“All stories of heaven begin on earth.”
Monumental in both scale and the historical scope of its subject, Walhalla is a work of breath-taking ambition and focus from one of the most significant artists working today. Engaging directly with myth, memory, and the question of German post-war consciousness, the present work is a masterful expression of the innovative and philosophical dimensions of Kiefer’s practice, and of the central key themes that anchor an oeuvre that is ‘neither linear nor progressive in its development, but cyclical and reflective, mirroring the artist’s view of life and history.’i Included in Kiefer’s immersive and deeply affecting 2016 exhibition with White Cube in London that shared the title of the present work, Walhalla draws on Norse mythology in order to explore the sweeping cycles of history and the forces of creation and destruction that have shaped it, collapsing ancient myth and the trauma of the 20th century to confront the cultural amnesia and denial that characterised Germany’s post-war years.
The Path to Walhalla
Titled after the old Norse ‘Valhǫll’, Walhalla invokes the mythical ‘Hall of the Slain’ a majestic golden hall in Asgard where legendary heroes and warriors who died gloriously in battle would pass the afterlife under the care of Odin in preparation for Ragnarök – the series of cataclysmic events from which the world would be reborn, cleansed and fertile once more. Under Kiefer’s treatment, the ancient mythic narrative frames a more contemporary tale of battle and sacrifice, the wide expanse of scarred and burnt-out cornfields here speaking powerfully to the devastation and destruction caused by wide-spread bombing during World War II. Devoid of living human presence, ethereal columns of smoke rise from the densely textured scrubbed land, their ghostly outlines forming cavernous, vaulted structures edged in gold that summon the Hall of the Slain described in the 13th century Poetic Edda into focus.
“Behold! Valhalla proudly shrouds
Her towers in the ambient clouds:
Five hundred portals grace the side,
With forty more unfolding wide.
Thro’ ev’ry gate in war array,
With banners streaming to the day,
Eigth hundred warriors passage find,
When for martial deeds inclin’d.”
—The Poetic Edda, Grímnismál
Recurring across this body of work, these ‘towers in the ambient clouds’ make their presence felt in Walhalla too, crumbling sentinels looking out across this eternal battlefield, as if watching for Valkyries returning with the souls of fallen warriors. The inclusion of these striking, architectural elements draws the mythic place of Valhalla into direct communication with Kiefer’s broader artistic project, sifting through ‘the debris of history’ and recording ‘an attempt to connect with the beginning or the end, with a deep and lost memory between here and there.’ii Connecting heaven and earth, the towers also have their own real-world correlates, including the stacked concrete forms of Kiefer’s 2004 site-specific installation The Seven Heavenly Palaces at the Hangar Biocca in Milan, and the astonishing scale of the project undertaken by the artist in the grounds of his then studio home in Barjac, Southern France.
‘Behind the Scenes: Anselm Kiefer’s Studio in Barjac’
Back to the Land
Historically an agricultural nation, the concept of the land has traditionally been closely bound with questions of German identity and consciousness. Well-represented in art historical terms by a long tradition of landscape painting that reached its most sublime expression within the contexts of German Romanticism and the paintings of Caspar David Friedreich, the close bonds between German culture and the land were appropriated by the Nazis as the ‘embodiment of the German vision’. As curator Kathleen Soriano details, the nationalist ‘cult of German land – Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) – echoed Hitler’s belief that “true Germans” came from the soil, from those who worked the land’ and Nazi propaganda counterpointed ideas of urban degeneration with a bucolic, rural ideal as an important tool in the promotion of their nationalist ideology.
Kiefer’s early paintings featuring expanses of ploughed and seemingly barren fields certainly draw on this cultural inheritance and the weight of its history, something that the artist radically expanded in his 1981 painting Magarethe, his first work to incorporate straw as a raw material. Incorporating a range of materials including oil, acrylic, and shellac, Walhalla also speaks poetically to the accretions of history and its transformative potential, while emphasising the space of the painting as a gateway between mythic and historical worlds. Visually recalling the low horizon line and recessed vanishing point of Vincent van Gogh’s last canvases the rough path leads our eye deep into this dramatic scene ‘thick with memory, physically encrusted with the debris of history’s destructions.’iii
While this work clearly develops Kiefer’s abiding interest in cultural memory and the cycles of death and rebirth, his focus on the deep connections forged historically between German identity and concept of Valhalla draws myth and modernity into a more direct relationship. Although not as explicit in its imagery as his highly controversial Besetzung (Occupations) series, the body of Walhalla works established a similar set of provocative juxtapositions between German cultural heritage, identity, and the legacy of the Nazism. The Valhalla myth was itself deeply rooted in Germanic culture, famously reimagined in composer Richard Wagner’s monumental Ring Cycle. Blending Norse myth with the German medieval epic Nibelungenlied in Wagner’s retelling, Valhalla is recast within the German landscape, its story repurposed in an unsurpassed celebration of German cultural heritage. A problematic figure in his own time for his more extreme exaltation of German nationalism, composer Richard Wagner’s work was enthusiastically adopted by the Third Reich, a connection that Kiefer develops in relation to another, real-world Walhalla.
Set high on the hills above the Danube, the Walhalla is an imposing Neo-Classical building conceived in 1807 by Ludwig I of Bavaria, a memorial site honouring the great and good of German history. Where Odin’s Hall of the Slain brought together great warriors and heroes, Ludwig lined Walhalla with sculptural busts of the politicians, scientists, monarchs, and artists who had made German identity what it was. Readily adopted as a site of pilgrimage for those extolling the virtues of National pride and advancement under the Third Reich, Kiefer’s use of the Germanic ‘Walhalla’ in these works is heavily loaded with historical significance.
Transforming White Cube’s Bermondsey space into its own Valhalla, upon entering the exhibition visitors were asked to pass through a haunting passageway of empty camp beds, their crumpled sheets invoking the absent bodies that had once occupied them. In dialogue with these installations littered with objects and all of the material detritus of a lost civilisation, the materially complex and textural surfaces of Kiefer’s monumental paintings all speak powerfully to his keen sense historical consciousness. Turning back to the Poetic Edda, while clearly preoccupied with questions of death and destruction, at its heart the narrative is one of regeneration and rebirth. In the same fashion, although the landscape of Walhalla at first glance appears ravaged and desolate, in fact Kiefer’s vision is more expansive. From out of the fire, death, and destruction, a new cycle can begin, as the beautifully rendered flowers emerging from the scrubbed earth in the foreground proudly attest to. Fascinated by the large, looping cycles of history and myth, Walhalla lends poetic weight to Kiefer’s assertion that ‘When I have a ruin in front of me it is for me the beginning.’iv
A deeply intellectual artist, Anselm Kiefer’s references and sources of inspiration span philosophy, poetry, theology and science. In this body of work, first exhibited at White Cube in London in 2016, the artist draws on the interweaving of myth and historical fact in shaping national identity.
The subject of major international retrospectives at prestigious institutions including the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, he has most recently presented a new project in the Grand Palais Éphémère, Paris that continue his investigation into European cultural memory. Kiefer’s career spans five decades and his work can be found in prestigious permanent collections including the Tate, London, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
i Kathleen Soriano, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, in Anselm Kiefer, (exh. cat.), Royl Academy of Arts, London, 2014, p. 21.
ii Anselm Kiefer, quoted in Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth (exh. cat.), Fort Worth, 2005, p. 41.
iii Simon Schama, Civilisations,
iv Anselm Kiefer, quoted in Emily Spicer, ‘Anselm Kiefer: Walhalla’, studio international, 6 December 2017, online.
White Cube, London Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2017
London, White Cube, Walhalla, 23 November 2016 - 12 February 2017, pp. 189, 270 (installation view illustrated, pp. 180-181; partially illustrated, p. 188; detail illustrated, pp. 190-193)