The theme of Margarete and Shulamite is one that has preoccupied Anselm Kiefer more deeply than any other in his career. Founded on an extraordinarily powerful and moving poem entitled Todesfuge ('Death Fugue') written by the poet Paul Celan while he was interned in a concentration camp in 1945 and later published in 1952, its subject is the wounded soul of Germany.
For Kiefer, as slowly becomes evident to the reader in the poem, two opposites, Margarete and Shulamite, play inseparable partners in a strange mystical tragedy. 'Your golden hair. Margarete, Your ashen hair, Shulamite' is the poem's lilting refrain. It is a simple, lyrical and contrasting phrase that establishes the two women as polarities, somehow eternally connected through the experience of the camps: the blond Aryan woman to which the 'German master with the blue eyes' writes and the black-haired Jewish woman, Shulamite, whom Death, in the form of the 'German Master', has reduced to ash.
In Kiefer's paintings, straw, rich in metaphor, becomes the material of Margarete's hair, while black paint or ash becomes the essence of Shulamite and her hair. The two are often also combined in Kiefer's paintings on this subject as a way of presenting the symbiotic nature of these two women. In Kiefer's view, Germany had maimed itself and its civilization when it destroyed its Jewish citizens. Now in the aftermath of the Shoah or Holocaust, its culture was eternally wounded and could not be whole. Increasingly, as this series of paintings progressed and developed into works that also included the Germanic male counterpart to Margarete and Shulamite - works on the theme of Nuremberg and the Wagnerian opera Die Meistersinger - the black, grey and gold colouring came to coexist ever more complexly in his paintings creating a strange apocalyptic architecture that stood as a pictorial allegory of post-war Germany and its fractured culture.
In this heavily-worked and no doubt cathartic oil painting of 1981, Kiefer depicts, in dense dripping lines of paint, a bleak landscape seemingly obliterated by vast sweeping dark black lines and a swirling mass of grey highlighted, here and there, by brief sweeps of yellow. Here the golden strands of Margarete's hair appear almost submerged into the dark, heavy black and grey of Shulamite, her hair and her destiny.