Georg Baselitz (B. 1938)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more
Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)

Das Rheingold

Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)
Das Rheingold
titled 'Das Rheingold' (upper left)
oil on canvas
74 ¾ x 67 1/8in. (189.9 x 170.5cm.)
Painted in 1981
Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London.
Susan and Lewis Manilow, Chicago.
Lévy Gorvy Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Warsaw, Galleria Zacheta, Where is Abel, Thy Brother?, 1995.
Special notice
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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay

‘When I quote Wagner, I do not refer to the composer of this or that opera. What is important for me is that Wagner was, so to speak, “transformed” from revolutionary to reactionary - it is the manner in which he was used during the Third Reich, and the problems associated with that’
–Anselm Kiefer

Das Rheingold is a large and important work painted in 1981 at the height of Kiefer’s renown as a leading exponent of the new tendency in painting dubbed ‘Neo-Expressionism’ and then sweeping through the artworlds of Europe and America. Invoking the first of the four musical ‘dramas’ that constitute Richard Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, Das Rheingold belongs to a major series of works, made by Kiefer in the late 1970s and early’80s, that re-explore the significance and meaning of Germanic myth, history and culture in the wake of the Holocaust and the Third Reich.

The painting takes as its subject the ‘Rheingold’ or mystical hoard of gold hidden deep in the river Rhine and guarded by three Rhine-maidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde. Like the Teutonberg forest, the river Rhine is an archetypal symbol of Germany and German identity that had formed a central part of Kiefer’s painting from the late 1960s onwards. The periodic rising and falling of the Rhine was metaphor, often used by Kiefer, for the waxing and waning of German culture, power and influence throughout history.

In Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen, the Rhinemaidens, the Rhine and their treasure similarly mark both the beginning of the story, with the theft of their gold (in the form of a ring of power) and its end: the return of the gold to the Rhine and the ultimate destruction of the gods in their celestial fortress in the sky: Vallhalla. The end of this cycle of dramas is marked by the final flooding of the entre scene by the Rhine. The gold in this story is a symbol of the lust for wealth and power that plagues both mankind and the gods, and even the king of the gods, Wotan. The Rheingold, it is made clear from early on, carries with it a curse that will bring death and destruction to all who possess it and lust after it.

In 1981, in Das Rheingold, Kiefer has transposed the image of this fatalistic treasure and its three guardian Rhinemaidens into a depiction of a nocturnal American city of skyscrapers: a Gotham-like New York. Kiefer has inscribed the names of the three Rhinemaidens on each of the three central skyscrapers above the image of a church, while the magical gold shimmers, like a jewel in the foreground.

This was not the first time that Kiefer had superimposed Wagnerian images and meaning onto an American subject. In 1976 he had taken issue with American Minimalism’s denial of subjectivity and its insistence upon simple, logical and functionalist form in a series of painted books that he entitled Donald Judd Hides Brunhilde. Kiefer’s aim in these books was to suggest that the iconoclastic nature of Minimalism was such that it undermined the creative potency of myth by showing how the rigidity of its functionalism obscured the mystical, the dreamlike and the erotic energy of Brunhilde, the Romanticism of her story and the heroism of her sacrifice. These are all qualities that, for Kiefer, and despite Wagner’s association with the Nazis, nonetheless continue to serve as essential wellsprings of creativity and art.

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