- Anselm Kiefer
- Dein Aschenes Haar, Sulamith
- oil and straw on canvas
- 51 1/4 x 67 inches
Christie's, London, November 30, 1995, Lot 44 (consigned by the above)
Acquired by the present owner from the above
he writes he writes when dusk falls to Germany
your Golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith we dig a grave in the breezes
there one lies unconfined …
… He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot
you other sing now and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes
jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on
for the dance …
… He calls out more clearly now stroke your strings
then as smoke you will rise into air …
… your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith
Paul Celan, excerpt from ‘Death Fugue,’ in Poems, translated by Michael Hamburger, New York, 1980, pp. 50-53
Executed in 1981, Anselm Kiefer’s sensational masterwork Dein Aschenes Haar, Sulamith is a superb exemplar of the artist’s canon, embodying his profoundly significant, historically informed and uniquely poetic aesthetic dialect. Deftly exemplifying key themes of his oeuvre, the present work draws on the legacy and power of poetry, as well as a spiritualistic contemplation of the land in line with Kiefer’s longstanding efforts to identify and evaluate the fundamentals of human existence. As with a number of the artist’s most commanding canvases, Dein Aschenes Haar, Sulamith reflects Kiefer’s deep admiration for the poet Paul Celan; it is a particularly arresting work from a series of paintings that took as their source and inspiration Celan’s celebrated 1944 poem Death Fugue. Created at the very incipit of a period of prolonged contemplation concerning the narrative properties of this poem – a preoccupation that would consume Kiefer for over twenty-five years and come to constitute the single most recurrent leitmotif of his oeuvre – the present work is a sensational early expression of a presiding artistic impulse to express the incommunicable sufferings of the Second World War. In Dein Aschenes Haar, Sulamith Kiefer’s frame of reference is dense and complex, and cannot be unraveled via a single route of explanation. Indeed, the present work is wholly demonstrative of the importance of each viewer’s singular ontological response to the artist’s corpus: although he speaks in a language that is often enigmatic and elusive, the resulting composition remains powerfully direct and affecting, imbued with the abiding power to provoke the most honest and visceral responses from its viewers. Dein Aschenes Haar, Sulamith, in the multivalent philosophical and emotional import that it transmits, endures as a truly phenomenal artistic achievement.
Paul Celan, a Romanian Jew, wrote his haunting allegory on the horrors of war while imprisoned in a concentration camp; it would become the poet’s most celebrated work after eventually being published in 1952. The poem ends with the lines: “your golden hair Margarete // your ashen hair Sulamith” and it is around these two figures that the paintings in Kiefer’s resultant corpus revolve. Indeed, within the larger series of paintings he executed based on Death Fugue, no single theme ever captured Kiefer’s imagination as deeply as that of Margarete and Sulamith, a narrative so profoundly imbued with the haunting specter of the Holocaust. In the present work, the golden straw that densely occupies the lower register of the canvas is meant to represent Margarete’s golden hair, a metaphor for Aryan identity. The plot imagined by Celan is one of opposition: Margarete, defined by her flaxen hair and described as the subject of a German guard’s affection is cast in stark contrast to Sulamith, a Jewish woman with black hair that has turned ashen from exposure to smoke, who is made to work and dance for the guard. Incised in Kiefer’s signature scrawl along the upper right edge of the canvas, this work’s title seems to emerge from the depths of the artist’s densely layered surface, a spectral presence haunting the constructed image.
Text for Kiefer has always been a powerful aesthetic tool, tantamount to technique, medium, and compositional arrangement in terms of significance to his corpus. Dein Aschenes Haar, Sulamith, while specifically evocative of Sulamith’s character in its title, holds strong symbols of both women within the confines of its four borders. While Margarete’s blonde hair is referenced in the lower half of the canvas, the upper register is dominated by undulating ridges of built-up straw layers that have been painted first black to reflect Sulamith’s heritage and then white to reflect the exposure to ash. Robust strands of this depicted hair, laden with the full weight of history, radiate diagonally downward from the upper left corner of the canvas, like rays of sunlight cast in the impenetrable shadow of a solar eclipse. The resulting composition is simultaneously vast and intimate: a portrayal of two precise characters conveyed through an expansive landscape. The connection between personal history and topography – a theme so inherent to Kiefer’s oeuvre – could not be more apparent or more impactful here. For Kiefer, the land is a "metaphysical place where the artist attempts to understand complex ideas and themes and then integrate them into his physical surrounding. This place is the mind itself, at once malleable and steadfast, a filter through which concepts are pondered, invented, buried or transformed. Secret rites are performed there, and history is reordered; all is possible." (Mark Rosenthal in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago (and travelling), Anselm Kiefer, 1987, p. 22) Kiefer aims to transform his painting's quotidian constituents – canvas, paint, straw, and dirt - into something of extreme metaphorical significance. This painting thus evokes the transformative effect and alchemical potential that is inherent to and characteristic of his best work.
Anselm Kiefer's great contribution to the history of art is his complex amalgamation of a variety of materials and paint within a narrative structure drawn from grand historical, mythological and literary sources. Indeed, in these ways he can be seen as a history painter fit for the twenty-first century. Yet beyond simply reflecting the social, political, and historic truths of his era, Kiefer’s art seeks to read the present through the lens of his country’s difficult past. In reference to the paintings inspired by Celan’s Death Fugue, Mark Rosenthal commented, “In Kiefer’s view, Germany maimed itself and its civilization by destroying its Jewish members and so, by frequently alluding to both figures, he attempts to make Germany whole again.” (Ibid., p. 96) German identity and history are pivotal ideas in Kiefer’s work. Early on in his career in 1971, the artist started to visit Joseph Beuys in his studio in Dusseldorf and continued to do so for over a year. The elder artist’s concern with his own past and fascination with mythological subjects was a key influence for Kiefer, who has since created an astonishingly complex body of work that contains a multitude of references to German history and mythology. The dynamic and vigorous method by which Kiefer executed Dein Aschenes Haar, Sulamith brings a sense of urgency and strong emotion that attests to the importance the subject plays in his work. The result is a powerful and energetic painting, the artist’s own reflection on his past, and that of his nation.