Carved, rather than painted, in a thick layer of impasto, the figure of a horse emerges from the dark imposing canvas with the word Granefloating above its back. Piercing through the surrounding obscurity, white lines along the horse’s body contrast sharply with the reddish flames in the lower half of the composition.
In Richard Wagner’s operatic cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, his adaptation of the pre-Christian Germanic poem the Nibelungenlied, Grane is heroine Brünhilde’s horse. Towards the end of the fourth and last cycle, Brünhilde, in grief over her lover Siegfried’s murder, rides with her horse Grane into the lover's funeral pyre to join him in the afterlife.
In one of the original versions of the epic poem, of which oral retellings are believed to trace back to the Sixth Century, Brünhilde and Siegfried are not the legendary lovers they will become in Wagner’s opera. The dragon-slayer hero Siegfried, to be offered the hand of Burgundian King Gunther’s sister Kriemhild (Gutrune in Wagner’s version), helps Gunther court the Icelandic Queen Brünhilde. On the royal couple’s wedding night, Brünhilde refuses to offer herself to Gunther. Siegfried agrees to help the weak king again, and wearing an invisibility cloak beats the unruly queen into submission - where it is implied that he also takes advantage of the situation and assaults her. Years later when the truth is revealed, King Gunther reluctantly agrees to a plan to kill Siegfried and restore his dignity.
In Wagner’s version however, Siegfried and Brünhilde - then not an Icelandic queen but a Valkyrie, mortal daughter of the King of Gods Wotan - were lovers before King Gunther’s pursuit of her. Siegfried would later unknowingly drink a potion that erased all his memories of her, and married Gunther’s sister Gutrune instead. As Siegfried then helped King Gunther in his courting, the betrayed Brünhilde, unaware of the spell that was cast on her former lover, is responsible for a string of events that would ultimately lead to the assassination of Siegfried and her suicide.
Wagner’s liberal adaptation of the Nibelungenlied is, according to Herfried Münkler, iconic of a wider Germanic stance of re-reading History. For Kiefer "[his] art represents a categorical denial of this idea. This explains why he never joined the project, conducted by many of his fellow artists; of civilizing myths by the means of art. Instead, he immersed himself in mythology; rather than distancing himself, he brought its power fully to the fore” (Herfried Münkler, 'Anselm Kiefer and the Myths of the Germans', in: Exhibition Catalogue, Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk, Anselm Kiefer, 2010, p. 8).
Archetypal of Kiefer’s early practice, Grane magnificently exemplifies the artist’s overarching aim to dismantles the purposeful re-reading of myths that make up the German identity. Disquieting and powerful, Brünhilde’s horse in Wagner’s version of the Nibelungenlied is the sacrificial lamb, offered on the altar of Siegfried’s virtue and Brünhilde’s love.