'I grew up on the banks of the Rhine. France was on the other side. As I child I saw the river as an insuperable obstacle, something you couldn't swim across. It thus acquired a mythical status for me. When you came to this barrier you could turn left or right but not go straight ahead, except in your imagination.' (Anselm Kiefer, Interview with Bernard Comment', Art Press, Paris, Sept, 1998)
Der Rhein is one of a series of large woodcut paintings that Anselm Kiefer made in 1983, another of the same subject resides in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Invoking the great river that has defined so much of German history, myth, culture and identity, this powerful and important series of paintings unites the two predominant themes of Kiefer's painting from this period - the German landscape and the architectural ruins of the Third Reich - into one hauntingly powerful image of Teutonic myth and memory.
Drawing on the medium of the woodcut print - a technique itself intrinsically connected with German history and self-identification through the famous prints of its first great artist Albrecht Dürer - Kiefer, in these works drew on the archetypes of German cultural memory and national identity as a way of reinvoking and exposing both their enduring power and their artifice. The paintings in this series, like the book Der Rhein that Kiefer also made at this time, were constituted from a series of woodcut prints that Kiefer himself carved by hand, usually using limewood, and then layered and assembled. Thus a vast assemblage of collaged elements of woodcut printed paper creates an extremely complex composition. Composed on a canvas backing, Kiefer has then painted over certain areas with accents of thick black oil paint.
Unlike in Kiefer's book, which concentrates on the flow of the Rhine dividing land and sky, or heaven and earth, in a time seemingly before civilization had reached its banks, in the paintings Kiefer contrasts the river's eternal flow with fixed and specific elements drawn from Germany history. Punctuating its passage, like great endless 'cosmic columns' interconnecting heaven and earth, the predominant feature of these paintings is the progression of vertical tree trunks representing the great Teutonic forest on the German side of the river bank. Invoking the Teutoberg forest where in the year A.D. 9, the Germanic leader Arminius had annihilated a Roman legion forcing them to permanently retreat to the other bank and effectively giving birth to German history, these trees stand also as pillars of German identity.
In this painting, at the base of the central tree, a memorial fire burns while above it floating in the sky an alternate architecture appears like a dream or a vision. This building is Wilhelm Kreis' Soldatenhalle (Hall of Soldiers) built c. 1939 for the Nazi regime as a memorial to the nation's glorious dead. In another painting of this vast hubristic monument from the Third Reich, Kiefer wrote over it 'Monument to the Unknown Painter'. 'Where the symbols used by the Third Reich were obvious, I always make them ambiguous, contradictory (when) I painted a building, (and wrote) on the canvas 'Monument to the Unknown Painter'. Obviously it (was) an allusion to the tomb of the unknown soldier on the Arc de Triomphe. But at the same time it represents something ambiguous and absurd since painters are normally knownI never use symbols in a self-evident way; they are always "broken". (Anselm Kiefer, Interview with Robert Andreotti and Federico de Melis Il Manifesto, Rome, 2004, (Celant, p. 404)
In this way therefore, Der Rhein becomes not only what Mark Rosenthal called 'an icon for the contemplation of the fate of Germany and its citizens', but also a symbol of its lost artistic genius and an expression of Kiefer's own haunted sense of artistic identity. (Mark Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat. New York, 1987, p. 106) 'I felt as if my memory was blocked', Kiefer has said, Very few Germans studied (the Nazi period) I therefore felt a need to reawaken memories, not to change politics, but to change myselfThe reality was so overwhelming, so incredible that I had to use myths to express my emotions. The facts were figures, places, buildings. The reality was too onerous to be real. I had to work through myth to recreate it.' (Anselm Kiefer, Interview with Bernard Comment', Art Press, Paris, Sept, 1998)