Anselm Kiefer - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, March 7, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Coded History: Anselm Kiefer's Confrontational 'Die Meistersinger'

    "1982 was a year that saw Kiefer go deeper in exploring what it meant for an artist to look at their own culture and history." Chairman Cheyenne Westphal discusses how Kiefer's 'Die Meistersinger', referencing Richard Wagner's opera of the same name, sees the master abstractionist bring Germany's fraught history into sharp focus.

  • Provenance

    Hakone Open Air Museum, Japan
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Zeitgeist (Internationale Kunstausstellung Berlin 1982), 15 October - 19 December 1982, no. 123, n.p. (illustrated)
    Dusseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle; ARC/Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Anselm Kiefer, 24 March - 30 September 1984, no. 42, p. 112 (illustrated, p. 113)
    The Art Institute of Chicago; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Anselm Kiefer, 5 December 1987 - 3 January 1989, pl. 49, p. 101 (illustrated)
    Tokyo, Sezon Museum of Art; Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art; Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Anselm Kiefer - Melancholia, 3 June - 24 October 1993, pl. 15, p. 224 (illustrated, p. 145)

  • Literature

    Andrea Lauterwein, Anselm Kiefer, Paul Celan, Myth, Mourning and Memory, London, 2007, p. 131 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Central to contemporary debate concerning the display and creation of art, Die Meistersinger exemplifies Anselm Kiefer’s intellectually mature and nuanced ability to encompass the complexities of cultural history, memory and myth. Broadening the action of painting and developing the traditional use of the canvas, Kiefer instils his cross-disciplinary practice with life, vigour, poetry, imagination and drama, as exemplified by the present work. In the 1980s the question of politics and art burgeoning in Germany began to disseminate through crucial international exhibitions including the seminal Zeitgeist exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin in 1982. Confirming his pivotal artistic role in the confrontation of cultural memory and Zeitgeist, the present work was included in this poignant exhibition. Later included in the artist’s influential US show in 1987 to 1989 which toured from The Art Institute of Chicago to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Kiefer’s textural picture plane is woven with a multitude of referential signifiers, thrusting the viewer into a stratosphere of associative cultural and personal histories. Innovatively and individually displaying the artist’s concern with both materials and ideology, Kiefer expertly engages the emotional and expressive task of negotiating with the past. A rare example from the artist’s Meistersinger (Mastersingers) works, another canvas from the series is held in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Both monumental in scale and richly detailed, Kiefer’s monolithic work assumes the weight of history, suspending the viewer in a deeply contemplative arena.

    The title of the present work refers to Richard Wagner’s opera of 1868, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, a prominent composition from the German composer’s opus. Wagner’s operatic oeuvre was favoured by leaders of the National Socialist Party in Germany and lauded as a triumph of German culture. As Andrea Lauterwein asserts, ‘the worldwide hegemony of German music served as a model for aggressive territorial expansion, justified by the genius of the race’ (Andrea Lauterwein, Anselm Kiefer, Paul Celan, Myth, Mourning and Memory, London, 2007, p. 122). Played at political rallies and events, Benito Mussolini welcomed Adolf Hitler with a rendition of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Venice Biennale in 1934; the work was also played to rouse the spirits of war-wounded soldiers on leave after the fall of Stalingrad in 1942. Set in mid-16th century Nuremberg, the opera tells the story of the ‘Master Singers’, a collective of craftsman from a variety of trades, who use their methodical and skilled approach to compose music. Kiefer examines the loaded associations of the Bavarian city, which, in the opera, serves as an idyllic backdrop, but similarly carries the historical weight of the Nuremberg trials. Using the city as a point of departure, Kiefer highlights the layered complexities of memory and association, uncovering the ambiguous nature of collective history.

    Against the leaden horizon of the ravaged, heavily impastoed landscape, the phrase ‘Die Meistersinger auf der Festspielwiese’ (‘The Mastersingers on the Festival Field’) is emblazoned above three houses with smoking chimneys and a church with a bell tower, under which the artist has scrawled ‘Nürnberg’. Through a dramatic palette, Kiefer furrows into the textural surface quality, navigating thick paint and sand to produce a deeply layered composition. The numbers 1 to 13 emerge from the expansive surface, which recalls the pulsing and frenetic brushwork of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, acting as visual anchors in a sea of gestural swathes of paint. These numbers inscribed on the textural canvas refer to the rules of the Master Singers competition, a contest played in the late Middle Ages which took place on Midsummer’s Eve. A game with twelve players, only the thirteenth man could be designated ‘Master’. This competitive element is echoed in Wagner’s opera whereby potential suitors enter a singing contest, with the hope of winning the hand of the character Eva. Although the main protagonist’s performance is deemed worthy, his singing is initially judged to be too innovative and he is successful only after a few plot twists. As Andrea Lauterwein has observed, ‘the opera mixes memory of the past with the Wagnerian problem of the artist, and there is a strong ideological chauvinism throughout. Life and love in this Germanic Kulturnation are described as the product of a struggle for ‘authentic art’ (Andrea Lauterwein, Anselm Kiefer, Paul Celan, Myth, Mourning and Memory, London, 2007, p. 122).

    Kiefer’s Mastersinger series represents a crucial touchstone in the artist’s provocative cycle of paintings, many of which are housed in important public collections, such as Margarethe, 1981 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and Nürnberg, 1982 (The Broad Museum, Los Angeles). While the Meistersinger paintings vary stylistically, each composition features the title emblazoned atop the composition, and is punctuated by the numbers 1 to 13. As Mark Rosenthal noted, ‘Kiefer reports that he worked on The Mastersingers, 1981-82, for a very long time, struggling with the colour and abstract qualities. Only at the end did he add the numbers and title; yet when he did, the object assumed its full meaningful proportions. Darkened, numbered stains, indeed, discolour the soil of a theoretically pure land’ (Mark Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1987, p. 99).

    As exemplified in the preceding painting to the present work, Die Meistersinger, 1981, the artist’s concept is formally explored through the expressive palette and textural surface quality, an aesthetic continuation evident throughout Kiefer’s paintings executed between 1974 and 1985. As Kiefer stated, ‘the use of the palette represents the idea of the artist connecting heaven and earth….The artists are like the shamans, who when they were meditating would sit in a tree in order to suspend themselves between heaven and earth. The palette can transform reality by suggesting new visions. Or you could say that the visionary experience finds its way to the material world through the palette’ (Anselm Kiefer, quoted in Michael Auping, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2005, p. 171). In the present work, the palette ‘bears spots and splashes in the colours of the German flag from 1848 through to the Federal republic – black, red, and gold’ (Andrea Lauterwein, Anselm Kiefer, Paul Celan, Myth, Mourning and Memory, London, 2007, p. 125).

    Die Meistersinger epitomises Kiefer’s critical engagement with collective German history and mythology, an enduring subject borne out of his personal experiences. Born in the final months of World War Two, Kiefer belonged to the post-war generation of Germans who grew up in the wake of the Holocaust. Confronting German historiography, Kiefer postulated, ‘Germans want to forget [the past] and start a new thing all the time, but only by going into the past can you go into the future’ (Anselm Kiefer, quoted in ‘Interview with Alex Needham’, The Guardian, 9 December 2011, online). Beginning his artistic career with the provocative photographic series Occupations, 1969, controversial for its overt confrontation of National Socialist history, by the early 1970s Kiefer began exploring the potential of painting under the tutelage of Joseph Beuys at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.

    Drawing our attention to the appropriation and manipulation of art that takes places under political regimes, Kiefer exorcises his own creative demons through his powerful and evocative canvasses. Deconstructing the Romantic view of myth and its ideological exploitation, Die Meistersinger powerfully confronts the viewer with the continued difficulties in processing and remembering the atrocities of the Second World War. Grand in scale, the unbounded canvas unites discordant elements and materials, and provides an aesthetic realisation of the Vergangenheitsbewältigung. A master work, electrically charged with poignant visual signifiers, Kiefer’s impactful canvas distils history’s darkest realities. The artist captures the anxious temper of both post-war German culture and the psychological anxieties experienced today when recalling historical atrocities. In line with the 1982 exhibition centered on the Zeitgeist, the present work demonstrates an absolute historical and cultural strength, representing a ground-breaking epoch in the canon of twentieth century art history.

Masterworks from a Private Collection


Die Meistersinger

titled and inscribed '"Die Meistersinger auf der Festspielwiese Nürnberg"' upper centre
oil, emulsion, sand and collage elements on canvas
280 x 380 cm (110 1/4 x 149 5/8 in.)
Executed in 1981 - 1982.

£1,500,000 - 2,000,000 ‡♠

Sold for £1,809,000

Contact Specialist
Henry Highley
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 8 March 2018