"I see all the layers. In my paintings, I tell stories in order to show what lies behind history. I make a hole and pass through." – Anselm Kiefer
Executed in 2005, Anselm Kiefer’s Die Grosse Fracht (The Heavy Cargo) embodies the visceral materiality inherent to the artist’s mature work, displaying his singular and masterful blend of the painterly and sculptural conception. Die Grosse Fracht, among the most ambitious in a group of sea- and landscape-based compositions created between 2004 and 2006, offers a meditation on the fundamental angst of the human journey.
Enshrouded in a riot of paint, mesh and gritty materials, the abstract texture of Die Grosse Fracht echoes nature in the raw. Unseen currents of the deep sea are projected through heaped layers of grey and a burst of sunlight is rendered with golden streaks. A solitary ship stands against this open ocean, punctuating the otherwise empty panorama with its leaden furrows.
Die Grosse Fracht, with its boat adrift and alone, incorporates a sense of existential isolation that builds upon the celebrated writings of 20th-century Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann. Keifer, brought up in Germany during the aftermath of the Second World War, strongly related to Bachmann’s claims that all human beings travel on an often lonely, solo path. The persuasive imagery of a lone vessel adrift on the open ocean is borne from a rigorously personal connection to the isolation in Bachmann’s poetry. "The images of Anselm Kiefer are inhabited, haunted by words, be they visible words, readable in his painting, or those that are invisible, either because they're buried under newer layers, or because, accompanying Kiefer throughout his work, they've been deposited, displaced, transformed until what is left to be seen are only those that will give their name, finally, to the work. This active presence of a verbal thought, at work in the work, manifests itself also by the themes (literary, historical or mythical) that Kiefer treats, and by the impressive dimension of his iconography, in the most classic meaning of the term, but made rigorously personal and up-to-date by his appropriation" (D. Arasse, Anselm Kiefer: Cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles, exh. cat., Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris, 1996, n.p.).
The intrepid vessel in Die Grosse Fracht is rendered in sheets of shaped lead, an obstinate material that reinforces the weighty and complex history of 20th-century Germany. This ‘heavy cargo’ warrants a material with equal heft. “Lead affects me more than all other metals,” he says, “…It is in flux. It’s changeable and has potential to achieve a higher state” (J. Wullschlager, “Interview with Anselm Kiefer, ahead of his Royal Academy show”, Financial Times, 2014). The “higher state” to which Kiefer refers resonates within the glimpses of golden flecks imprinted on Die Grosse Fracht’s rich surface. Lead also provides an opportunity to both maintain valuable memories and heal fragile wounds. "Lead is for Kiefer, in keeping with alchemical tradition, the magic metal which preserves memory; which, with its own soft weight, creates a reduced, weary representation of the world in order to absorb the wounds in its wrinkled skin" (D. Eccher, ‘Anselm Kiefer: A Dark Soul’, in Anselm Kiefer: Stelle Cadenti, exh. cat., Galleria d'Arte Moderna di Bologna, 1999, p. 87).
While rooted in serious underpinnings of cultural memory and human experience, Die Grosse Fracht is undoubtedly a visually compelling piece with its stratified painterly layers. “You cannot avoid beauty in a work of art. …You can take the most terrible subject and automatically it becomes beautiful” (J. Wullschlager, “Interview with Anselm Kiefer, ahead of his Royal Academy show”, Financial Times, 2014).
An enduring timelessness–the endless horizon and expansive sea–infuses Die Grosse Fracht with an unavoidable, automatic beauty as it conjures ancient and romantic notions of exploration and the sea. “Within the tradition of landscape painting we see clearly Kiefer’s associations with the nineteenth century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich and with notions of the Sublime in nature, whose grandeur inspires awe and wonder” [R. Davie and K. Soriano, Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., Royal Academy, 2015). As Die Grosse Fracht sails against the vast elemental forces of nature it aligns itself to our epic journeys throughout the ages.