'Kiefer does not illustrate the myths he represents; he summons them in order to bring myth face to face with history and prove that, at least in Germany's case, myth was swallowed up in history from the moment it was called upon to play a part in it'
(D. Arasse, Anselm Kiefer, London & New York 2001, pp. 129-130)
Das Alwis Lied is a hauntingly beautiful and early work by the venerated Post-War German artist Anselm Kiefer. Rendered with rich, textural and impasto oil paint, it depicts an unidentified mid-winter forest, frozen with a sense of primordial splendor. The painting powerfully evokes the mysticism of its title, Das Alwis Lied or Alvis's Song that refers to the tenth stanza of the thirteenth century Elder Edda. A collection of Old Norse poetry composed in alliterative verse, the Elder Edda represents the earliest and most important source of Norse mythology and the Germanic heroic legends. In particular, the latter portions of the Elder Edda elaborating the tale of Sigurd and Brynhild were incorporated into the romantic German Niebelungen Lied; a subject often attended to in Kiefer's art. In Das Alwis Lied, Kiefer invokes the story of the dwarf Alvis who traveled to meet the god Thor and seek the hand of his daughter. Alvis tells Thor about his many valiant quests, braving the lands of men, giants, elves, and the dead but is ultimately thwarted in his quest to marry. Kiefer commemorates this fantastical tale with his words and evokes a spirit of its mystic in his painting, yet there is no explicit figurative reference. Instead, Kiefer operates on the level of signification, alluding to the position such tales once had in the Pre-War legacy of German heroic folklore, so heavily appropriated and defiled by the architects of Nazism and the propaganda of the Third Reich. Executed in 1979, Das Alwis Lied meditates on the existential angst and lost identity that so plagued the Post-War period. Following Theodore Adorno's bold pronouncement in 1949, Kiefer himself wondered whether it was at all possible to be a German artist after the atrocities of Auschwitz. In 1980, Kiefer controversially re-opened this theme, exhibiting alongside his contemporary Georg Baselitz at the German pavilion at the 32nd Venice Biennale. His art was met with consternation through its attempted breaking of social taboo and its reengagement of the country's cultural legacy. In Das Alwis Lied, Kiefer employs the same practice, attempting to address the legacy of German fascism and the nation's history rather than elide its shame.
Writing in 1987, the artist once said, 'in those early pictures, I wanted to evoke the question for myself, Am I a fascist? That's very important. You cannot answer so quickly. Authority, competition, superioritythese are facets of me like everyone else' (Anselm Kiefer, 1987, quoted in D. Arasse, Anselm Kiefer, London & New York 2001, p. 117). These questions of confused German identity and post-War guilt were ones that preoccupied many of Kiefer's contemporaries including Baselitz, Schünebeck, Lüpertz and Penck who exhibited together shortly before the 32nd Venice Biennale, at the 'New Fauves' exhibition in Aachen. The artists were highly motivated by their ambition to break the pregnant silence over the Second World War and the impact of the Third Reich on contemporary Germany. The German Federal Republic had so intently embarked upon the process of reconstruction and forgetting that society had found itself unable to mourn, dominated in art by the disembodied forces of abstraction. This evacuated space in German history and this striving to forget, meant that Nordic folklore and mythology was no longer a permissible subject and was summarily removed from the curriculums of schools and universities. It is this censorship that Kiefer sought to overturn in painting Das Alwis Lied. In the foreground of the painting, a frigid silver birch tree is seen bent with the prevailing force of the blizzard, caked in snow. The background is an impenetrable and elusive dark landscape fraught with shadows. Nowhere in the composition is the folkloric narrative alluded to although the words of the Elder Edda adorn its canvas. Instead Kiefer invests the work with a sense of gravity, reinvigorating the cultural memory and reengaging the legacy of the Germanic people. As David Arasse has suggested, 'Kiefer does not illustrate the myths he represents; he summons them in order to bring myth face to face with history and prove that, at least in Germany's case, myth was swallowed up in history from the moment it was called upon to play a part in it' (Ibid., pp. 129-130). KA