'To my mind, art is the only possibility of making a connection between disparate things and thus creating a meaning... I see history as synchronous, whether it's the Sumerians with their Epic of Gilgamesh or German mythology. As far as I am concerned the old sagas are not old at all, nor is the Bible. When you go to them, most things are already formulated' (Kiefer quoted in A. Zweite, The High Priestess, London 1989, p. 98).
Die Frauen der Antike (Women of Antiquity) forms part of a major series of works dedicated to women in history executed by Anselm Kiefer begining in the early 1990s. Die Frauen der Antike is a vast and spectacular painting that employs a wide variety of mixed media that Kiefer made between 1999 and 2000. Seeming to depict a monumental apparition materialising against a starry desert-like background, the painting presents a haunting totemic image of an unknown female figure whose head has been supplanted by a vast encrusted tower of canvases and/or books.
Like his earlier paintings entitled 'Monuments to the Unknown Painter' in which Kiefer gave formal expression to themes of loss, memory and of the obliteration of the individual by the path of history, Die Frauen der Antike belongs to an important series of works that stand as monuments to the unknown women of history. The series, which also incorporates Kiefer's representations of the 'Women of the Revolution', the 'Queens of France' and other celebrated female figures from history and myth such as Lilith or the Roman matron Claudia Quinta, celebrates the epic but forgotten role that women have played in history and culture.
It is for this reason that the figures in these works, which also often take the form of sculptures, are always represented as headless women standing in white bridal-like gowns, their heads supplanted by a weighty symbol of the particular branch of history or culture to which they have contributed but which has itself, over time obliterated their memory. Kiefer explained at an exhibition entitled 'Die Frauen' devoted solely to this running theme in his work held at the Villa Medici in Rome in 2005, that 'the women do not have a head, because the history of women from the last three millennia - since there was a matriarchy - was only made known through men... the real rulers of the world throughout the ages were women... but poetesses such as Sappho or lesser known ones like Telesilla for example, we are now aware of only through the citations of male poets who are better known.' (Anselm Kiefer in conversation at the exhibition Die Frauen, Villa Medici, Rome 2005).
Throughout the 1990s, Kiefer travelled widely visiting amongst other countries, Israel, Yemen, Egypt, Brazil, Central America and India. Drawn especially to places of antiquity, throughout this period his art became dominated by impressive painterly depictions of ancient monuments and ruins ranging from the pyramids of Egypt and Central America, to primitive brickworks, mastabas, minarets and tower-houses. In both the media, style and manner by which Kiefer depicted these structures he evoked a pervasive sense of the annihilating dust of history and the obliterating triumph of time over all such cultural manifestations of individual artistic aspiration.
Rendered in the same media of shellac, ashes and dust as these paintings and echoing the same scale of history, Die Frauen der Antike is a painting that commemorates the lost and forgotten women artists of antiquity in a similar way. With its totemic figure, set against a starry desert-like background typical of Kiefer's paintings of ancient architectural buildings from the same period, the painting presents the spectre of an archetypal female figure - part woman, part monument, supporting a stratified tower of canvases and or books. This tower, made from magnificently thick and encrusted sweeping brushstrokes of oil paint is a vertical standing edifice symbolising the Romantic aspirations of art - a poignant articulation of a kind of poetry of ruins.
Symbolic of the spiritual aspirations of mankind in the same way as buildings like the pyramids are, the weighty, dusty old tower of canvases is a repeated motif in Kiefers work representing the tireless Romantic longing of the artist but also its futility and vanity in the face of time and the full weight of history that is literally stacked against them. An architectural symbol of interconnection between the 'above and below', the land and the sky, earth and cosmos, macrocosm and microcosm, such towers of books and canvases are also as here, anthropomorphic icons of personal loneliness and existential melancholy.
Seeming to belong to both a foreign land and to a distant time, like some lonely ancient edifice discovered in the desert, this stratified tower visibly echoes the sentiments expressed in many of Kiefer's desert paintings and of the life of Lilith - the first woman and original wife of Adam - condemned to live among the ruins of civilization. A similar invocation of the relationship between the individual human life and the deep time of the cosmos, this noble but visibly decaying monument to art, literature, knowledge and culture stands alone against the star-like splattering of sand and ashes like a lone beacon of both hope and futility in the universal void.