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Dein Aschenes Haar, Sulamith (Your Ashen hair, Sulamith)

Dein Aschenes Haar, Sulamith (Your Ashen hair, Sulamith)
titled 'Dein Aschenes Haar Sulamith' (upper centre)
oil, resin, bark and pine needles on burlap
46 5⁄8 x 57 ¼in. (118.3 x 145.3cm.)
Executed in 1981
Private Collection, Düsseldorf.
Sperone Westwater, New York.
Private Collection, USA.
Anon. sale, Christie’s New York, 17 May 2001, lot 455.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Ingelheim am Rhein, Altes Rathaus, 100 Years of Art in Germany 1885-1985, 1985, p. 210 (illustrated in colour, p. 211).

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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Interim Head of Department

Lot Essay

Held in the same private collection for more than two decades, Dein Aschenes Haar, Sulamith (Your Ashen Hair, Sulamith) (1981) is a powerful, elegiac painting from one of Anselm Kiefer’s most important early series. Thickets of impasto on burlap conjure a blackened, furrowed field beneath a cramped skyline. Red embers glow in its lower reaches. Silvery brushstrokes streak down like pale shafts of light, or ash blowing in the wind. The title—inscribed across the field in Kiefer’s large, cursive handwriting—is derived from the poem Todesfuge (Death Fugue), written around 1945 by the Romanian-born Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. In imagery full of dark irony and paradox, Celan contrasts the ashen-haired figure of Sulamith, a metonym for the Jewish people, with the golden-haired Margarete, who stands for an idealised Aryan nationhood. Todesfuge was a formative text for Kiefer, whose work is preoccupied with his country’s complex legacies of history, conflict and trauma. The present painting is part of a group of landscapes through which he explores the linked figures of Sulamith and Margarete. Related works from 1980-1981 are held in major museum collections, including the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.

The question of whether art can be commensurate with history is fundamental to Kiefer’s work. Born in 1945 in the dying days of the Second World War, he has drawn upon literature, painting, architecture and music in his vast, ongoing reckoning with Germany’s past. He particularly admires Celan, who struggled fiercely with the pain, possibilities and limits of writing in his native German after the Holocaust. ‘Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language’, Celan said in 1958. ‘Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss’ (P. Celan, ‘Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen’, in R. Waldrop (trans.), Collected Prose, New York 1986, p. 34). Pour Paul Celan, Kiefer’s major 2022 exhibition of installations and paintings at the Grand Palais Éphémère, Paris, was dedicated to the poet. ‘Celan’, he wrote, ‘does not merely contemplate nothingness; he has experienced it, lived through it’ (A. Kiefer, quoted in A. B. Duarte, ‘Anselm Kiefer: Pour Paul Celan’, Studio International, 3 January 2022).

Celan’s Todesfuge is a central example of the Trümmerliteratur or ‘rubble literature’ that sought to come to terms with the aftermath of the war in Germany. Over the years it would be anthologised, taught in high schools, set to music, and, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1988, read aloud in the Bundestag. Set in a death camp, the poem’s haunting imagistic refrains of ‘black milk’ and ‘a grave in the sky’ picture a poisoned world. The blue-eyed ‘Master from Deutschland’ writes love letters to his golden-haired mistress, while Sulamith’s ’ashen’ hair implies burning. Margarete relates to a character in Goethe’s tragedy Faust, who became an important Romantic image of German womanhood. Sulamith is the name of King Solomon’s beautiful wife in the Song of Songs, a poem that is found in the Ketuvim (‘writings’) that form the last section of the Hebrew Bible.

The two women, argues Mark Rosenthal, become the ‘central metaphor’ in Todesfuge, opposed yet inseparable. ‘In Kiefer’s view’, he writes, ‘Germany maimed itself and its civilisation by destroying its Jewish members and so, by frequently alluding to both figures, he attempts to make Germany whole again’ (M. Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago 1987, p. 99). Across his Margarete and Sulamith paintings, Kiefer asserts each as intrinsic to the other. The German soil is charred and scarred with dark lines; golden straw smoulders before cinder-grey skies; flames burn without giving warmth or light. Margarete and Sulamith are a union of opposites, made of the same element but transformed through the tragedy of history. In the present painting, as Celan’s words drift across the land, a narrow blue horizon offers a distant glimmer of hope.

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