civil unrest (see Timothy Cheek, Mao Zedong and China’s Revolution: A Brief History with Documents, New York 2002). Kiefer’s use of the phrase in its exaggerated form by changing ‘a hundred’ to ‘a thousand’ and his representation of Mao almost smothered by the withering flowers and tentacle-like branches might be regarded as a reflection on these lost or restricted freedoms.

The Mao paintings are among many works that are the result of Kiefer’s continued exploration of power and its abuses throughout his career. In 1969 Kiefer sought to confront what he perceived as an unwillingness within Germany to acknowledge the country’s National Socialist past. In a series of photographs Kiefer presented himself in various locations making the Nazi salute, often while wearing military-style clothing (see, for example, Heroic Symbols 1969, Tate AR01162). The gesture of Mao’s raised right arm connects Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom to these early photographs. While the artist has acknowledged the important differences between Hitler and Mao (see Marlow 2012, accessed February 2014), in both series Kiefer appears to confront the brutality of totalitarian regimes.

In 2012 Kiefer’s most recently painted works in the series were shown in an exhibition entitled Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom at White Cube Hong Kong, the artist’s first solo show in China.

Further reading
Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, exhibition catalogue, Antony d’Offay Gallery, London 2000.
Germano Celant, Anselm Kiefer, exhibition catalogue, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao 2007.
Tim Marlow, interview with Anselm Kiefer, White Cube Hong Kong, Hong Kong, March 2012, http://whitecube.com/chanel, accessed February 2014.

Lucy Watling
February 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

Display caption

Kiefer travelled in China in 1993, and some years later made a series of paintings based on photographs taken there. The title refers to a 1957 speech in which Mao encouraged greater freedom of expression, declaring ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend’. This freedom was short-lived, as the intellectuals who criticised Mao were swiftly arrested. Kiefer portrays a statue of Mao partially obscured by dried roses and tangled brambles symbolising the profusion and withering of revolutionary dreams.

Gallery label, June 2008