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Odi Navali

Odi Navali
titled 'odi navali' (upper left)
oil, emulsion, acrylic, charcoal, lead and plaster on canvas
75 5⁄8 x 130 7⁄8in. (192 x 332.5cm.)
Executed in 2006
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2006.

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Claudia Schürch
Claudia Schürch Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

With its central motif of a leaden warship marooned across a rippling, volatile ocean, Anselm Kiefer’s Odi Navali (2006) is a sweeping seascape of desolation. It is emblematic of his fiercely expressionist practice, which confronts the intertwined legacies of 20th-century Europe. Rich in materiality and meaning, the work plays with the parameters of painting and sculpture, building a vast topography of gesture, texture and assemblage. Lashed by waves, the ship balances precariously against a sprawling, rust-coloured beach. The work is similar to Kiefer’s Für Chlebnikov works, which revisit his now forty-year absorption with the Russian Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov. At the heart of Khlebnikov’s mystic writing was a numerological dialectic of human history. He believed that algorithms could be used to govern natural and historical events, identifying a cosmic cycle of 317 years marked by pivotal naval battles. Kiefer also makes a nod to the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s militaristic Odi Navali (‘Naval Odes’) (1893). The present work is closely aligned with a thirty-painting installation—collectively titled Velimir Chlebnikov, or Für Chlebnikov—that was first exhibited in a purpose-built pavilion at White Cube, Hoxton Square, in 2005. This group was later shown at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut in 2006, and is now on a long-term loan from the Hall Foundation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Kiefer had first come across Khlebnikov in the 1970s, and read his work in a German translation of the Zaum original—an esoteric, nativist experiment on the Russian language that the poet had created with the future of skyscrapers and global chains of communication in mind. Outlandish as his 317-year theory seems, Khlebnikov correctly predicted 1917 to be a year of upheaval for Russia: his prophecy was fulfilled when the battleship Aurora fired on the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg to trigger the Bolshevik Revolution. Though Kiefer did not take on the poet’s theories in literal terms, thinking his writing to be Dadaist and his theories ‘complete nonsense’, he and Khlebnikov share a mutual interest in finding instruction in history, and order in language (A. Kiefer quoted in A. Searle, ‘All at Sea’, The Guardian, 5 July 2005). In his own cyclical motion, Kiefer has circled back to the ‘Futurian’ Khlebnikov at various points since his first series of gouaches in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 2017, he returned to his wasted seascapes for the exhibition Anselm Kiefer, for Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations at the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, duly marking the centenary of the revolution.

Kiefer has always been profoundly sensitive to the pressures of history. Born in 1945 in post-war Germany, the artist grew up amidst the ruins and moral wreckage of Nazi atrocities. This milieu profoundly shaped him as an artist and a person as he grappled with the burdens of collective memory and national identity. His early work was defined by provocative confrontations with the legacy of National Socialism. By the mid-1990s, Kiefer looked beyond the German Welt to undertake a more cosmological approach to his tapestries of human experience. The artist tries not to document singular moments in the past as much as weave the emotional qualities of the past, present, and future into his paintings.

Suspended on fine metal wires, the present work’s vessel gives the impression of sinking, its nose turned down into the seascape’s decaying depths. The ship is made of lead, one of Kiefer’s signature materials, which has associations with alchemy and which he considers ‘the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history’ (A. Kiefer quoted K. Soriano, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, in Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London 2014, p. 29). Despite the work’s monumental scale, Kiefer’s treatment of the surface is richly intimate: thick channels of opaque pigment are directed among areas of deep and shallow relief, forming complex estuaries that pool, craze and flow through the canvas.

More than a response to Khlebnikov’s theories, the present work is a consummate example of Kiefer’s essential fascinations with nation, myth and time. The depiction of shipwrecks, laden with symbolism, is nothing new in German art. Odi Navali finds its antecedents in the work of the Romantic Caspar David Friedrich, who with paintings like The Sea of Ice (1823-24) reflected his country’s political quagmire in the face of Napoleon’s aggression. The iconography of the naval battle has even deeper roots in Western literary culture, stretching back to the age of Homer. Kiefer’s mining of literature is a hallmark of his practice. As with many other works in the Für Chlebnikov series, the present painting—with its title scrawled in the upper left corner—refers ironically to D’Annunzio’s bellicose Odi Navali. With proto-Fascist tones, these ‘Naval Odes’ proclaim the resurgence of Italy as a great power buttressed by the consolidation of its navy, declaring that ‘Italy will either be a great naval power or a nonentity’. D’Annunzio’s desire to predetermine the course of history, notably through naval warfare, complements Kiefer’s reworking of Khlebnikov’s theories.

Kiefer’s dialogue with the two poets provides rich material to further his exploration of the intersections between art, power, and ideology. D’Annunzio would take his aestheticised form of expression into the world of politics, urging Italy into the First World War, and laying the dogmatic groundwork for Mussolini’s later dictatorship. With the present work’s title—its letters floating ominously in the dark sky—Kiefer stages a critical interrogation of the broader European experience with nationalism and fascism, revealing it to be chronic rather than unique, and in turn addresses his own experience in post-war Germany. It is in the overwhelming physical presence of the work—a forsaken vessel, isolated in a dilapidated ocean—that we find Kiefer’s rationale, and his bathetic answer to Khlebnikov. While his work can be seen to be part of a drive towards rethinking history, the artist turns away from Khlebnikov’s programming to accept that history is that what man cannot control. The sea is an apt symbol for this belief. To enter the fathoms of memory and history is much like plunging into the waves of Odi Navali: full of turbid water and fallen ideologies in the shape of ships.

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