Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 2001, Lot 32 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection (acquired from the above sale)
Sotheby's, New York, 10 May 2005, Lot 69 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above sale)
Christie’s, London, 16 February 2011, Lot 35
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Dresden, Residenzschloss Dresden, Dalí/Miró/Picasso..., Sammlung Ulla und Heiner Pietzsch, June - August 2000
Kiefer’s powerfully charged art confronts the viewer on many levels. In his depiction of loaded sites and spaces, whether buildings associated with Nazi Germany or ephemeral landscapes connected to Nordic mythology, what impresses the viewer at once is the sheer scale, of both object and gesture made by the artist. Kiefer’s work is firmly rooted to a German tradition of art making: he has, like his German predecessors Dürer and Kirchner (for example) made a number of woodcuts as well as books. Kiefer’s art is, however, one that tackles not only the Teutonic form of expression, here amplified on a grand scale, but also engages with, and fuses together, various strands of memory and meaning that create the tapestry of German heritage. This heritage is seen through Kiefer’s bold and honest glass, and thus he openly makes commentary about Germany in the 1930s, and the sociopolitical climate of that time. At the same time, he weaves together these political issues with myths and stories from Nordic tradition, finding parallels and mutual metaphors in terms of battles, wars, struggle and freedom.
Kiefer has made a number of works entitled Athanor and their iconography vary according to the emphasis Kiefer wishes to place with his subject. Considering an earlier version, in juxtaposition, serves to illuminate the dynamics operating within the structure of the present work. The 1983-84 version differs from the present work in that the ‘stage’ Kiefer paints is the outdoor courtyard Albert Speer had designed for the Berlin Chancellery. It is the same setting as that used for Kiefer’s To the Unknown Painter, also from the early 1980s. In this work a palette stands where ceremonial sculptures may have stood, the building appears newer, less dilapidated than in the Athanor structure. It is as if the artist has charred the surface, deliberately deteriorating the building. The reason for the charring is explained by the title of the present work. ‘Athanor’ was a large furnace used by alchemists who attempted to transmute lead (amongst other materials) into gold. For the alchemist to be able to execute this transmutation, he must first master the powers of the four elements: earth, wind, air and fire. While the alchemical transformation is a physical shift, from matter to gold, there is, by extension, a spiritual connotation. The transformation is a change in spirit, from one plane to another. The fire which the alchemist tames is thus not one of destruction but of purification, a philosophy that is akin to that of Yves Klein for whom burning enacted an alchemical transformation. When exploring the vocabulary of the ‘Athanor’, one can now see why Kiefer has charred the surface: he has purified the courtyard of its association with Nazi Germany, his own fire cleansed the environment of its own history.
The present iteration of the Athanor theme was executed in 1991, and now we see the building has changed. Speer’s courtyard has been replaced with the Reichstag itself. Again the surface appears charred, and, in this particular painting, Kiefer seems to make the same associations between fire and purification, but the narrative is more localised. At the beginning of the 1930s, the Reichtsag was burned down by Nazi supporters who associated it with the Communists. Kiefer certainly alludes to that moment in the present work. The building appears shell-like, as if we witness the last burning embers of the fire. Its emptiness, as well as the ravaged ground and pregnant sky, add a curious serenity to the scene. It also adds a grandeur, as Kiefer here creates a building reminiscent of the Ancient temples of Greece and Rome. Kiefer’s ‘Athanor’ has now become a Parthenon for the Twentieth Century, and he himself a Delphic Oracle for Germany’s past. The viewer is presented with a building that encapsulates a rich lexicon of memories and histories: its fragility suggesting the weaknesses of the past, yet the fact it still remains barely intact evoking a certain hope for the future.
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