A massive, desolate winter landscape, lacerated by diagonal paths that lead the eye to a high horizon line over which hovers a handwritten inscription written into the pale sky, Anselm Kiefer's epic painting lays bare an undeniably compelling beauty rising amid the ravages of historical time. Both a universal and specific story, the words, "Beschwaert sind die östlischen Himmel mit Seidengewerbe" ("The eastern skies are laden with silken twine") are Paul Celan's, whose 1944 poem "Septemberkrone," inspired Kiefer to create this searing evocation of historical memory. Kiefer's imagery, like Celan's, is both allegorical and literal, beckoning the viewer to join in a conscious act of collective memory, while also exploring individual unconscious associations. This grand-scale work is also about nature and landscape as metaphor. Drawing upon allegorical imagery, Celan's poem literally traces the course of the woodpecker as it weaves silken threads through trees and pumpkin fields. Literal, too, are Kiefer's materials. Thickened white, grey and flesh-colored oil paint is overlaid with broken branches on lead blackened with ash and paint. Skeins of bundled hair course through the impasto. Like Celan, Kiefer's imagery is not only specific, but also replete with allusion. While Celan's woodpecker is associated in mythology with the god of war, Kiefer's barren snow-covered field is its reversal, an evocation of war's effects. The branches are broken, shaped into mirror images of Celan's verse. The 'silken twine' has lost its suppleness; scorched and stiff, it stands for "autumn's runic weave," a phrase from the poem that augurs autumnal death, resonating with the stream of broken branches, so many runes-- mysterious written incantations--strewn over the forsaken terrain.
The author of "Septemberkrone," Paul Celan, was the only surviving member of a Romanian Jewish family that was deported and subsequently exterminated in a Nazi concentration camp. The traumas suffered by his family--his father died of typhus and his mother was shot and Celan himself suffered in a labor camp for eighteen months (and, indeed would take his own life years later)--produced some of the most haunting Germanic poetry ever written. "It seems that war continued to live next to and in Celan to an unbearable degree" (B. A. Kaplan, Unwanted Beauty: Aesthetic Pleasure in Holocaust Representation, Urbana and Chicago, 2007, p. 19). Kiefer's scorched landscapes throughout the 1970s, particularly works based on the Nordic myth, the Niebelungenlied--also a preoccupation of Celan's--prefigure the artist's specific engagement with Celan's poetry, which began in 1981 with a cycle of works dedicated to Celan's memorializing poem, "Todesfuge (Death Fugue)", composed as a response to the Holocaust. In this cycle, both poet and visual artist turn to the commemoration of architectural and natural spaces destroyed by Hitler's ethnic war.
In 1999, Kiefer explicitly dedicated one of his monumental works, Lichtzwang (Light Compulsion), to Paul Celan, and in 2005 the artist created a cycle of paintings, which comprised an entire exhibition titled "For Paul Celan." In photographs of the countryside near Salzburg, which formed the basis of the cycle of landscape works dedicated to Celan, Kiefer discovered "beautiful winter fields, with stumps of corn and stubble on the point of rotting" (A. Kiefer, quoted by G. Weinzierl, "Die Illusion," Salburger Nachrichte, 6 August 2005, in A. Lauterwein, Anselm Kiefer, p. 204, n292). The nearby Bad-Ischl terrain appeared to Kiefer as a "constellation of snow and peculiar mists [which] produced in him a kind of internal shock" (Ibid.). Later, Kiefer goes on to relate the landscape's specific effect on him: "It was marvelous And suddenly, these stumps made me think of runes. It was then that I remembered that Paul Celan had written a poem containing the words 'autumn's runic weave.' The result was an exhibition on Celan which had actually already been in my mind before" (A. Kiefer, quoted by H. Christoph and N. Schedlmaer, Profil, 6 August 2005, pp. 109-10).
This painting was executed just before this stunning cycle and partakes of it in several ways, not least of which is its setting of a desolate winter landscape, over which a single verse from one of Celan's Kaddish poems, "Septemberkrone," is suspended. The first line of the second stanza, its succeeding verse carries the phrase "autumn's runic weave," so memorable to Kiefer. Indeed, among the major works from that series that can be linked to the present canvas, Black Crown, 2005, carries the entire stanza, which begins with the verse quoted in this work (see head quote). A continuous, virtually monochromatic plane of unvarying white snow seems to extend beyond the enclosing frame in the manner of Jackson Pollock's mural-sized canvases, whose palette and sinuous skeins of dripped oil paint, as Kiefer has admitted, always lay "beneath" (A. Kiefer quoted by M. Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, "Postscript," The Art Institute of Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1988, p. 155). Kiefer's sumptuous impasto displays the artist's muscular gestures as he issues short, sharp strokes, lifting the thickened emulsion in jagged peaks, which he inflects with broken branches laid on lead, intertwined with human hair. The hair references the idealized spouse, the Shulamite Woman, in the Song of Songs, a theme treated both by Celan in his "Todesfuge" and Kiefer in a series of works related to the poem. Striking is the close link between Kiefer's depiction of the strands of Shulamite's hair, for example, in "Dein aschenes Haar, Sulamith," 1981, and the cascading locks of hair entwined in broken twigs and branches in the present work.
The disposition of hair and twigs calls up Celan's own metaphor linking silken twine and runic lettering, carvings in stones and wood based on modifications of Roman or Greek characters that were used by Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons from about the third century in writing and divination. Indeed, two runes now universally recognized as associated with victory and communitarian ideals, the Nazi Schutzstaffel and the Ger, are modeled by Kiefer in this work, through the angled arrangement of twigs, marking an orthogonal path up and to the right of canvas. This directional force converges at the horizon under the name of the poet in the upper right corner, Paul Celan. Surely, Kiefer intends both to invert the meaning of the Nazi's appropriation of medieval spiritual signs as homage to Celan, but also to suggest in the assorted striations carved into the frozen landscape a directional association with the Resurrection in medieval Christian iconography--where the ascent is often in the direction of the hand of God, up and to the right. This is what Kiefer may have meant when he stated that his use of the rune "places it in a new context and thus frees it" (A. Kiefer, quoted by G. Weinzierl, "Die Illusion," op. cit.). Through the magisterial breadth of elicited associations and the emotional and visceral charge of surface excitation, this painting offers hope even at the nadir of human civilization, liberating traumatic memories through commemoration and homage.