Kiefer’s powerfully charged art confronts the viewer on many levels. In his depiction of loaded sites and spaces, whether buildings associated with Nazi Germany or ephemeral landscapes connected to Nordic mythology, what impresses the viewer at once is the materiality of both object and gesture made by the artist. Kiefer’s work is firmly rooted to a German tradition of art making: he has, like his German predecessors Dürer and Kirchner (for example) made a number of woodcuts as well as books. Kiefer’s art is, however, one that tackles not only the Teutonic form of expression, here amplified on a grand scale, but also engages with, and fuses together, various strands of memory and meaning that create the tapestry of German heritage. This heritage is seen through Kiefer’s bold and honest glass, and thus he openly makes commentary about Germany in the 1930s, and the sociopolitical climate of that time. At the same time, he weaves together these political issues with myths and stories from wider cultural traditions, in Die Argonauten the writing of Velimir Chlebnikov, finding parallels and mutual metaphors in terms of battles, wars, struggle and freedom.
Die Argonauten presents an intellectually complex composition in which Kiefer’s unusual working materials coalesce to produce a visual and symbolic blend of mythology, history, and language. In the conflation of temporal specificity and the spatial perspectives of sea and sky, Kiefer delves into mystical narratives as principally emphasised by the submarine-like vessel floating at the centre of the composition. Kiefer’s submarine appears to ride swells and navigate waves reminiscent of the endless breaks in Gustave Courbet’s seascapes, while the artist’s archetypal use of lead acts as an homage to his teacher, the iconic German conceptualist Joseph Beuys, who created revolutionary sculpture using similarly symbolically charged materials. That the iconic submarine, which is a reoccurring symbol throughout Kiefer’s oeuvre, is made of lead in this work is of great significance: Kiefer frequently commented that this soft metal has a much stronger effect on him than any other material and has become itself a source of ideas. The unique metal also possesses certain qualities that make it a subject unto itself, as Danilo Eccher has commented: "Lead is for Kiefer, in keeping with alchemical tradition, the magic metal which preserves memory; which, with its own soft weight, creates a reduced, weary representation of the world in order to absorb the wounds in its wrinkled skin" (Danilo Eccher, ‘Anselm Kiefer: A Dark Soul’, in: Exh. Cat., Bologna, Galleria d'Arte Moderna di Bologna, Anselm Kiefer: Stelle Cadenti, 1999, p. 87). Heaving with matter and suffused with a multiplicity of artistic, historic, and mythical associations Die Argonauten delivers a complex display of Kiefer's aesthetic, forged from the evisceration of the past and symptomatic of the psychic affliction of warfare.
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