In this striking composition, a lead submarine, stranded in a barren, desert landscape, scars the surface of the painting. The submarine immediately conjures up memories of Germany’s Nazi past. Even the ashen hair wrapping around the submarine harkens back to German concentration camps where Nazi officers shaved the heads of Jewish men, women, and children. The violence of the painting crashes over the viewer. Through his masterful use of symbols, Kiefer condemns the futility of war, which yields only death and despair. The jagged cracks in the dry soil add to this sense of hopelessness - the very background is decaying like a corpse.
Despite the sense of anguish which seems to overwhelm the painting, Claudia Quinta also hints at redemption. In traditional alchemy, lead is an impure metal associated with death and also the impurities - or sins - of mankind. This reading aligns with Kiefer’s critique of war. However, when purified with fire, lead can be transmuted into gold. In this regard lead represents the potential for the absolution of sin and rebirth. Kiefer has been fascinated by lead throughout his career as he believes it is a material capable of capturing the ambiguity of life: “I feel closest to lead because it is like us. It is in flux. It’s changeable and has the potential to achieve a higher state” (Anselm Kiefer cited in: Exh. Cat., Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, 2005, p. 37).
The title of this work alludes to the mythological account of how a Roman matron embarked on the quest to return the goddess Cybele to her homeland during the punic War. Claudia Quinta, who had an impeccable reputation for being a chaste woman, had been accused of in-chastity, but as her ship washed up and got stuck on a sandbar on the Tiber, Cybele intervened, liberating the ship and restoring Claudia Quinat's reputation. Reminiscent of the scene the submarine in the present work appears to be stranded on a muddy shore, attesting to Kiefer's unique ability to integrate classic mythology, history and science and create his own language.
Kiefer believes that myth can act as a lens through which to see the present, since for him, “The reality was so overwhelming, so incredible that I had to use myths to express my emotions….The reality was too onerous to be real. I had to work through myth to recreate it” (Anselm Kiefer, in: “Interview with Bernard Comment,” Art Press, Paris, September 1998, online). By titling his work Claudia Quinta, Kiefer seems to imply that Germany too can expiate for its sins as a country by acknowledging the horrors of the past and dragging itself out from the symbolic desert.
Through the conflation of German historical symbols with alchemical and mythological references, Kiefer’s work evolves from a dark critique of the Second World War into a hopeful dream for rebirth. Both interpretations coexist, and together they form Kiefer’s nuanced view of history. This dynamic work shifts and unfolds itself as the viewer struggles to understand it with all its complexity.
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