Für Paul Celan

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  • Provenance

    Kunst and Kultur, Bonn

  • Catalogue Essay

    Over the past thirty years Anselm Kiefer’s intensive and probing journey into the national and collective memory of post-war Germany has taken many forms. Of his immense oeuvre of sculpture, intimate works on paper and photography, Kiefer’s richly textured canvases stand apart as direct windows into the artist’s exploration of emotionally and politically charged historical narrative, physically confronting the viewer with their monumental scale. Born in post-World War II Germany in 1945, Anselm Kiefer is part of the generation of Neo- expressionist painters who sought to grapple with the physical and psychological devastation of war by embracing a primal relationship to the canvas in the tradition of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. He aims to rebuild rather than erase: reaping benefit from the past instead of losing it in oblivion. ‘In Germany, if something is finished, they like to flatten it, bring it down, make the grass grow over it. That's no good. You should keep these old buildings because they played a role and they can teach us something. I'm against the idea of bringing all these power stations down. I said, 'I'll take them all if you want'.’ (Kiefer, Alex Needham, The Guardian, December 2001)

    While Kiefer’s ideas have since expanded beyond the sole territory of Holocaust memory, he continues to use the canvas as a battleground for his exploration of myth and memory. His process echoes the same shamanistic tendency of his teacher Joseph Beuys, an artist most known for his challenging installations and performances that attempted to reconcile personal trauma inflicted by war. Beuys’ performances, or ‘Actions,’ used the human body and physical environment to explore political and social messages, while his use of felt and fat acted as symbolic talismans. Similarly, Kiefer has built a personal rolodex of symbols to investigate these same issues. The materials he uses hold rich symbolism for the artist, but also reveal the emotional and structural influence of poetry on his artistic process. Kiefer has said that he ‘would like to be a poet, and use nothing but a pen.’ In Für Paul Celan Kiefer uses myth and symbol to construct a rich landscape in the manner reflective of that by which a poet composes a verse. He plays on the interaction between single elements, merging and layering them to form a new and capacious lot.

    Für Paul Celan is based on a variety of influences that particularly affected the artist in his creative thought. This particular lot, completed in 2004, is based on a series of photographs taken by the artist of fields outside of Salzburg after harvest time. One of the original photographs, overlaid with twigs and delicately inscribed by the artist’s hand, evokes the pseudoscientific and occult imagery of the divining rod, originally used to locate water, metals, or gemstones in 15th century Germany. The ‘diviner’ (rutengänger) is directly referenced in the title of the work, suggesting a metaphorical discovery of something precious in the desolate German landscape. The lines of the twigs draw us into this vast winter landscape, and into Kiefer’s exploration of collective memory and loss. Referring to the Salzburg photographs, Kiefer says, ‘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’ (Kiefer, in an interview by Horst Christoph and Nina Schedlmaer, Profil, 6 August 2005, pp. 109–10). Paul Celan himself, who was also heavily influenced by the repercussions of the Holocaust, shared Kiefer’s desire to transform fleeting memory into unbounded art-form. The poet stated: ‘Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, 'enriched' by it all.’ This importance of language is reflected in Kiefer’s work, where composition, line, palette and texture intertwine to communicate with the viewer in a highly evocative manner.

    The staccato rhythm in Celan’s poetry is duplicated in the pattern of twigs placed across the canvas. The addition of straw and sticks evokes a particularly Beuysian image of the messianic shaman working in the tradition of the prehistoric artist. In Für Paul Celan, Kiefer carves a literal landscape through a thick impasto of paint, mirroring the calm, yet barren winter landscape after the harvest. He simultaneously deconstructs and reconstructs the painting surface, seriously considering paint and narrative. Although the landscape has been stripped bare, recalling an image of a battlefield, the artist finds hope in the darkness and desolation: ‘History has shown us that there is always a darkness inside the light…Maybe we should be looking more carefully into the darkness’ (Auping, 2005, p. 35). He embraces that particularly German variety of world-weariness, weltschmerz, with complete seriousness. The emotive power of his landscape links him to names like JMW Turner and Caspar David Friedrich. For Kiefer, the canvas is far from neutral territory; his allegorical use of materials and layered process of painting is an attempt to reconcile the myths and trauma embedded in the German post-war narrative.

    The eclectic use of medium in the painting includes the use of original sources such as oil, charcoal, plaster, resin, and branches. This discrepancy in material creates a multi-faceted, sophisticated and intricate canvas. The addition of twigs not only adds dimension to the flat canvas but also alludes to the influence of the organic and the natural in the piece’s inspiration. The resulting work is intensely physical, tangible and engaging. This substantiality is emphasised in the scale of the work. The large piece engulfs the viewer in the perceived experience, immersive and monumental in its entirety. Yet Für Paul Celan is not forceful or constraining, rather finding influence in its subtlety, delicacy and quiet nuance. The mellow colour choices incite serene and peaceful thoughts, encouraging participation without compelling it. In fact, Kiefer’s frequent use of a grey palette, as demonstrated in Für Paul Celan, calls to mind a literal iteration of his frequent assertion that 'the truth is always grey.' Often thought of as a non-colour, grey holds rich symbolism in the context of painting. The physical act of creating grey paint, which is a mixture of many brighter hues with white, actualises the struggle with collective memory. This 'greyness' permeates throughout Kiefer’s oeuvre, revealing itself in his varied sources of inspiration, from national heroes like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Caspar David Friedrich to religious mythology from the Old Testament and the poetry of Paul Celan himself, to whom this work was dedicated. Its implicit power evokes the complicated notion of uncertainty and ambiguity, creating a concept out of a colour choice.

    Kiefer’s capacity to suffer life’s agonies and transmit them to painting creates an inimitably provoking and evocative set of works. Finding beauty in tragedy and destruction, it is through the memories of the physical wounds of the past that the artist finds creative healing. A sense of tranquillity emerges from the quiet yet compelling sense of acceptance which permeates his oeuvre. Kiefer interprets art as a transformative process, revelling in its potential and emotional power: ‘painting, for me, is not just about creating an illusion. I don’t paint to present an image of something. I paint only when I have received an apparition, a shock, when I want to ‘transform’ something. Something that possesses me, and from which I have to deliver myself’. (North Adams, Press Release: Anselm Kiefer, Mass MOCA, 20 October 2007)

21

Für Paul Celan

2004
oil, emulsion, acrylic, charcoal, plaster, resin, branches on canvas
190 x 330 cm (74 3/4 x 129 7/8 in.)

Estimate
£400,000 - 600,000 

sold for £818,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening

London Auction 15 October 2014 7pm