Anselm Kiefer - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “Paul Celan’s language comes from so far away, from another world with which we have not yet been confronted, it comes to us like that of an alien. We find it hard to understand. We grasp a fragment here and there. We cling to it without ever being able to capture the whole of it. I have humbly tried, for sixty years. From now on, I will write this language down on canvas, an undertaking that is like a rite.”
    —Anselm Kiefer

    Monumental in its scale, intense materiality, and the historical trauma that it grapples with, Anselm Kiefer’s Das einzige Licht is a powerful and poetic example of the artist’s examination of German identity, his reinvention of its landscape tradition, and of the innovative literary and philosophical dimensions of his practice. Traced by the runic lines of broken branches, a vast, snow-covered field stretches out before us, topped by a high horizon line and narrow strip of leaden grey sky. In the foreground, a large sleigh construction laden with branches sits silently, any signs of the people who had gathered the material long gone. Created first from photographs that the artist took of landscape surrounding Salzburg, the vast, sculptural painting belongs to a cycle of works dedicated to the Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan, whose writings – in German – dealt directly and profoundly with his experiences of the Holocaust and the death of both of his parents in concentration camps during the war.


    The Only Light

    “Die Lampen des Schreckens sind hell, auch im Sturm.”
    —Paul Celan

    Born in the closing months of the Second World War, Kiefer came of age in its long shadow. Growing up near the French boarder, the Holocaust was a taboo subject, so difficult to wrestle with that it was never spoken of. Kiefer first discovered Celan’s poetry as a teenager, deeply affected by the harrowing ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fuge) and its expression of the collective horrors endured in the death camps. Structured through patterns of repetition, recombination, and refrain the poem mirrors Kiefer’s own practice in significant ways, anchoring an oeuvre that is ‘neither linear nor progressive in its development, but cyclical and reflective.’i Although these recurring patterns relate more broadly to the artist’s reading of myth and his view of history and life, these perspectives have all been profoundly shaped by Kiefer’s early encounter with Celan, and there is no other figure to whom the artist more frequently returns to, or who occupies a place of more singular importance in his practice.



    Detail of the present work


    Belonging to a larger cycle of works on the theme of the poet, and the deep connections between history, landscape, and trauma that his writing also draws on, Das einzige Licht offers an apocalyptic vision that conjures the evocative ‘Schwarze Milch der Frühe‘ (Black milk of dawn‘) that had left such a profound impression on the young Kiefer when he first read 'Todesfuge'. The title of the work, emblazoned across the sky, is a reference to Celan’s poem of the same name, where themes of home, dwelling, loss and memory dominate. Fragments from the poem scar the surface of the deeply textured ground, notably referring to the lines:


    Dein Haus ritt die finestere Welle, doch barg es ein Rosengenschlecht;
    als Arche verließ es die Straße, so wardst du gerettet ins Unheil


    Your house rode the dark wave, but it harbored a family of roses;
    If it left the road as an ark, you would have been saved from disaster


    These charged lines run through the piece on both literal and metaphorical levels, the roughly ploughed and broken landscape bearing the wounds of the disaster evoked by Celan’s words. Historically an agricultural nation, Kiefer draws on the deep connections between German cultural identity and the land, well represented by a long tradition of landscape painting that reached its most sublime expression in the contexts of German Romanticism and the paintings of Caspar David Freidrich. In its rejection of the rapidly industrialising forces of modernity and the emergence of new urban centres, these paintings idealised Germany’s rural past, reinforcing the close bonds forged between German culture and the land that would be coopted by the Third Reich as the ‘embodiment of the German vison.’ 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.ii


    Casper David Friedrich, Hünengrab im Schnee, 1807, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden


    For Kiefer, the landscape still resonates with this complex history, at once drawing on Freidreich’s foregrounding of it as a provocation for existential reflection, and using it as a means of bearing witness to the traumas and violence committed in its name. Woven through these works in the fragments of text, the visualisation of certain crystalline poetic images, and in the rhythmic interplay of its pictorial elements that replicate the structure of verse, Celan’s poetry and their record of the atrocities of the Second World War enables Kiefer to more fully confront the violence of Germany’s past, and to explore what might emerge from these ruins.


    In keeping with the broader philosophical and mythic cycles of eternal recurrence - rebirth and renewal – Celan’s presence in Kiefer’s painting structures the artist's painterly project in profoundly meaningful ways. Since first turning to the poet as an explicit source and inspiration in 1980 – where he established the tactile and evocative materials of branches, lead, and ash that reappear here – Celan's themes formed the cycle of works to which the 2006 Das einzige Licht belongs, first shown with Thaddeus Ropac in the same year while other works from the series were installed in the nave of the Grand Palais in Paris for his Monumenta presentation in 2007. Making numerous other appearances in between, fifteen years after he first showed the Monumenta series at the Grand Palais in Paris, Kiefer would return again to this rich resource, presenting Pour Paul Celan in the same space. Most recently, his 2022 Thaddeus Ropac exhibition broadened this scope to a wider group of poets, bringing the word and the image together in landscapes saturated with memory.


    A significant work from these larger, interconnected cycles, Das einzig Licht  was featured on the cover of the major monograph Anselm Kiefer / Paul Celan: Myth, Mouring and Memory,  positioning it as representative not just of this body of paintings, but of Kiefer's deep involvement with both the poet and the themes that he explored in verse. A meditative reflection on the history of landscape painting and of the role that landscape – both real and imagined - continues to play in the German psyche and cultural memory, Das einzige Licht sits at the intersection of the past and the future, the spiritual and the terrestrial, death and rebirth. It is landscape that for Kiefer is ‘deployed as the quiet witness to historical change, the vast impartial canvas upon which history is successively painted – and painted over.’


    Anselm Kiefer, Hommage à un poète, Paris Pantin, 2022


    Collector’s Digest

    • A deeply intellectual artist, Anselm Kiefer’s references and sources of inspiration span philosophy, poetry, theology and science. Here, the artist draws on his long relationship with the poetry of Paul Celan, finding ways to move beyond language in the comprehending cultural trauma.

    • 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, in 2023, the artist installed his monumental works in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice alongside La Bienalle di Venezia in 2021.

    • Most recently showing works at White Cube in London centred James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, paintings related to Paul Celan have been included in his recent 2021 presentation at the Grand Palais Éphémère in Paris, and at Thaddeus Ropac’s Pantin Gallery in 2022.



    i Kathleen Soriano, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, in Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014, p. 21.

    ii Kathleen Soriano, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’, in Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014, p. 21.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris and Salzburg
      Private Collection
      Sotheby’s, London, 17 October 2008, lot 62
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Galerie Thaddeus Ropac and Yvon Lambert, Anselm Kiefer: Für Paul Celan, 21 October – 29 November 2006
      Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, Anselm Kiefer, 28 March - 3 September 2007, no. 220, pp. 482-483, 495 (illustrated, pp. 482-483)

    • Literature

      Andréa Lauterwein, Anselm Kiefer et La Poésie de Paul Celan, Paris, 2006, no. 128, pp. 228, 230-231 (illustrated, front and back cover, pp. 230-231; dated 2005)
      Andréa Lauterwein, Anselm Kiefer, Paul Celan: Myth, Mourning and Memory, London, 2007, no. 128, pp. 228, 230-231 (illustrated, front and back cover, pp. 230-231; dated 2005)
      MONUMENTA 2007: Anselm Kiefer, Sternenfall (Chute d’Étoiles), exh. cat., Grand Palais, Paris, 2007, pp. 220, 244-245 (illustrated, pp. 244-245)

Property of a Distinguished Private Collection


Das einzige Licht

titled ‘Das einzige Licht’ upper left
oil, emulsion, acrylic, charcoal, lead boat, branches, chairs and plaster on canvas, in 3 parts
330 x 570 cm (129 7/8 x 224 3/8 in.)
Executed in 2006.

Full Cataloguing

£600,000 - 800,000 ‡♠

Sold for £698,500

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023