Anselm Kiefer

Lilith

1987–9

Medium
Oil paint, ash and copper wire on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 3815 x 5612 x 500 mm
support, each: 3815 x 2806 x 50 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1990
Reference
T05742

Summary

Lilith is a large oil painting across two rectangular canvases that depicts a vast cityscape seen from high above, rendered in muted brown and grey tones. The viewer appears to look down over the city onto a rectangular plaza, which is represented at the bottom of the canvas. Dense rows of very tall buildings extend outwards from this space. These are only loosely defined and they increasingly fade into almost total abstraction towards the edges of the work. The paint is extremely thick and rough and in some places it has been mixed with ash and burned. Many lengths of tarnished copper wire are attached to the work’s surface and especially concentrated in a densely tangled bundle at the bottom right. The title of the painting is inscribed across its top in looping, joined-up letters.

Lilith was made by the German artist Anselm Kiefer in 1987–9 in his studio in Buchen, Germany. It is one of several related works that Kiefer began to produce in 1987 after a visit to the Brazilian city of São Paulo. He represented West Germany at the nineteenth São Paulo Biennial that year and has said that during his time in the city he felt overwhelmed by its chaotic sprawl. As he explained in 2011, ‘The starting point [for these works] were photos that I took in São Paulo. I spent three days photographing the city out of a helicopter. São Paulo is a metropolis of incredibly rapid growth. There are skyscrapers, and then once more favelas. I painted the city from these photos’ (quoted in Müller 2011, accessed 2 January 2014). His representation of the city in Lilith was initially quite detailed, but he repeatedly and violently reworked it over a period of almost two years, so that the scene was increasingly obscured. It was at the end of this process that he burned the canvas. The other paintings that he made based on the photographs of São Paulo in this period are Barren Landscape 1987–9 and another work that is also called Lilith 1987–9. These paintings were produced using a similar style and process to this work owned by Tate.

Lilith is the name of a figure from Hebrew folklore to whom Kiefer referred in many of his works of the 1980s and 1990s. Several different stories are attached to Lilith, but she has been represented most commonly as the first wife of Adam who refused to join him in the Garden of Eden and instead went to live on the edge of the Red Sea. Lilith has been depicted as a demon and also as a siren-like figure who leads men into dangerous situations with her beauty and especially her long, flowing hair. Kiefer has explained his choice of title with reference to Lilith’s association with destruction, stating in 2011 that as he painted this work he ‘thought of … Lilith, who lives in the abandoned ruins. And I asked myself: what does this city say to me? And I thought of the end of the city, its dispersal into ashes, on the circular movement of all time’ (quoted in Müller 2011, accessed 2 January 2014). This idea of destruction is also evoked by Kiefer’s violent reworking and burning of his canvases.

Kiefer has stated further that Lilith and his other cityscapes involve a reflection on the position of cities ‘between heaven and earth … exposed and fragile’, as well as on the ‘long history of [connections between] towers and vanity’ (quoted in Celant 2007, p.447). Lilith seems to combine both of these ideas by representing very tall skyscrapers, which nonetheless look small and ‘fragile’ due to the work’s extremely high vantage point. Kiefer’s reference to vanity might also suggest another link to the intensely sexual figure of Lilith. In the related painting Barren Landscape Kiefer used human hair to evoke a key feature of Lilith’s purported sensual allure. A similar reference seems to be made in Lilith, although in this work he used coarse, tarnished wire rather than soft hair.

Lilith features several characteristics that are extremely common in Kiefer’s practice, such as the work’s large scale, its very thick application of paint, its combination of mixed media elements with oil paints and its use of muted brown and grey tones, which produce a sombre mood. Kiefer’s works almost always make reference to specific historical and mythological narratives and he has created many other works that relate directly to Jewish mythology.

Further reading
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, London 1991, p.281.
Germano Celant, Anselm Kiefer, exhibition catalogue, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Bilbao 2007.
Betram Müller, ‘Menschen noch nicht reif für Atomenergie: Künstler Anselm Kiefer im Interview’, Rheinische Post, 8 October 2011, http://www.rp-online.de/kultur/kunst/menschen-noch-nicht-reif-fuer-atomenergie-aid-1.2285505, accessed 2 January 2014.

Lucy Watling
January 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

Display caption

This horrific vision of urban sprawl was inspired by Kiefer’s visit to Sao Paulo in Brazil. Tangled copper wiring signals the breakdown of communication. The city is engulfed in an apocalyptic haze, which Kiefer created by spreading dust and earth across the painting, then burning parts of its surface. According to Hebrew mythology, Lilith was Adam’s first wife, a seductive and demonic airborne spirit. In Kiefer’s painting, Lilith seems to bring destruction from the air upon Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist buildings.

Gallery label, June 2008