Executed in 2006, Des Herbstes Runengespinst testifies to Anselm Kiefer’s seismic return to the subject of poetry as the primary 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 that exudes from Celan’s poetry. Largely composed while he was interned in Nazi concentration camps, Celan’s poetry 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. The present 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 uniquely 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.
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 recurrent furrowed trenches that define the ruinous landscape of Des Herbstes Runengespinst. The structural influence of Celan’s highly sonic prose reverberates 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, 2005, p. 37).
The psychological charge of Celan’s poetry vibrates through Kiefer’s baron and haunting landscapes. The effect is immersive, all encompassing and a highly 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 Freidrich, 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 conditions of man. This work exudes a sense of stillness and silence that intoxicates the viewer with heady melancholy. 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; politically charged symbols and personal biography invoke an aesthetic tied to the destruction of post-war Germany.
Des Herbstes Runengespinst forms a superb 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 his position as one of the most important artists of his generation.
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