Nobody could look more imposing than the figure in Anselm Kiefer ‘s enormous painting, Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom. Now displayed at Tate Modern, it demands at first to be appraised from a distance just as the statue it depicts was originally a monument that dwarfed onlookers. During Mao Tse Tung’s reign, such concrete effigies of the charismatic leader were installed throughout China. They summed up the dominance of a man who became an international Communist icon, and held an immense nation in thrall.

In 1957, eager to confound critics who accused him of tyranny, Mao issued a slogan that hailed the prospect of cultural diversity: ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.’ It was widely applauded by those who wanted Mao to relax his authoritarian policies, and on one level Kiefer ‘s painting appears to reflect this mood.

Anselm Kiefer, 'Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom' 2000
Anselm Kiefer
Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom 2000
Mixed media
support: 3803 x 2805 x 54 mm

Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund, Edwin C. Cohen and Lord and Lady Jacobs 2002© Anselm Kiefer

The statues present a benign image of Mao, nurturing a population liberated from the constraints of the past. He shapes his ample hand into a wave, projecting himself as a kindly, wise and avuncular figurehead who would lead his nation towards fulfil-ment. Kiefer pitches him against an expanse of empty sky, as if to make his power seem at once heroic and limitless. Taking his cue from Mao’s poetic reference, Kiefer peppers the painting with real roses; his decision to refer to a thousand blooms, rather than a hundred, implies that he sees them proliferating even further than Mao dared to envisage.

At this point, the triumphalism begins to waver. For closer scrutiny reveals that the roses are all dried. They give off a desiccated smell, and their darkness makes them look like bullet holes puncturing the canvas. Viewed in this light, Mao immediately seems vulnerable. His great coat begins to look defensive, buttoned up against possible onslaught. His face appears gaunt, almost haggard the antithesis of the smiling Mao so familiar from propaganda posters and Warhol’s ubiquitous screenprints.

Mao’s eyes are narrowed, and a dark brown stain becomes evident on the edge of his left eye. He begins to resemble a pummelled boxer, liable at any instant to collapse. The radiance behind him appears more like sunset than daybreak, and the entire image now evokes the doomed statues felled by disenchanted citizens as Communism foundered in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Even the painting’s title, written in a formal and oddly archaic script above Mao’s head, takes on a feeling of redundancy. The use of Kiefer’s native German for the inscription carries another resonance, reminding us that Mao came to prominence in the same century as Adolf Hitler. Kiefer was born in the year of Hitler’s death, and was haunted for years by the dictator’s traumatic legacy. Most of his early work dealt with the aftermath of Nazism and the ambiguities riddling German history.

In the same room at Tate Modern hangs Kiefer’s Ways of Worldly Wisdom – Arminius’s Battle, a 1978 work referring to the chieftain of a Germanic tribe who took on the Roman army in the Tetobrg forest in 9 AD. Kiefer fills this rugged painting with woodcut portraits of the writers who hailed the battle as a defining landmark on the long path to German nationhood. But he also includes Nazi propagandists who eulogised Arminius for their own perverted ends – the fire at the picture’s heart may refer to Nazi book burnings as well as the resurgence of a new Germany.

Mao might seem locked away in the past, with little bearing on contemporary realities. But the party he created still holds power in China and exerts an influence in emergent countries. Kiefer certainly sees him from the viewpoint of today, as a thwarted colossus whose statue is trapped in a choking mass of real brambles. Behind them, the painting’s surface is riddled with a thousand cracks. How much longer will Mao’s concrete effigy last, before succumbing to a similar process of decay? Kiefer leaves no room for doubt about the waning of any optimism ignited by Mao’s words in 1957. Soon after he uttered them, the intellectuals who dared to criticise him were ar rested encouraged to indulge in freedom of thought, they were betrayed.

The flowers of enlightenment withered before they had a chance to bloom, which is why Kiefer ‘s painting conveys such a poignant air of sadness. Like the doomed swimmer in Stevie Smith’s poem, Mao is not waving but drowning the trapped statue finally looks overwhelmed by despondency. Only the brambles retain their rude vigour, and they will soon engulf the leader in a thicket of disappointed hopes.

Notes

Born in 1945 in Germany, Anselm Kiefer is known for his large paintings and sculptures on historical, mythological and literary themes. He studied law and languages, but switched to art in 1966, studying under Joseph Beuys at the Kunst-akademie Dsseldorf from 1970-72. Notable exhibi-tions include representing Germany at the Venice Biennale, 1980; MoMA, New York, and international tour 1987-89; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997. Since 1992, Kiefer has lived in Barjac, France.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 1.