Heiner Bastian Fine Art, Berlin
Private Collection, Berlin (acquired from the above in 2008)
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
James D. Campbell, "An Alchemist of our Time", Etc. Revue de l'Art Actuel, 1 September 2006, illustrated in colour
Kenneth Baker, 'Work at SFMOMA shows Kiefer strengthening as he goes', San Francisco Chronicle, 20 October 2006, illustrated
Anselm Kiefer's exquisite Melancholia represents an intellectually complex and monumental rumination on the artistic act of creation itself. Executed in 2004, this painting is a masterpiece of introverted retrospection only possible at this late stage in the artist's career. By simultaneously relaying the mythic, artistic and psychical associations inherent to a multidimensional evocation of melancholia, Kiefer confers a solemn and lamenting language of loss and mourning constitutive of the spiritual plight of humankind within modernity. Cauterised in texture and opalescent in hue, Melancholia is simultaneously typical of the desolate landscapes that have dominated Kiefer's art since the late 1970s, whilst standing among the most magnificent ever produced.
Typical to Kiefer's simultaneous incorporation and repudiation of temporal specificity, the historical and material vicissitudes of melancholia date back to the very earliest period of human civilization. First identified in Roman mythology, melancholy was associated with Saturn, the ancient god of contemplation. Aligned to the saturnine temperament, melancholy, or a brooding sullenness, was revered as the state facilitative of profound self-knowledge. Furthermore, in tandem with the attributes of creativity, alchemy and lead, all elements that prominently permeate Kiefer's oeuvre, the artistically loaded idea of melancholia symbolically emblematizes Kiefer's creative agenda. The alchemical centrality of fire and lead in the present work identifies a universal lyrical poeticism within Kiefer's painterly methodology that substantiates its heavy, or leaden, solemnity. The epic and grey terrain physically evokes a cauterized landscape above which a large lead cloud of achromatic expanse weights the sky like the lid of a lead-lined coffin. Out of this looms a large three-dimensional glass polyhedron appropriated directly from Albrecht Dürer's paradigmatic 1514 engraving Melancolia I. Appearing frequently in many of Kiefer's more recent works, this shape is repeated throughout history to represent the alchemical philosopher's stone, or in Dürer's composition, the artistic tool that enables a more accurate representation of the physical world. In the words of Michael Auping, "This allegory, then, uses the master of visual perception to represent gnosis, or mastery over earthly illusions. For Kiefer, the polyhedron may be an emblem of the key to perfect understanding" (Michael Auping in: Exhibition Catalogue, Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, 2005, p. 134).
In classic psychoanalytic theory, melancholia is understood as an abyss of sorrow and all-encompassing depression related to a subconscious attachment to the trauma of primal separation and loss. According to Julia Kristeva, rather than overcoming this severance by entering into the symbolic realm of language, the depressive subject nihilistically holds onto and consumes it, thereby engendering a distorted a-symbolic relationship to language founded in an attachment to loss, and ultimately the death it signifies (Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, New York 1989, pp. 9-10). Psycho-socially therefore, in the wake of World War II, the desacrilization of German society and erasure of Jewish culture erupts in Kiefer's art as an irreconcilable trauma relayed by an insurmountable sense of aesthetic impoverishment; Kiefer's eviscerated, barren, and fractured landscape thus communicates a melancholic withdrawal and symbolic obliteration associated with an elemental collective sorrow. As outlined by Daniel Arasse: "On their own, on the strength of their primal brutality, these works are the product of an interminable mourning: for the meaning that withdrew from the world at the moment of creation that myths work to feign and history disfigure, for the meaning Anselm Kiefer tries to find by making great fetishes of a lost, expected transparence" (Daniel Arasse, 'In Paintings' Memory' in: Exhibition Catalogue, Paris, Galerie Yvon Lambert, Anselm Kiefer: Cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles, 1996, n.p.).
Ultimately Kristeva confers that it is through artistic creation and expression alone that a sublimation of the melancholic affliction is possible (Julia Kristeva, op. cit., p. 97). Indeed, sharing Joseph Beuys' belief in art as a healing process, Kiefer very much invests faith in art's transcendent potential; by formulating a new universal symbolism rooted in myriad references to mythology, history and psychology, Kiefer proffers a spiritual antidote to an epoch living in the aftermath of historical atrocities. Within Melancholia the solemn visual language of grey and leaden monumentalism, while offering the possibility of creative and spiritual release does so with a contemplative and profound sense of acceptance; the dull ache of modernity and knowledge of the tragic past relays what the German sociologist Max Weber coined "the disenchantment of the world" (Max Weber cited in: Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait, California 1977, p. 69). One of the most poignant and contemplative works ever created by Kiefer, the delicate interplay of alchemical texture weighted against the encompassing notion of sorrow as a well of creativity, truly posits Melancholia as a masterwork of elegiac beauty.
Rising to prominence the early 1980s, Anselm Kiefer provoked controversy for directly addressing the troubled history of Germany's Nazi past. Born just during the final months of World War II, Kiefer's nascent sense of a German collective-consciousness was of a nation plagued by remorse and guilt. In the wake of the Holocaust, Kiefer discussed the loss of the Jewish population as a national cultural amputation: "I cannot imagine German culture without Judaism. Everything that makes German philosophy and poetry interesting to the world is a combination of Germany and Judaism. One thing is that German's committed the immense killing of Jews. The other is that they amputated themselves. They took half of German culture and killed it" (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, 2005, pp. 45-6). Forging a new rhetoric of history painting charged with the atrocities of Hitler's Germany and disseminated through an incorporation of Norse myth, Wagnerian opera, theological and Biblical history, Kiefer's oeuvre expands the boundaries of art via an uncompromising incorporation and thematization of suffering and loss. The archetypal evocation of a scorched and blackened landscape, as continued in Melancholia, permanently denies idealistic German sentimentality about das Land. Kiefer's aesthetic is forged from the evisceration of the past, effecting a muted visual language very much symptomatic of the psychic affliction of mourning. Fundamentally Kiefer's is an artistic practice founded within a collective sense of cultural melancholia.
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