Siegfried Vergisst Brünhilde (Siegfried forgets Brünhilde)

Siegfried Vergisst Brünhilde (Siegfried forgets Brünhilde)
titled 'Siegfried Vergisst Brünhilde' (centre)
oil on paper laid down on canvas
33 7⁄8 x 43 ¼in. (86 x 110cm.)
Executed in 1976
Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne.
Private Collection, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1988.
Cologne, Galerie Michael Werner, Anselm Kiefer Siegfried vergisst Brünhilde, 1976.

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Anna Touzin
Anna Touzin Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Alternating translucent washes of oil and thick, tactile furrows of impasto, Siegfried Vergisst Brünhilde (Siegfried forgets Brünhilde) (1976) explores the dialogue that rests at the heart of Anselm Kiefer’s oeuvre: that of landscape, myth and history. Held in the same private collection since 1988, the painting depicts a desolate, snow-covered field, whose ploughed ridges direct the eye towards a loose, misty horizon. The work’s title—inscribed directly into the coarse, grooved lines of earth—relates to the legend of Siegfried and Brünhilde, immortalised in Richard Wagner’s epic nineteenth-century operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Kiefer denotes the moment in which Siegfried—rescuing and marrying Brünhilde after having watched her sacrifice her supernatural powers for his love—falls victim to his ambition for fame and adventure in the form of a poison that makes him forget his vows. The hero’s fall from grace inspired Kiefer, who throughout the 1970s produced a number of works based on the musical drama, examples of which are held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Having grown up in the aftermath of the Second World War, the physical textures of his native land offered Kiefer a means of lamenting the atrocities he had never witnessed. The story of Siegfried and Brünhilde became a guiding metaphor for the artist. Siegfried, idolised and co-opted by the Nazis, became particularly significant in his personal and painterly attempts to come to terms with his country’s traumatic history. The Romantic ideals of his nineteenth-century predecessors, who had discovered transcendent beauty in their German countryside, had been shattered by the horrors of the war. Mourning this loss in a work that feels steeped and stained with nostalgia, Kiefer’s winter scene—once a site of sublimity and grandeur—is now a coarse, desolate wasteland. The heroic aspirations of art, like the character of Siegfried himself, have been tainted, poisoned and led astray. Weaving together multiple symbolic registers, Siegfried Vergisst Brünhilde asks whether painting might ever be restored as a vehicle for healing in a world riddled with deep-set scars.

Throughout Kiefer’s early oeuvre, landscape functions as an allegory for both life and art. From the artist’s scorched-earth panoramas to his depictions of roads and railways, terrain becomes a painterly expression of history: of the past, collective memory and heritage. In a typically Nietzschean way, but also one that reflects the influence of his esteemed teacher Joseph Beuys, Kiefer saw the role of the artist within society as fundamentally shamanic, enabling reconciliation with history. This notion was amplified in subsequent works that addressed the climax of Siegfried and Brünhilde’s legend. Brünhilde seeks revenge, but on the point of Siegfried’s death learns that the two of them had been deceived. Consequently, she erects a huge funeral pyre for Siegfried and rides her horse Grane into the flames. This dramatic gesture of self-sacrifice leads to the fire igniting another in heaven that burns down Valhalla and ends the rule of the gods. For Kiefer, this tragic ending becomes a beacon of hope: that grand displays of faith are not futile, and that the ideals of nature and art might one day be rekindled.

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