Die Argonauten, 2008
Oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, branches, lead, gold paint, charcoal, fabric, ashes, sand, metal, ceramic, ceramic teeth and plaster on canvas under glass and in steel frame. 282 × 192 × 35 cm (111 × 75 5/8 × 13 3/4 in).
Anselm Kiefer was born into a country overshadowed by guilt and underscored by suppressed memory. It was also a nation that had lost its identity and entire artistic and cultural heritage. The artistic world of post-Nazi Germany imposed upon itself the ‘unspoken law’ of having to break with the old, pre-war traditions as well as censorship of all iconography and imagery relating to the Third Reich. This had a catastrophic effect upon the arts and “plunged Federal Germany into a veritable crisis of representation” (A. Lauterwein, Anselm Kiefer / Paul Celan – Myth, Mourning and Memory, London: Thames & Hudson, 2007, p. 24). It was in this environment and while under the influence of Joseph Beuys, that Kiefer began to question his own artistic heritage by focusing on the iconographic, symbolic and mythological elements of German culture which had been poisoned by Nazi propaganda, then silenced and buried in the nation’s collective unconscious.
This search for identity as expressed by a personal and national heritage is the driving force behind Kiefer’s work. He was drawn to German myths, literature, and music as well as to philosophy and alchemy. Romanticism and its landscape painters, such as Caspar David Friedrich, were also part of Kiefer’s inheritance. Friedrich and other artists of his era regarded nature as a mirror of the human soul and as an agent with which to depict and express human emotions. Over time, Kiefer expanded his quest for identity beyond Germany and began to draw upon the Old Testament and the myths of ancient Greece and Egypt.
Such a dialogue with history and mythology transforms Kiefer’s works into an infinite web of meaning, symbols and imagery. The results are monumental, heavily textured paintings layered with materials such as sand, ash, lead, branches and water which blur the distinction between painting and sculpture. These ‘constructions’ have often been left outside to weather them and make them appear as if remnants of a different time in the past.
The current lot, entitled Die Argonauten [The Argonauts] from 2008, draws on the ancient Greek legend of sailors led by Jason who set out on their ship the Argo to regain the Fleece of the Golden Ram from Colchis in order to reclaim the throne from King Pelias. Once in Colchis, King Aietes agrees to return the fleece upon completion of several tasks. Amongst others Jason has to tame fire-breathing bulls, plough and sow a field with dragons’ teeth, and overcome the warriors that are born from these teeth.
Die Argonauten is an ambitious three-dimensional work made with a characteristic combination of unlikely materials, such as branches, lead, gold paint fabric, ashes, sand, ceramic teeth, and plaster. Although the dress, the gold and teeth, together with the handwritten title, explicitly refer to the Greek myth, these symbols are also inevitably associated with the Holocaust. Such multilayering of meaning is typical of Kiefer’s work – his transformational use of natural and man-made material emphasizes his Romantic responsiveness to nature but at the same time evokes a sense of tragedy and disillusionment and, ultimately, the catastrophe of 20th-century Germany history.
The decay and destruction of the material is hereby key, as for Kiefer every beginning necessarily emerges from ruins. Transformation brings us back to nature and nature allows us to go back to our origins, to reflect and ultimately to regain hope. The underlying layers evoked by a symbol, a material or a name, is what Kiefer keeps on looking for. “History is for Kiefer also a particular kind of feeling, an emotion or sensibility that implicates us in the world – and that is precisely why the name of the myth and the poetic fragment is such an essential recurring factor, because only the naming, often written directly on the surface of the picture, provides the key to the continuation” (P. E. Tøjner, M. Holm and A. Kold, eds., Anselm Kiefer, Humlebæk: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2010).