Was sagte Odin zum toten Balder (Ce que Odin a dit à Balder mort)
The early 1980s sees a major breakthrough in Kiefer’s artistic career – he represents Germany at the 1980 Venice Biennale while his personal exhibitions multiply continuously around the world. At the same time his art reaches maturity and a formal renewal: the physical materiality and visual complexity of paintings become the artist’s key interest, while he keeps exploring various strands of Germany’s horrendous history, characteristic of the works of the previous decade. The bewildering variety of materials of Was sagte Odin zum toten Balder (What Odin said to dead Balder) from 1983 testifies to this change and also points to Kiefers’s ability to interweave ancient Nordic myths with recent or twentieth century political realities.
The work’s title, inscribed in spidery, scrawled writing using white chalk, refers to the tale of Balder – the god of innocence, beauty, purity and peace in the Poetic Edda – whose death unleashes the ultimate destruction of the domain of the Gods at Ragnorak. Upon dreaming of his own death, his mother tries to prevent it by making every object on earth vow never to hurt him. Her plan overlooks the mistletoe, on account of the weed's unthreatening insignificance, but this unfortunate misstep is later exploited by the demon Loki, who masterminds Balder's murder with a magic spear made from the weed. At the pleas of his grieving mother, Balder is promised release from the underworld to return to a new, joyful and better world that will rise upon the demise of Ragnorak, which must be destroyed as punishment for his death. In this Christ-like resurrection of a new world, eased of pain and born of the old, Kiefer wields an apt metaphor for overcoming Germany’s burdened past and proceeding into the future.
Kiefer was much influenced by Joseph Beuys and Arte Povera in their use of unlikely materials revealing the ravages of time and has always sought to attach additional symbolic value to his media. Thus treating a large sheet of lead as an abstract pictorial surface, he also highlights material’s protective capacity, just as a lead shield serves as protection in the x-ray process. An apparently innocent branch of the infamous mistletoe looms over a pile of burnt books, a frequently-used symbol in Kiefer’s work, which suggests the vulnerable fate of German history. As in many of his works, Kiefer endows the fire here with a sacred force: the painted flames narratively burn the pages, some of which are reduced to ash, and thus serve to purify lead. Each element is applied in such a way as to reinforce another and to serve the composition as whole. The painting’s vast scale and complexity gives it a forceful presence, reminding the outsize proportions of the Abstract expressionism, while the physical fragility of materials converges with the sense of the history and fate of Germany.
Kiefer has always identified himself with an alchemist as an artist, and has said that he scorches his paintings in order to ‘heal the imagery, to come to a raw stage, the nigredo’ – a state in alchemy that precedes transformation of base materials into gold. Was sagte Odin zum toten Balder brilliantly exemplifies his strong belief in the ability of myth to transcend the horror of history and in art as a mediator to painful national tragedies and as a passage towards an enlightened future. Thus this subtly poetic work carries with it the distant promise of rebirth. Such faith, the work seems to suggest, may also apply to the decimated terrain of post-World War II Germany. After all, Was sagte Odin zum toten Balder appears an image of the new better world, the ultimate dream of salvation.