Lot 24
  • 24

Anselm Kiefer

400,000 - 600,000 GBP
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  • Anselm Kiefer
  • Descent of the Soul
  • titled; titled on the reverse
  • emulsion, acrylic, shellac, sunflower seeds, chalk and charcoal on canvas
  • 190 by 280cm.
  • 74 3/4 by 110 1/4 in.
  • Executed in 1996.


Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1997


London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, I hold all Indias in my hands, 1996-97

Catalogue Note

Descent of the Soul is the most important painting by Anselm Kiefer to appear on the market and a work which has not been seen by the public since it was unveiled at the Anthony D'Offay Gallery in London in 1996. It embodies the view that “The difference between seeing pictures of Kiefers and seeing Kiefers is like the difference between reading crime statistics and getting mugged.” (The Baltimore Sun cited in Werner Spies, ‘The Salvageable Past’, in Exhibition Catalogue, Kunsthalle Würth, Schwäbisch Hall, Anselm Kiefer – Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, 2004, p. 83) There is no denying the tremendous visual and intellectual impact of Kiefers’ thickly painted canvases. Often these are as monumental as the subjects they address: German history, political extremism, spirituality, mythology, occult knowledge and the massive neo-classical architecture associated with Nazi imperialism. Kiefer shares the same bleak, unflinching approach to historical events that characterized the work of Francisco Goya, as well as, like Max Beckmann, finding inspiration and contemporary relevance in mythology.

In Descent of the Soul, a pitch black sky (according to Mark Rosenthal, “blackness…is Kiefer’s characteristic tonality”) hangs over a lonely cityscape, with a jaundiced daub of yellow paint depicting the moon. Whereas most Kiefer landscapes have a high horizon with the sky reduced to a narrow strip of paint across the top, creating a sense of claustrophobia, in this work the ground isn’t visible, giving the opposite sensation of dizzying detachment – as if one might float off and be engulfed by the black sky. Among the looming tower blocks, only the lights of one single apartment are lit, and across the darkness a schematic map of the Ptolemaic universe is sketched like chalk on a blackboard. It was Copernicus who took from humanity the comforting reassurance of residing at the center of a universe benignly created around mankind, and for mankind. The black inscrutable sky is vast, unknowable, and strange to the point of threatening.

Descent of the Soul shares the same deep malaise and sinister stillness of De Chirico’s metaphysical pictures. As Werner Spies has pointed out, “Kiefer offers no narratives. Rather than with describable events, he is concerned with the evocation of crime scenes”. With characteristic ambivalence, the Ptolemaic astral map seems almost like the sinopia of a fresco, the structure underlying the work, reflected in the ordered and symmetrical windows of the neoclassical buildings, but at the same time the inscrutable darkness of the sky and the dense impasto of the paint seem to shake off any attempt at imposing order – Kiefer often jokes that “a Jackson Pollock lies beneath”. Order, however, is the principal feature of Ptolemy’s vision of the heavens.

Ptolemy believed the Earth stood at the center of the solar system, with the whole of creation revolving around humanity. This reassuringly anthropocentric vision of existence coincides so well with Christian doctrine that it was absorbed by the Judeo-Christian religions, and for nearly a thousand years was the most widely recognized cosmography. The nine orders of angels were each assigned a sphere of existence (one of the concentric circles radiating out from the earth at the center): Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim in ascending order of importance and closeness to the throne of God, located in the Caelum Empireum beyond the fixed stars. The whole system, marvelous in its simplicity and perfect symmetry, based upon the circle – the symbol of perfection – seemed manifest evidence of the provident hand of God. Unsurprisingly, Medieval representations of God often showed him with compass in hand – an image revived by William Blake in the 18th Century.

Kiefer’s incorporation of arcane science, Christian and Germanic mythology and the Cabala in his works in not for the sake of occult archaicism however, but rather a desire to embrace the past, as something which must be understood to interpret the present. In his notorious early series of photographs Occupations (1969), the artist photographed himself striking the Sieg Heil pose in locations across Europe, explaining “I do not identify with Nero or Hitler, but I have to reenact what they did just a little bit in order to understand the madness.” (cited in Axel Hecht and Werner Krüger, "Venedig 1980: Aktuelle Kunst Made in Germany” in: Art: Das Kunstmagazin, June 1980, p. 52)

In Descent of the Soul the journey performed is the reverse of Dante’s ascent in the Paradiso: at birth the soul descends from God into a human body, a path which mirrors that of Lucifer falling from heaven. But even Dante, after his harrowing journey through the very depths of the Inferno, can say “E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle”-“Thence we came forth and saw the stars”, but in this sky there are no stars (otherwise a standard feature of his work), despite their clearly being marked in the map of the universe: “caelum stellatum”. Critics have described Kiefer’s work as the search for heaven, but here there seems to be no heaven to be found. The black void lacks any of the certainty, clarity and hope that is outlined in the Ptolemaic map of the universe. The disparity between the cosmic plan and the bleak setting reflects Cabalistic belief that the divine unity of the world was shattered during the second phase of Creation, the Shivirai Ha’Kelim.

Furthermore, it is the duty – still according to this belief – of every individual to attempt to recover this unity, a duty which Kiefer associates especially with the artist. In his 1974 work Himmel – Erde (Heaven – Earth), the two spheres of existence are encompassed by the circular outline of an artist’s palette, a circle which recalls the spheres of existence so visible in the Ptolemaic cosmography.

Descent of the Soul was first exhibited at the D’Offay Gallery, in an exhibition titled 'I hold all the Indias in my hands'. The title is derived from a 17th century poem by Francisco Quevedo, and reflects the universality that Kiefer is wishes to capture. Amidst therefore a solitary and soulless urban setting, the egoistic implications of Descent of the Soul and the exaltation of the individual and of his centrality in a universe ordered by human intellect constitute a glaring paradox. The richly textured matière, the cosmic iconography and their combination in an image that magnificently touches on the existential dilemma of man’s brief existence, makes this masterpiece one of Kiefer’s most characteristic and successful works.