Contemporary Art

Language as Landscape, Anselm Kiefer and the Poetry of Paul Celan

By Sotheby's
Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening auction on 26 June features a moving painting by Anselm Kiefer, which draws on the poetic works of Paul Celan.

A nselm Kiefer’s apocalyptic 2006 work, Des Herbstes Runengespinst, testifes to the artist’s seismic return to the subject of poetry as the focus of his artistic practice.

Taking its name from a recurrent motif found in the Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan’s writings, Des Herbstes Runengespinst ruminates on the stoic lyricism and deep melancholy of Celan’s poetry. Celan’s writing was largely composed while he was interned in Nazi concentration camps, and in it he grapples with themes of death and mourning. The poet’s use of the German language interrogated its viability as a vehicle for poetry and German-Jewish culture after the horrors of the Second World War. Des Herbstes Runengespinst work marks the zenith of Kiefer’s intense preoccupation with Celan’s poetry, an obsession that formed the single most recurrent theme throughout decades of the artist’s practice and is instrumental to Kiefer’s poetic aesthetic dialect. In Des Herbstes Runengespinst, Kiefer draws on the legacy and power of poetry, alongside a distinctly German tradition of contemplating landscape as a metaphor for the fundamentals of human existence.

“And suddenly, these stumps made me think of runes. It was then that I remembered that Paul Celan had written a poem containing the words autumn’s runic weave. The result was an exhibition on Celan”
Anselm Kiefer in conversation with Horst Christoph and Nina Schedlmaer, 'Profil', 6 August 2005

Rendered in Kiefer’s characteristic monumental scale and mournful tones, Des Herbstes Runengespinst emanates the artist’s idiosyncratic sense of esoteric lyricism. Kiefer’s distinctly poetic understanding of composition and visual rhythm is superbly rendered in the furrowed trenches that define the ruinous landscape of Des Herbstes Runengespinst. The rhythmic structure of Celan’s work is echoed in the staccato tempo of stalks dotted across the canvas, both defining the trenches of this solemn scene, and forming the scrawling characters of a runic alphabet across the surface of the canvas.

The title is etched along the upper edge of the composition, subtly interrupting the dramatic perspective of the horizon. Here, text is brilliantly mobilised as a powerful aesthetic tool, complicating the viewer’s sense of perspective and drawing attention to the surface of the picture plane and the frailty of the illusions of perspective. Michael Auping explores this exceptional coalescing of the spheres of poetry and painting, stating: “in Kiefer’s imagery, as well as his own use of words in combination with images, he absorbed some of Celan’s sense of the tragic becoming the surreal” (Michael Auping cited in: Exh. Cat., Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Anslem Kiefer: Heaven and Earth).

The psychological charge of Celan’s poetry vibrates through Kiefer’s barren and haunting landscapes, creating a highly immersive and emotional experience for the viewer. Through the symbolic weight of the ploughed landscape, Des Herbstes Runengespinst engages with a great German tradition, championed by his fellow countryman, the nineteenth-century Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, of foregrounding an emotional response to the natural world. Kiefer’s apparent battle scenes offer the viewer a spiritual contemplation of the landscape as a potent reflection of the condition of man. This work’s melancholic stillness and silence intoxicate the viewer. Kiefer's ability to transform a painting’s material reality into an object of substantial metaphorical significance lies at the heart of the artist's invention.

From the centre of Des Herbstes Runengespinst’s bleak landscape erupts an enormous swath of metal, dividing the composition into distinctive spheres of order above and chaos below, as well as injecting a surreal tone to the work. Violently tearing up the picture plane, a single book rests splayed open upon a shelf. The viewer is met with Kiefer’s distinctly personal lexicon of highly charged symbols sprawled across this ruinous landscape. Decades of Kiefer’s artistic output have been dedicated to honing a symbolic visual language, executed with a Beuysian manipulation of materiality. The resulting hieroglyphic archive is both highly personal and deeply engaged with a collective cultural psyche, where an open tome may conjure associations of the Nazi practice of book burning. Des Herbstes Runengespinst is a complex matrix of spirituality where politically charged symbols and personal biography invoke an aesthetic tied to the destruction of post-war Germany.

Des Herbstes Runengespinst is an exemplar of the artist’s canon, qualifying its centrality in the Guggenheim Bilbao’s monumental Kiefer retrospective in 2007. It is Kiefer’s mastery in weaving the disparate threads of personal biography, materiality, collective cultural psyche, and perhaps most importantly, poetry, together in his work that has earned him his position as one of the most important artists of his generation.

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