Anselm Kiefer - Evening & Day Editions London Thursday, June 6, 2024 | Phillips
  • Anselm Kiefer’s 1978 Die Donauquelle translates as "The Source of the Danube", the second-longest river in Europe that flows for 1,700 miles from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. Kiefer was born in the small town of Donaueschingen, whose name derives from “Danube” and is considered the place from which the river originates. The town, and Germany as a whole, feel a sense of national pride and collective protection over the natural splendour it houses. The pool thought to be the Danube's precise source is framed by wrought iron fencing that depicts allegorical statues of Baar, Germany’s great central plateau, as a mother showing her daughter, named Danube, the way into the world.


    Kiefer’s book Die Donauquelle has a distressed outer sleeve coated in thick ripples of paint. Its interior pages present a conceptual series of photographs that document the ascension of an artist’s palette from a pool of water. The work is a leitmotif for many themes previously explored in Kiefer’s works, primarily meditations on water, nature, birth, and resurrection. Almost always, Kiefer’s creations are deeply ambiguous. Mark Rosenthal states that “ambiguity is the only absolute quality one can discern”, and Die Donauquelle is no exception to the rule. Deliberately abstruse, the work is an exploration of a subject that intermingles mythology and religion as part of a wider exploration into the relationship between art, nature and history. The symbol of the artist’s palette – an allegory for the role and potential of art within history – has been previously explored in Kiefer’s paintings of the 1970s that act as prequels for the central metaphor in Die Donauquelle: Germany’s illustrious history has been marred with the atrocities of its recent Fascist past.

     “For me, it was much more powerful than depicting a figure. The palette was a symbol for the spirit, for an idea.”
    —Anselm Kiefer

    Kiefer appropriates the image of the artist’s palette, a potent symbol of the potential of art to create and destroy, in order to help navigate his personal wrestle with his German heritage in the wake of the Second World War. This allegory is played out in Nero Paints of 1974, where Kiefer compares Nero’s acts to that of the painter. Pushing the horizon to the top of the image creates an all-encompassing landscape of destruction. Desolate fields are turned into ashes with no signs of life. The outline of a blood-red palette hovers ominously in the centre of the image, with four paintbrushes setting alight to civilisation in the background. Nero, the brutal Roman emperor, is a metaphorical extension of Hitler; the tyrants’ violent, maniacal egotism in pursuit of creating a "better world" is compared to the generative power of the painter to create and destroy. Kiefer has spoken about the "figurative need to burn away the efforts of [his] predecessors" with the hope of creating art to replace the atrocities enacted in his country. By comparing the acts of Nero and Hitler, and their attempts to reach God-like power, to that of the painter, Kiefer is attempting to understand their madness and, in turn, poke fun at their deluded efforts.


    Anselm Kiefer, Palette with Wings, 1985, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Artwork: © Anselm Kiefer

    The photographs in Die Donauquelle follow the palette's "resurrection" as part of a wider exploration of the palette's "sacred life", explored not only in Kiefer's paintings of the 1970s but also in sculpture. The artist's 1985 Palette with Wings immediately recalls Christ's Resurrection; inserting the palette into this holy narrative sequence affords it a lofty God-like status. The winged palette also reaches back into Greek mythology, evoking the melted wings of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun despite warning. Weaving together the vicissitudes of history with celestial metaphysics, the palette epitomises Kiefer's seamless blend of past and present and foreshadows the downfall of a nation that was once glorious but, like the consequences of Icarus' maniacal folly, found itself in disarray.


    In the imagery within Die Donauquelle, the source of the Danube provides the setting for the palette's resurrection; however, it is rendered as a gloomy pool of water, a stark contrast to the venerated monument in Donaueschingen. The palette rises mysteriously from the water, a mirage until it breaks the surface and enters earth's realm. This holy image is reinforced by the three windows in the back of the photograph that allude to the Holy Trinity. However, the sacrality of the palette is ruthlessly undercut as the following photographs expose a steel rod that appears to hold it in the air. It is not a sacred event at all but a staged parody. Die Donauquelle presents the source of the Danube in all its mysterious illustriousness as a ceremonious fake, and therefore a pompous pretention of the nation. What was once a fundamental symbol of German identity relishing spiritual, legendary status is severed with pitiless irony.


    This complex allegory is part of Kiefer's wider critique of German identity: what was once something to be proud of became a problematic and momentous cultural onus. Moreover, the artist has acquiesced to reality; his hope in the optimistic role of art within history and its generative potential to replace the consequences of war through new creation is all but a bitter illusion. Kiefer’s art hovers in the background of larger questions regarding Germany’s recent history and the future of contemporary artists in the landscape of a country in disarray. Interweaving legendary and biblical threads into a tapestry poised between heaven and earth, birth and destruction, Die Donauquelle is a vulnerable search for identity within the murky waters of Germany’s post-war amnesia.

    • Literature

      Mark Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, Chicago/Philadelphia, 1987, pp. 72-74


Die Donauquelle (The Source of the Danube)

Oil, sand and burlap on photo-illustrated artist's book.
30.5 x 21 x 3 cm (12 x 8 1/4 x 1 1/8 in.)
Signed and dated in pencil and stamp-numbered '00012' in black ink on the inside of the back cover (from the edition of approximately 25 uniquely painted examples), published by Michael Werner, Cologne.

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£20,000 - 30,000 ‡♠

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Evening & Day Editions

London Auction 6 - 7 June 2024