Saturday, May 14, 2011

Anselm Kiefer's Parsifal in Zurich

To my delight, my nine year old suggested last Saturday that we should visit the Kunsthaus together. Saturday morning turns out to be an ideal time to visit; it was like we had the museum to ourselves.  Here is a photo of my daughter standing next to a great painting: Parsifal by Anselm Kiefer, painted on paper using oils and blood. You can see that it is a very large, monumental work. It is from a series of four, the other three being in the Tate Modern in London. Though photographs of the other three are widely available, this one, the largest, is more rare.

Those of you who read my blog regularly (I think that's a total of one or two) will know that I am a fan of Richard Wagner. So I was happy when I discovered some years ago this painting, that brings together one of my favourite composers with one of my favourite artists. Parsifal is, of course, Wagner's last opera, the idea of which, by coinicidence, he concieved on Good Friday in Zurich in 1857.

Anselm Kiefer's Parsifal, is not a light, joyful painting; none of his work is.  Indeed I suppose you could accuse Kiefer, like Wagner, of being a bit on the heavy side.  Kiefer was born in the Year Zero of German history, that is, 1945, just a month before the suicide of Adolf Hitler.  As Kiefer once said, his life is the story of Germany. The painting is of his atelier, marked by ominous shadows in the foreground, and the immense wooden rafters and planks leave one in no doubt that this is a space constructed of wood. The painting has got great texture, tempting one to reach out and touch it.  If I did, I imagine I would feel the splinters from the wood. For me, the space represents the primeval wood or mythical forest from which German legend and history arose. All of Kiefer's work is about this - what it means to be German, the roots out of which Germanhood arose, and the pivot around which all of German history revolves - the Holocaust.  All German kultur - the stories collected by the Grimm brothers, the philosophy of Hegel, the operas of Wagner - lead to the twelve years of insanity, when Germans gave away their freedom and the greatest crime in Europe's bloody history was committed, and scarred the continent's past, present and future.

At the top of the painting Kiefer has painted the name Parsifal, while in the bottom left hand corner he has painted the name Amfortas,scrawled like the signatures of forgotten prisoners locked in some nightmarish attic space.

According to medieval German legend Parsifal, the innocent, wonderful fool, sets out to find the Holy Grail. Amfortas, the sinner, is suffering from a spear wound that bleeds continuously. For Kiefer, the genocide of Jews and Gypsies remains the open wound that still festers and poisons our view of German history. In the centre of the painting we find the Parsifal's Holy Grail.  Kiefer has painted the closing words of Wagner's Parsifal:  "Höchsten Heiles Wunder! Erlosung dem Erloser!" or "Highest Miracle of Salvation! Redemption of the Redeemer" above the Grail. But Kiefer's Grail mock's Wagner's words, as it sits on a wooden stool, dripping blood, real blood. The unredemptive blood spilt by German history.

Like any great artist, Anselm Kiefer is an alchemist. He breaks down the boundaries between myth and history, the past and the future, literature, music and politics, and turns them into something more precious than gold: art that goes to the core of the human condition.


  1. I have always been intrigued by the strong use of perspective in Kiefer's work. It recalls the cages in Francis Bacon's pope series. Could perspective in both instances represent entrapment, the kind that history recounts in the twentieth century?

  2. A wonderfully perceptive comment. Entrapment, indeed. Both painters certainly have a lot in common, not least the rich use of texture in their works. And they are both intellectual, literary artists. Off the cuff, I would say that Bacon's work represents an entrapment that is existential (depite the fact that his pope series nevertheless contains strong historical references) while Kiefer's entrapment is more purely historical.

    thanks a million :-)