Illustrated companion

In the early 1970s, against the grain of then current avant-garde trends. Anselm Kiefer began to produce paintings in which great myths of the German tradition were reworked in ways that were both deeply personal and gave them a fresh relevance in the light both of Germany's recent past and of its present condition. 'Parsifal III' is one of four paintings of this title which can be exhibited as a group or individually. Three of them are in the Tate Gallery [see also T03403 and T03404], and when shown together form a triptych of which this is the centre panel. The title refers both to Wagner's opera Parsifal and the original medieval legends that were Wagner's sources. Parsifal's father dies a heroic death in battle while still young; his mother determines that he shall not suffer the same fate, and brings him up in innocence of the chivalric world of arms and combat. He nevertheless discovers it, and, aspiring to knighthood, leaves his mother and arrives in the kingdom of the Holy Grail, where he fulfils a prophecy that a 'guileless fool' will save the Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper) from destruction or domination by the forces of evil. He does so by retrieving the Holy Spear (that wounded Christ's side) and using it to heal the mortally wounded Guardian of the Grail, Amfortas.

In the left-hand panel [Tate Gallery T03403] appears a cot and, just to the right of it, the name of Parsifal's mother, Herzelayde ('Suffering Heart'), evoking Parsifal's birth and early life. It seems likely that Kiefer saw a parallel between Parsifal's upbringing in rejection of his father's warrior past, and the circumstances of the post-war generation in Germany, bent on assuaging the guilt of recent German history.

The right-hand panel [Tate Gallery T03404] refers to Parsifal's defeat of the evil knight Ither, whose name appears beside his broken sword spattered with real blood (not human) while Parsifal's sword quivers triumphantly erect in the boards beside it.

In the centre panel appears the Holy Spear, the goal of Parsifal. The names of all the principal characters in the drama are inscribed around the painting and the quotation across the bottom translates as 'O woundful wonderful holy spear'. Also inscribed, in the upper left of the picture, but hard to see because the artist originally covered them up and they have emerged with time, are the names of the principal members of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, who were at the forefront of national attention in Germany at the time Kiefer made this painting. Their activities marked the most extreme manifestation of the discontent of the generation that reached adulthood in the 1960s, with the Germany of their parents. The setting is derived from the wooden beamed interior of the artist's studio.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.280