Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more
Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)

Der Rhein

Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)
Der Rhein
titled 'Der Rhein' (upper right)
oil, woodcut, paper collage and soil on paper laid down on canvas
153¾ x 116¾in. (390.5 x 296.5cm.)
Executed circa 1982
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner.
Special notice
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent. VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.

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Lot Essay

'I grew up on the banks of the Rhine. France was on the other side. As a child, I saw the river as an insuperable obstacle, something you couldnt 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' (A. Kiefer interview with B. Comment, Art Press, Paris, September 1998).

Executed in 1982 and acquired directly from the artist, Der Rhein is a vast woodcut painting towering at four meters in height that depicts a colossal barrier of trees reaching upwards towards an imposing neoclassical stone monument floating in the sky. As its hand-written title at the top of the work suggests, this stark, forceful and imposing work, with its natural and man-made imagery conveying a paradoxical vision of liberation and enclosure, is a powerful graphic invocation of the river Rhine. The epic theme of the Rhine - the mighty river that runs through Germany from the Alps to the North Sea - is one that defines much of the national identity, culture, myth, history and the Western border of Kiefer's native land. In the early 1980s, this nation-defining river, almost inevitably, became a central and unifying theme in the artist's oeuvre prompting the creation of some of his most important works of the period.
Part of a key series of works from the late 1970s and early 1980s in which Kiefer sought to explore both his own and his nation's cultural identity through a interconnected re-invoking of its ancient Teutonic myths and the cultural tragedy of the Third Reich, Der Rhein of 1982 is one of these. Centred on the idea of the river Rhine as a vitalizing and culture-sustaining force flowing through the heart of the German Heimat (homeland), it is a work that combines an image of the nation's birthplace in the Teutoberg Forest with one symbolising the dangerous idealizing and heroifying of such myths by the National Socialists. In so doing, it is a work that unites the two predominant themes of Kiefer's painting at this time - the German landscape and the architectural ruins of the Nazi era - into one hauntingly powerful and seemingly timeless pictorial archetype evocative of both political hubris and also of the often tragic utopianism of art.

As a way of conveying this sense of its bearing an archetypal truth, Kiefer's 'Rhine' paintings also make extensive use of the medium of the woodcut print - a technique itself intrinsically connected with German history, self-identity and culture through the famous prints of its first great artist Albrecht Dürer. While the architectural imagery employed in these works was an extension of his series of paintings devoted to the Tomb of the Unknown Painter, the technique of laying down a composite of woodcut prints and subsequently painting over them was in fact, a formal extension of the book entitled Der Rhein that Kiefer also made at the same time. A pictorial paean to the idea of the Rhine as both culture defining energy and nation-defining border that Kiefer had recognised while growing up, his series of books on Der Rhein were painstakingly made from numerous woodcut prints that Kiefer himself carved by hand, usually using limewood, and then layered and assembled into a sequence of images.

'I therefore felt a need to reawaken memories, not to change politics, but to change myself... The 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' (A. Kiefer interview with B. Comment, in Art Press, Paris, September 1998).

Unlike in the books, which concentrate on the flow of the Rhine as a continuous dividing force separating land and sky, or heaven and earth, in a time seemingly before civilization had reached its banks, in his 'Rhine' paintings, made from a composite of similar woodcuts, 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 almost cage-like confining progression of vertical tree trunks representing the great Teutoberg forest on the German side of the riverbank. Invoking the legendary site where in the year 9 A.D., 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 imprisoning 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 over the far, unattainable bank of the river, an alternate architecture appears like a dream or a vision. In some of Kiefer's Rhine paintings, this building was based on a Wilhelm Kreis design for a soldier's memorial. Here, as in other Der Rhein paintings such as the later version from 1993 now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the building represented is Kiefer's rendering of Wilhelm Kreis Soldatenhalle (Hall of Soldiers) built circa 1939 for the Nazi regime as a memorial to the nation's glorious dead. In what was probably the first of these paintings on the subject of the Rhine painted in 1980, Kiefer inscribed over this vast hubristic monument from the Third Reich, 'Monument to the Unknown Painter'. This statement, which Kiefer applied to an entire series of architectural paintings from this period, makes a direct reference to not just the cultural desolation wrought by the Nazis and the lost culture their murderous regime engendered, but also, given its lofty sky-born position in Der Rhein, to the impossible aspirations of artists themselves.

'Where the symbols used by the Third Reich were obvious', Kiefer has said of such works, '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 known... I never use symbols in a self-evident way; they are always 'broken'' (A. Kiefer interview with R. Andreotti and F. de Melis, Il Manifesto, Rome 2004, p. 404).

It is in this way therefore, that 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 deeply haunted sense of artistic identity and awareness of the inherent danger in reaching for the sky or over to the other side of the river' (M. Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., New York, 1987, p. 106). It was a feeling, strongly evoked in this work with its stark barrier of Teutonic trees and its ominous celestial vision of a hall of heroes beyond that Kiefer has described as being 'as if my memory was blocked. Very few Germans studied (the Nazi period) I therefore felt a need to reawaken memories, not to change politics, but to change myself... The 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' (A. Kiefer interview with B. Comment, in Art Press, Paris, September 1998).

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