Der Rhein belongs to an extensive series of memorials dedicated to the 'unknown painter'. During the 80's, Kiefer exploited a category of war ideology that compared the painter to the unknown soldier. Through graphic, roughly-hewn images depicting desolate landscapes, Kiefer chisels at the German psyche and sense of identity following the devastation of the Third Reich. In this painting, the Tomb of the Unknown Painter perches on a mound above the Rhine. In the foreground, a wooded landscape obstructs the viewer like the bars of a prison cell window. According to Norse mythology birch trees possess spiritual powers, and Kiefer's symbolic use of them here is a metaphor for an individual's search for a new spiritual home.
In the catalogue of the Anselm Kiefer exhibition that travelled to Düsseldorf, Paris and Jerusalem in 1989, Jurgen Harten comments on the subject of the Tomb of the Unknown Painter.
"The comparison of the painter with the unknown soldier through the example of a romantic, trivial subject casts the concept of the genius in an ironic light. The catastrophe unleashed through the German susceptibility to megalomania is good reason to take leave of the artist mania too. Should the heroism of the artist not rather be compared to that of the anonymous hero that to the heroes themselves? Kiefer knows better than to fall for his own irony. There are so many painters, he comments soberly, that it is impossible to know anywhere near all of them; whereas nobody stays 'undiscovered long these days'... The unknown painter now stands for the unknown in the principle of art, beyond what has become a mere affection of genius."
Kiefer created a number of works bearing the common title 'Der Rhein', named after the famous river that flows from south to north along the Western border of Germany. In context, this reference to the romantic heart of Germany appears neutral and, indeed, quite harmless. However, when juxtaposed with the austerity of the monument to the Third Reich, Kiefer is obviously 'conflating the most profound symbol of his country with an architectural manifestation of the lowest point in history and the memory, as well, of its lost artistic genius.' (M. Rosenthal, 'Anselm Kiefer', Philadelphia 1987, p. 106.)