Anselm Kiefer

The Rhine


Original title
Der Rhein
Metal lectern, Perspex and book with woodcuts on paper
Object: 1180 x 420 x 95 mm
Presented by the Patrons of New Art with assistance from Deutsche Bank through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1985

Display caption

This book comprises a sequence of 25 woodcuts, that suggest a journey downstream along the banks of the Rhine. The river is central to Germany''s geographical and historical development, acquiring an almost mythic significance in works such as Wagner''s Ring of the Nibelungs. Scenes of the unspoiled river are interrupted by dark, swirling pages that represent the sinking of the battleship Bismark in 1945, during an Atlantic sortie codenamed Rhine Exercise.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

Anselm Kiefer born 1945

T04128 The Rhine 1981

Book of woodcuts on paper laid on 25 pages of cardboard, size when closed 190 x 420 x [95] (23 1/4 x 16 1/2 x 3 3/4), width when open 1180 (46 1/2)
Inscribed 'Der Rhein' on cover, top centre
Presented by the Patrons of New Art, with assistance from Deutsche Bank, through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1985
Prov: bt from the artist by Anthony d'Offay Gallery 1985
Exh: Anselm Kiefer, Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, March-May 1984 (176); Unique Books: Clemente, Kiefer, Twombly, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Sept.-Oct. 1985 (6)

T04128 comprises 25 double pages (stiff cardboard onto which woodcuts on whole or composite sheets are stuck on each side) including the front and back covers. Is is displayed on a steel lectern measuring 1932 x 950 x 700 (76 5/8 x 37 3/8 x 27 1/2) made in the artist's studio by his assistant. The lectern was designed and constructed for the exhibition in London in 1985 as a means of displaying the book. The book can also be displayed without the stand.

Kiefer's earliest books date back to the late 1960s ('You're a Painter', 'The Flooding of Heidelberg' and 'Heroic Allegories', all 1969). He continued to make books throughout the 1970s, using a variety of media and techniques. These include works on photographic paper then overworked and also works such as T04128, which are woodcuts on paper. Although books based on overworked photographic images predominate, some of the books are made from woodcuts, such as 'Teutoburg Forest' 1977 and 'Paths of Wisdom - Hermann Battle' 1978 (all repr. Anselm Kiefer: Verbrennen Verholzen Versenken Versanden, exh. cat., XXXIX Biennale, Venice 1980, [p.18-281]. As with T04128 these woodcut books are related to and made in conjunction with large-scale works with similar titles. The same woodcut images or parts of them are used in different combinations. In the larger scale works they are combined to form one work from multiple images and in the books the woodcuts are used individually, or cut up and used to form composite images.

There are five large-scale, thematically related works which use similar images to T04128, in part from the same blocks. These are 'Rhine' 1980/82 (private collection; repr. Anselm Kiefer: Peintures 1983-1984, exh. cat., Musée d'art contemporain, Bordeaux 1984, p.28), 'The Rhine' 1982/3 (repr. ibid., p.29), 'To the Unknown Painter' 1982 (private collection; repr. ibid., p.36; the title and date of this work is given as 'The Rhine' 1980 in Mark Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 1987, fig.69), 'The Rhine' 1983 (collection of Celine and Heiner Bastian, Berlin; repr. ibid., p.60, in col.) and 'The Rhine' 1983 (Saatchi Collection, London, repr. Düsseldorf exh. cat.1984, p.117, in col.).

The Rhine, to important for the geographical and historical development of Germany and for its legends, emerged in Kiefer's work from the theme of the unknown painter, first explored in the book The Source of the Danube, 1978 (repr. Düsseldorf exh. cat. 1984, p.73). The theme of the unknown painter relates to Kiefer's continuing preoccupation with the role and validity of painting and the painter. In the earlier 1970s he had equated the corrective and restorative role of the artist with burning, in paintings such as 'Nero Paints' 1974 (Prinz von Bayern Collection on loan to Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich; repr. Rosenthal 1987, pl.24 in col.), 'Painting = Burning' 1974 (collection of Jerry and Emily Spiegel, Kings Point, New York, repr. ibid., pl.25 in col.) and 'Painting of the Scorched Earth' 1974 (private collection, repr. ibid., fig.44). According to Rosenthal.

Kiefer is characterizing the painter and political leader as deluded seekers after immortality. They take possession of a place that they consider either contemptible or beyond their sphere, in chaos as is were, and transform it by burning into a component of their world. In the case of the artist, Kiefer has spoken of the figurative need to burn away the efforts of his predecessors in order to create something new and important (Rosenthal 1987, p.60).

The need to resort to drastic and restorative corrective measures is already present in such books as 'Flooding of Heidelberg' of 1969, except that here the destructive element is water, not fire.

The Rhine is one of the chief arteries nourishing Germany's sense of physical and psychological nationhood and its appearance in the complex of ideas and existing themes in Kiefer's work is recognition of its high symbolic significance. In the large-scale works related to T04128 Kiefer draws a clear distinction between the near and far banks of the river. The near side, where the viewer stands, is wild and impenetrable, tree trunks rise like bars hindering access, although affording a view of the far bank. The far side, in turn, is dominated by man-made structures (see below).

These works are, however, compositionally more complex, representing a superimposition of different images drawn in different scales. With the exception of one of the large-scale works which dispenses with the middle ground, all 'The Rhine' works are divided into three roughly equal horizontal sections. At the base of the images behind the vertically rising trunks which run from the bottom to the top of the image, are the collaged woodcuts which offer the panoramic view across the river. These images form the basic materials chosen when compiling the 'Rhine' books. In three of the large-scale images, a fire burns at the bottom centre of the image, on the near bank. Its significance has been discussed above. Fire in a different manifestation was included in the thematic material of the 'Rhine' books, which is discussed more fully below. The other notion of opposition and contrast is represented by the image at the top of all five large-scale works. Here a building surmounts the lower parts of the images which are above a middle ground dominated by the rising tree trunks. Mark Rosenthal writes:

In a series of woodcuts called 'The Rhine', Kiefer joined the theme of the unknown artist with the fate of Germany itself. In an early version dating from 1980 (fig.69), he creates a composition reminiscent of Resurrexit (pl.7), in which a landscape supports a smaller, architectural image ... The backdrop is Wilhelm Kreis's Hall of Soldiers, c.1939 (fig.70), a weighty distortion of classical architecture. Kiefer writes across the top 'dem unbekannten Maler' (to the unknown painter), yet titles the work The Rhine, thereby conflating the most profound symbol of his country, the river Rhine, with an architectural manifestation of its lowest point in history and the memory, as well, of its lost artistic genius (Rosenthal 1987, p.106; the figure numbers quoted above refer to this catalogue).

In a second painting, also entitled The Rhine, 1983 (collection of Céline and Heiner Bastian, Berlin, repr. Rosenthal 1987, p.114 in col.) a number of trees dominate the foreground. Rosenthal writes of them:

according to the perspective of The Rhine, these plants must be understood as truly immense, like a stand of Yggdrasil trees that may shake but will not be destroyed by the events occurring nearby. These 'cosmic pillars' reach to the heavens and counterbalance the earthly manifestations in the picture. Kiefer's juxtapositions of archetypal motifs in 'The Rhine' series make is an icon for the contemplation of the fate of Germany and its citizens (Rosenthal 1987, p.106)

A book comprising photos taken in 1969-70 called 'Journey through the Country I The Rhine' (Düsseldorf exh. cat. 1984, [170]) precedes the three volumes of woodcuts, which are entitled 'The Rhine'. T04128 is one of these three volumes. One of the other two volumes of 'The Rhine' is reproduced in full in Anselm Kiefer: Bilder 1986-1980 exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1986, pp.107-111. There are differences in T04128 in the number of certain plates included in the book and in the inking of the woodcuts. A third version of the book, made in 1983, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Each of the inside pages opens into a single image printed over the double page. While the whole book appears sequential and invites the viewer to turn over the pages in order to participate in the development of the work, several images are in fact printed from the same blocks. For four of the images Kiefer has used the same block, although differentiations in the inking process produce different intensities of black and variations of contour and line. Four blocks have been used twice, two blocks have been used three times and one block four times. The thickness of the inking has led to slow drying and a puckering of the ink as is dried. On a number of the prints, more thinly inked, the woodgraining and brushstrokes show through and add to the texture of the whole.

The cover depicts a hill across the river rising up towards the right, with the title written across the sky. The succeeding two double-spread sheets reiterate this rising hill to the right and the artist has added a conifer on the left of the image. The next double-spread sheet is made from the same block, although more lightly inked, allowing brighter areas to emerge from the black. The third and fourth double-spread sheets depict the river with a view of the tree tops on the opposite bank across from the foreground bank (each image is repeated later in the book). Rough details of a number of plants are depicted in the foreground. In the following sheets, a tree has been added, centre left (the same block, more heavily inked, as that used for the twelfth double-spread sheet). The sixth double-spread sheet shows a tree as the far left of the image (the block was used again for the seventeenth double spread), while in the next double spread there are two trees, one slanted to the left with undergrowth enveloping its base. This is the most used block, four times in all, including the lightly inked, twenty-second double spread. The eighth double spread depicts two trees, one on either side of the image (the same block was used three times in all). In the succeeding sheets, the trees are absent; instead a single bush occupies the foreground river bank (this image appears twice). The double-spread images that follow reiterate and vary motifs already used, until the sixteenth double-page spread, which depicts a group of three trees, centre right and a single tree with overhanging branches, centre left.

The eighteenth double-page spread and a more lightly inked variant of this block, the twenty-third double-page spread, depart from the river imagery so far explored in the book. They depict the sinking of the 'Bismark' (24 May 1945) and derive from one of the last photographs taken of the sinking battleship (in mirror image; the photograph is reproduced in Robert Stern, Kriegsmarine: A Pictorial History of the German Navy 1935-1945, 1979, p.57). By integrating military imagery in the books (the same image appears three times in the book reproduced in the Stedelijk Museum catalogue), Kiefer has continued the thematic concerns represented in the large-scale 'Rhine' works.

The 'Bismark' and 'Prinz Eugen', two of the newest German warships, were sent on an Atlantic sortie on 18 May 1945. The sortie was codenamed 'Rhine Exercise' (Rheinübung) and the objective was to disrupt the Allied Atlantic convoys and continue the spectacular successes gained by the surface ships of the German navy during the earlier months of the year. The Royal Navy, however, were able to spot the German ships and track them with newly fitted radars. In the action that followed, 'Bismark' was hit by the 'Prince of Wales' on the morning of 24 May 1945. While making for the port of Brest and the prospect of repairs, 'Bismark' was followed and eventually sunk by ships of the Royal Navy at dawn on 27 May. In the photographs, the distinctive pall of smoke rises from the ship's pierced bows.

The dark swirls in these two sheets come before the blackest images in the book, in which all representation of the river is lost in the thick black of the ink and brushstrokes. These comprise the last double spread and the back cover. There is, just before these, however, one last double spread of the river, in only one version (sheet twenty two). In this image the oil from the ink has stained most markedly the paper on which the woodcuts are printed. On other sheets, the oil has also bled through onto the paper, causing light staining around the contours of the images. In the twenty first double-page spread, the image is composed of several pieces of paper glued onto the backing sheet. These, along with the many creases in the paper and a number of footprints over various images, reveals a certain informality in the artist's technical approach.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.194-6