Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)
Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)

Urd, Werdandi, Skuld

Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)
Urd, Werdandi, Skuld
titled 'Urd Werdandi Skuld' (upper edge)
oil, emulsion, shellac, lead, wire, clay dust and oil stick on canvas
76 x 131 x 2½ in. (193 x 332.7 x 6.4 cm.)
Executed in 2004.
James Cohan Gallery, New York
John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Lot Essay

In his monumental painting, Urd, Werdandi, Skuld, Anselm Kiefer expands and universalizes the richly nuanced exploration of history, myth, and regeneration that has characterized much of his oeuvre. Executed on the sweeping grand scale of a traditional history painting, the image depicts a turbulent seascape swirling with dark currents and thrashing white caps. The sky above billows with smoky clouds and a fiery orange light whose acidic tinge suggests the violence of actual flames more than the splendor of a maritime sunset. Such an all-encompassing presentation of sea and sky references the Romantic landscapes of Kiefer's German predecessors, most notably the Gothic canvases of Caspar David Friedrich, which confronted the viewer with the sublime power of the natural world. While the surfaces of these nineteenth-century precedents were luminescent and smooth, Kiefer's is distinguished by his distinctive rich impasto that extends in an almost sculptural sweep past the confines of its support. Composed of many layers of paint, oil stick, shellac, and dirt, this roughly textured image of sea and sky incorporates the materials of the land that goes un-depicted.

Hanging in the burning sky above the crashing waves are three lead elements suspended from the top of the picture with wire, a representative example of Kiefer's practice of embedding wholly three-dimensional objects into the surfaces of his paintings. Reminiscent of paned windows, these metal grids are labeled with the inscriptions that lend the work its title--from left to right, "Urd," "Werdandi," and "Skuld." In this way, Kiefer christens each of the forms with the names of the Norns, a group of three all-powerful beings from Germanic mythology who ruled over human destiny. Typically represented as three maidens who spun or wove the fate of men, their names are translated as "Past," "Present," and "Future."

This abstracted reference to mythological characters is characteristic of Kiefer's interest in myth, particularly those stories involving creation and the ordering of the cosmos. Kiefer's relationship to Germanic mythology--from which the Norns originate--is a particularly complicated one, linked to the artist's ongoing exploration of what it means for Germany to come to terms with its history of Nazism and the Holocaust. Much of Kiefer's early work concerned itself with an examination of German mythology and the way in which it had been co-opted by the Nazis to provide cultural legitimization for their genocidal ideologies. Of particular interest to Kiefer were the ways in which these myths had been reinterpreted in art--such as the operas of Richard Wagner--which were then further transformed into propaganda for the Nazi agenda.

This connection between mythology and the National Socialist movement is explicitly illustrated in an earlier painting by Kiefer also entitled Urd Werdande Skuld (The Norns). Executed two decades before the present work and now in the Tate Collection, this earlier work abstractly figures the same three divine maidens in a distinctly different way, a practice typical of Kiefer's work from the early 1980s. In the Tate's picture, Kiefer depicts a cavernous, vaulted stone hallway based on iconic Nazi architecture. Scratched into the ceiling of this ominous structure are the names of the Norns, inscribed in the stones high above a glowing fire symbolizing salvation and rebirth.

In this work, Kiefer revisits his mythological subject matter in a new and more expansive way. The architectural interior with its specific historical associations is replaced by the open ocean--perhaps one of the most universal, ahistorical icons of the natural world. The Norns, these deciders of human fate now floating in the heavens, are resituated outside of their specific German context, becoming more general symbols of the divinities to which humankind attributes our disasters and entrusts our salvation. Such a shift reflects the ever-expanding range of mythological and religious references that Kiefer's work has explored throughout his career, as he incorporates stories from Judeo-Christian to Egyptian to South East Asian traditions. As art historian Daniel Arasse explains, "Myths interest Kiefer because of the relationships they build between the worlds of heaven and earth and the narratives they employ to account for the catastrophic destruction of divine order throughout world history" (D. Arasse, Anselm Kiefer, New York, 2001, p.190).

Kiefer's profound interest in the relationship between the worlds of heaven and earth is another theme that is central to his artistic output and is illustrated both formally and materially in Urd, Werdandi, Skuld. The sculptural metal elements that hang in the fiery sky of this painting can be read literally as windows to heaven, portals to a cosmic realm. These windows can thus be understood as a metaphor for art itself, as for Kiefer, "art is an opening-up between order and chaos, between human and natural, between individuality and history, between heaven and earth," with the artist playing the role of "mediator or source, the only one capable of rebalancing an objective manner the loss of principles that afflicts the human condition" (Ibid, p.190).

Created in lead, a signature material of Kiefer's painting and sculpture, these window-like forms reference the connection between heaven and earth on a physical level as well: lead is "traditionally defined in European culture as the metal associated with Saturn, the god and the planet that govern melancholy and melancholics, and particularly artists, the children of Saturn" (Ibid, p.231). Lead is also the base material which alchemists use to transform into gold--a magical process which Kiefer often associates with the regeneration and transformation sought by post-War Germany. By placing these lead objects in a flaming, apocalyptic seascape, Kiefer imagines a scene in which the human world communes with the cosmos, and "Past," "Present," and "Future" align in a moment of hopeful rebirth.

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