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

Die Ungeborenen (The Unborn)

Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)
Die Ungeborenen (The Unborn)
titled ‘die Ungeborenen’ (centre right); signed and dated ‘Kiefer 78’ (on the reverse)
acrylic, shellac emulsion and lead on paper collage laid on canvas
66 7/8 x 74 3/8in. (170 x 189cm.)
Executed in 1978
Collection of The Artist.
Private Collection, Switzerland.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Lugano, Museo d’Are Lugano, Passioni d’Arte Moderna: Da Picasso a Warhol, 2002 (illustrated, p. 291).
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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay

‘The diversity and size of reality, [Kiefer] says, almost vanishes before the endless columns of sheer possibility; even the number of those dead and those born vanish when measured against the numberless unborn (Die Ungeborenen). How marvellous, [Kiefer] says, is this sheer possibility, everything still waiting to be given form, to be realized and perfected, both here in our lives and out there, in space, marvellous…’
–Christoph Ransmayr

Painted in 1978, Die Ungeborenen (The Unborn) is one of the earliest examples of a theme in Anselm Kiefer’s work that the artist has repeatedly expounded throughout his career - the theme of a netherworld of unborn people, ideas and creative possibility. It is a theme that perhaps reached its ultimate expression in the large and varied exhibition Kiefer held at the Thaddeas Ropac Gallery in Paris in 2012, entitled Die Ungeborenen. Kiefer has, however, painted a variety of pictures that carry this same title; works that include, for example, those to be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Yale University Art Gallery.

In the majority of these paintings invoking die Ungeborenen, the world of the unborn is represented, as in this painting, by a sequence of floating shirts rendered in lead. Lead is a dense, heavy material but also, most importantly, a transformable one. It symbolizes the base, initiatory level in alchemy – the idea of the ability of dull metal to become precious gold – and, more broadly, the alchemical concept of the transmutability of all matter into spiritual energy. In Kiefer’s paintings, the lead shirts are often depicted in a process of ascension. Here in this work, they are seen floating in limbo against a sea of stars and flowers. It is a background that seems to symbolize both the infinitude of their number and their uncertain, in-between place in the cosmos.

The present work belongs to a period when the artist was preoccupied with the painting of monuments and the idea of memorial. Appearing in the midst of this painting’s sea of stars, its field of flowers and its transcendent, floating, lead shirts is the shadowy presence of an austere monument. It is one that Kiefer repeatedly depicted in his paintings dedicated to ‘the tomb of the Unknown Painter’. This building is derived from designs for a memorial project to the German Panzer Division in Africa made by the architect Wilhelm Kreis during the war. It was intended to have been constructed in Egypt but, in fact, it too was ‘unborn’ in that it was never actually built. It was supposed to imbue an aura of permanence and reinforce what the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg described as the ‘cult of the dead’ and become a ‘place of pilgrimage for a new religion’ in which ‘German hearts’ would be ‘ceaselessly reshaped into the form of a new myth’ (A. Rosenberg, Der Mythos Des 20 Jahrhunderts, Munich 1934, quoted in A. Lauterwein, Anselm Kiefer Paul Celan, Myth Mourning and Memory, London 2006, p. 203).

Instead, here, in Die Ungeborenen of 1978, Kiefer has immersed this hubristic, Nazi-era fantasy of permanence into a Romantic landscape that invokes a vast, cosmic sea of unborn ideas, people, projects, flowers and stars. In this way, this sinister monolith comes to serve along with the rest of the painting’s imagery as a moving symbol of the undying nature of human creativity and the cosmic infinitude of its potential.

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