Anselm Kiefer

Parsifal III


Not on display

Anselm Kiefer born 1945
Oil paint and blood on paper on canvas
Support: 3007 × 4345 mm
Purchased 1982

Display caption

Of the three Parsifal paintings displayed here, this one most resembles a stage set, with a spear occupying centre stage. It also includes a roll call of the chief players in the Parsifal saga: Guramet, the hero's father; Titurel, the ruler of the Grail; Amfortas, Titurel's son; Klingsor, a magician; and Kundry, a seductress. Parsifal's name appears on the window in reverse as 'Fal-parsi'. It was Parsifal's task to recover the spear from Klingsor so that peace could be restored to the kingdom of the Grail. But Kiefer is not entirely focused on the mythological past. The inscribed names (upper left) of the Baader Meinhof terrorist faction who disrupted the peace of post-war Germany jolt the viewer into contemporary history.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Anselm Kiefer born 1945

T03405 Parsifal III 1973

Oil and blood on paper laid on canvas 3007 x 4345 (118 3/8 x 171 1/16)
Inscribed 'Gamuset', 'Fal parsi' and '['w' deleted]unden wun['de' deleted]rvo ['II' deleted] centre top, [...] t.r., 'Amfortas' and 'Titurel' centre right, 'Kundry' bottom right, 'Klingsor' b.r., 'Jahn Raspe | Horst Mahle['r' deleted] | ['Holger' deleted] Meins | Ulrike Meinhoff | Andreas Baa['der' deleted] | Gudrun Ensslin | Astrid P['ro' deleted] II' t.l. and 'Oh, wundenwundervolles heiliger Speer!' along bottom edge
Purchased from Galerie Paul Maenz, Cologne (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Prov: Purchased from the artist by Galerie Paul Maenz, Cologne 1982
Exh: Anselm Kiefer, Galerie im Goethe Institut/Provisosium, Amsterdam, Sept.-Oct. 1973 (no number, repr.); New Art at the Tate Gallery 1983, Tate Gallery Sept.-Oct. 1983 (no number); Forty Years of Modern Art 1945-1985, Tate Gallery, Feb-April 1986 (no number, repr. p.113 in col.)
Lit: Bazon Brock, 'In Vendedig', Kunstforum International, vol.40, July-Aug. 1980, pp.502-3; Anselm Kiefer,, Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf 1984, repr. pp.30-32 (12b as 'Parsifal I')

Kiefer's 'Parsifal' cycle of 1973 comprises four paintings which can be exhibited as a group or individually. Three are in the Tate and the fourth, which is the largest, is in the collection of the Kunsthaus, Zurich (repr. Düsseldorf, 1984, p.31 in col.). All four were originally installed in the Goethe Institut, Amsterdam, together with a fifth painting, 'The Sorrow of the Nibelungen' (Der Nibelungen Leid 1972, repr., Amsterdam 1973 [no number]. 'The Sorrow of the Nibelungen' is a pun on Der Nibelungen Lied, 'The Song of the Nibelungen'). The latter is the same size as T03405, the largest of the Tate's pictures.

The exhibition was organised by Johannes Gachnang, who hung the paintings on the four walls of a room with a high ceiling in the Institute's gallery, an old house in the Herengracht, thus creating a closed environment and an enveloping hang. T03403 and T03404 shared a wall; they were placed on either side of a tall overmantel mirror, with T03405 opposite. All four 'Parsifal' paintings are on lining canvas, T03403 and T03404 were mounted on canvas, but not stretched until they entered the Tate Gallery.

T03403, T03404 and T03405 are painted on woodchip wallpaper glued together in vertical strips with overlapping edges. They are primed with 'Muresko', a synthetic resin primer, usually used on exterior walls. Once primed, the paper was impregnated with pure linseed oil, which stiffened the paper and made is translucent. This characteristic quality allows the texture of the paper to be emphasised. The black colour used is iron oxide black. While usually thinly painted, there are some areas of greater impasto, especially in the roof beams and in the darker areas of the images. The texture of the wallpaper emphasises the woodgrained interior, while the mixture of black painted over pale, translucent brown is the characteristic colour scheme of these and related pictures from this period.

T03403, T03404 and T03405 depict massive beams and overhanging eaves in an interior space dominated by rough wood graining. The image is derived from the large attic of the house in the Odenwald to which Kiefer moved in 1972. The transformations the space undergoes in other works of 1973, however, indicate that the painter was not engaged in a literal depiction of the space but, rather, adapted the proportions to the demands of his composition. Other paintings from this year, related in theme and subject to T03403, T03404 and T03405 include 'Father, Son, Holy Ghost' (collection of A. and G. Gercken, Hamburg), 'Quaternity' (collection of Georg Baselitz, Derneburg), 'Faith, Hope, Charity' (collection of Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart), 'The Door' (private collection, repr. Düsseldorf 1984, pl.8, p.27), 'Resurrexit' (Sanders Collection, Amsterdam), 'Germany's Spiritual Heroes' (Barbara and Eugene Schwartz Collection, New York) and 'Notung' (Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam). All these works are illustrated in the 1984 Düsseldorf exhibition catalogue pp.22-40. Further, a number of watercolours, although not of woodclad interiors, relate thematically to these paintings. They include 'A Sword Did my Father Promise Me' 1974-5 (repr., Düsseldorf 1984, p.38), 'Tannhäuser Seeing the Grotto of Venus' 1974 (repr., ibid. p.36), 'Grotto of Venus' 1974 (repr., ibid., p.36) and 'Herzeleide' 1979 (repr. Anselm Kiefer: Watercolours 1970-1982,, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, 1983, pl.17 in col.). Paintings derived from the architecture of the artist's studio, begun in 1973, emerge from the forest paintings Kiefer had been painting in the early 1970s. 'Resurrexit' marks the transition: its bi-partite division sees a forest scene in the lower half with a view up the stairs to the artist's attic placed above it along the top edge of the painting.

The thematic material explored by the artist in the arena constructed from his studio ranges from Christian imagery to specifically German cultural and historical material, among which the operas and personality of Richard Wagner (1813-83) play a major role. In an autobiography written for the catalogue to the Anselm Kiefer exhibition (Kunstverein, Bonn 1977) and reprinted in translation in 1987, the artist surveys his progress in the spare style he adopts as follows: 'Paintings on Trinity, Quaternity, above-below, I-Thou | 1971 Marriage to Julia Oden Forest | Wood | Grain | Richard Wagner | Son Daniel | Winter spring summer fall | Watercolours | 1973 Boulder-rock | Baselitz | Nibelung | Parsifal' (Anselm Kiefer,, Art Institute, Chicago, 1987, p.11). In his essay in this catalogue, Mark Rosenthal summarises the paintings of 1973 thus:

Given the subjects depicted, one may understand the attic as the setting for the beginning of time, when religious and ethical values are created and tested. At this moment, good and evil, and the possibility of salvation and redemption, are considered ... It [the artist's studio in his attic] is a metaphysical place where the artist attempts to understand complex ideas and themes and then integrate them into his physical surroundings. This place is the mind itself, at once malleable and steadfast, a filter through which concepts are pondered, invented, buried, or transformed. Secret rites are performed there, and history is reordered; all is possible (ibid., p.22).

Viewed in this broader perspective, the life of Parsifal might also be seen as an allegory of the life of the artist. As with Parsifal, the artist is born as innocent as the pure fool. He emerges imbued with simplicity from an uncomplicated existence and reaches out for a grand world, although it is a world in which people are riven in doubts, fears and guilt about past deeds. The challenges faced by Parsifal are mirrored by those choices, freedoms and obligations facing every artist.

The three watercolours mentioned above, as well as 'Notung', 'The Sorrow of the Nibelungen' and 'Germany's Spiritual Heroes' involve and explore specifically Wagnerian imagery: 'Notung' is the name of Wotan's sword in the Ring cycle, which comprises Siegfried, Rhinegold, The Valkyries and Twilight of the Gods. Wagner's name is aligned to the first massive upright in the timber-frame hall which is dedicated to 'Germany's Spiritual Heroes'. 'The Sorrow of the Nibelungen' depicts a bare interior with a series of names, heroes and heroines of the Ring cycle, inscribed on the floor. This treatment is common to many of the paintings of 1973: a space is created, then Kiefer inscribes the names of the paintings' protagonists. This pattern is repeated in the 'Parsifal' paintings.

Parsifal (1877-82) was Wagner's last opera (a synopsis of the action is in John Owen Ward (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Music, 10th ed., Oxford 1984, p.761). He entitled it a Bühnenweihfestspiel ('festival play of consecration') and intended it only to be performed at Bayreuth. It is a reworking of the legend of the Holy Grail. Wagner's principle source was Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (c.1200-c.1210), who in turn had re-created and completed the Grail Romances initiated by Chrétian de Troyes, whose Perceval dates from post 1181. Kiefer's exploration of the Parsifal theme relates to Wagner's opera as well as von Eschenbach. T03403 contains one inscription, 'Herzelayde' ('Suffering in the Heart'), the name of Parsifal's mother. Wagner used the modern spelling 'Herzeleide', where in von Eschenbach the spelling matches that used by Kiefer. In Wagner's libretto (I.i), in a condensed form of the more extensive explanation given by von Eschenbach, Kundry explains Parsifal's remote and unworldy upbringing: 'The fatherless one was born to the mother, | as Gamuret was slain in battle; | to protect her son from early heroic death | the mother went to the wilderness and brought him up away from arms a fool' (Richard Wagner, 'Parsifal', Die Musikdramen, Hamburg 1975, p.832).

Although not mentioned in either Wagner's or von Eschenbach's version of the tale, the cot in T03403, along with the reference to Parsifal's mother, presumably points to the origins and birth of the hero. The potent theme of a boy brought up by his mother in ignorance of the chivalric traditions of hunting and armed conflict, although aspiring to it and finally emulating his forebears, cannot have been lost on the postwar generation of artists to which Kiefer belongs. As with other characters in the legend with tragic fates, including Kundry, Ither and Amfortas, Herzeleide/Herzelayde's name is inscribed in a colour reminiscent of blood; in this case a violet-red. Her fate is related to Parsifal by Kundry in Wagner's Parsifal (II): 'Her woe you did not feel, | nor her raging suffering when you came back no more | and your traces vanished. | She waited day and night | until her lament was silenced | Her grief devoured her suffering | she pleaded peaceful delivery: | Suffering broke her heart | and Herzeleide died' (ibid., p.848).

The imagery of T03404 also looks back to incidents related in von Eschenbach's Parzival and not included in Wagner's score. The twin swords depicted are each labelled. The lefthand sword, upturned and with a broken blade, is bespattered with blood. Above it in red letters is the word 'ither' with 'ith' further to the left. Over the sword to the right, itself reminiscent of Wotan's sword in 'Notung', is the word 'Parsifal'. At the other end of the room behind the swords are two windows, the left one obscured by dripped paint, the right one translucent: each is linked to the respective swords. The confrontation of Parsifal and Ither, a knight refused admission to the Round Table, occurs in Book Three of Parzival. Kiefer departs from von Eschenback's text by denoting their battle, through which Parsifal attains his knightly attire and chivalric status, as one fought with swords. Von Eschenbach, however, describes how Parsifal, as yet unarmed in chivalric manner, kills Ither by firing an arrow through his visor. Von Eschenbach describes the battle as follows:

The knight reversed his lance and thrust at the boy with such might that he and his little nag came tumbling down on the flowers. The warrior was quick-tempered. He beat the boy with the shaft so that blood sprayed through his pores in a cloud. Parzival, good lad, stood enraged on that meadow. He clutched as his javelin, and there, where helmet and vizor leave a gap above the coif, the missile pierced Ither through the eye and then the nape, so that he who was the negation of all that is perfidious fell dead (Wolfram von Esehenbach [trans. A.T. Hattol, 'Parzival', 1980, p.88)

These overtones of heroic birth and maternal sacrifice in the early life of Parsifal emphasize the focus upon the main protagonist and eponymous hero of the tale. In both images narrative sequences are abandoned in favour of potent visual symbols relating to decisive moments in the hero's life.

In the two larger paintings Wagnerian imagery is predominant. The Zurich painting focuses on the climactic final scene in the opera where Parsifal, on becoming ruler of the Knights of the Grail, performs the ritual demanded of the ruler. As Amfortas, Gurnemanz and all the other Knights kneel before him, they sing Höchsren Heiles Wunder: | Erlösung dem Erlöser! ('Highest, Holiest Wonder; | Redemption to the Saviour!'). These are the words inscribed above the Grail in the largest of the 'Parsifal' paintings. As the top centre of the image Parsifal's name is inscribed, at the bottom left Amfortas's is added, thereby highlighting the succession of Parsifal to lordship over the Grail. Thus, the Zurich painting focuses on the apotheosis of the hero, while the genesis and point of attainment of chivalric status are the subject of T03403 and T03404 respectively.

T03405, however, does not focus on any particular incident or part of the narrative in the opera, but rather, maps out of an arena of action. In this respect it is thematically the most complex of the 'Parsifal' cycle. By introducing key visual and inscribed symbols Kiefer compresses into one image the key elements of the drama which unfold sequentially throughout the opera. Around the interior space, Kiefer has inscribed the names of the chief protagonists with the exception of Gurnemanz, the narrator of the drama, whose part in Wagner's opera is nevertheless the most extensive. The name of Guramet, Parsifal's father who died before Parisfal was born and whose chivalric life Parsifal eventually adopts, is inscribed in the triangular eave to the left of the window, although Guramet does not appear in the opera. Titurel is the ageing rules of the Grail; Amfortas is his son, who is unable to succeed him. Klingsor is the self-castrated magician. Kundry, having mocked the Saviour (Christ), is torn between service to the Grail and to the evil Klingsor.

The version of Parsifial's name inscribed here is 'Fal-parsi'. In act II of the opera, Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal in the magic garden in Klingsor's realm. After the flower maidens have failed to seduce him, she calls him from afar, dressed in exotic Arabian costume, 'I called you, foolish pure one: | "Fal-parsi" - | You pure fool: "Parsifal" ' (Richard Wagner 1971, p.847). Wagner's derivation is described by Lucy Beckett as follows:

He [Wagner] certainly read Johann von Görres's [1776-1848] preface to Lohengrin that October [1872], from which he learnt of the Celtic origin of the Grail stories and came to the conclusion that Grimm had made too little of the Celtic sources of German mythology. From Görres he adopted the (erroneous) idea that Parifal's name derived from the Persian for 'pure fool' (Lucy Beckett, Parsifal, Cambridge 1985. p.17-8).

Following Görres, 'parsi' means 'pure' and 'fal' 'fool'. Kiefer combines this reading of Parsifal's name, painted over the window, with the spear beneath it at a similar angle, suspended over the floor. The holy spear needs to be recovered from Klingsor before peace can be fully restored to the Kingdom of the Grail. Related to the actions of the hero, these two visual symbols embody the full weight of Parsifal's mission, as well as condensing the narrative into this one image. 'Fal-parsi', the 'pure fool', is the long sought-after prophet who will be the only person to cure Amfortas's suffering, which is outlined by Gurnemanz right as the beginning of act I. Having mentioned the 'pure [or 'innocent'] fool' a number of times, Gusnemanz finally explains the full prophesy:

In a fourth piece of narrative, quiet and accompanied by the measured chords of the Grail theme, he [Gurnemanz] tells how Amfortas has been promised redemption in words emanating from the Grail itself. As last, at its third appearance in the work, we hear the whole prophecy: Durch Misleid wissened | res reine Tor; | harre sein, | den ich erkor. | Made wise through compassion | the innocent fool | wait for him, | the one I summon. The last three words indicate again the Grail's providential power: as Gurnemanz has said in his narration, those who are called to its service reach it 'auf Pfaden, die kein Sünder findet' ('by paths no sinner can find'). Hence the appalling irony of Amfortas's situation [he has been seduced by Kundry: whilst involved with her Klingsor stole the holy spear and injured him with it, a wound that 'will never heal']. Parsifal, however, renounces her love. This marks the turning point of the opera: Parsifal become aware of Amfortas's fate and his own mission. [Recovery of the spear is central to the action.] (Beckett 1985, pp.30-31).

Parsifal is then led before them, having shot a swan. He is ignorant of his parentage and background; Gurnemanz hopes he might be the Saviour of the Grail. The linguistsic link construed by Wagner between Passifal and 'Fal-parsi' further underlines Parsifal's prophetic role, although at this first entrance, and his subsequent ignorance at the ritual of the Grail which closes act I, it becomes clear to Gurnemanz that Parsifal is as yes spiritually ill-equipped for his Saviour's sole.

Kiefer, however, couples the 'Fal-parsi' inscription wish the holy spear suspended over the floor in the centre of the image. The inscription quoted by Kiefer along the bottom edge of the painting (as well as, partially, across the diagonal beam to the right of centre) establishes the crucial role played by the spear. As its tip is a drop of red, along its shaft is red and brown paint and surrounding it across the floor, is spattered (real) blood. They all recall Amfortas's fate. It is the central image, the carrier of destruction and redemption through the agency of Parsifal.

Kiefer's work of this period is often taken as allegorical, using events and high points of German history and culture as a means of coming to terms with recent history. Not surprisingly the monumental architecture and Wagnerian tradition so celebrated in the Third Reich feature prominently in his work, as hallmarks of the dominant ideology and culture which shaped the world into which he was born. However, his concentration on the past, to construct an allegory for the present, which is the most common line of investigation into his imagery, is supplemented in T03405 by the addition of the names of the core members of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group, whose activities were at the forefront of national attention during the period Kiefer was painting the 'Parsifal' cycle.

The Baader-Meinhof group emerged from the atmosphere of youth unrest growing throughout the 1960s in West Germany, with Berlin as the forefront. The rebelliousness of the youth of the day stemmed in part from a conflict between generations. The generation which had survived the war as young adults had a primary interest throughout the 1950s and after in rebuilding Germany's shattered economy. To an extent, the materialistic culture resulting from the phenomenal success of the German economy engendered the questioning attitudes of the postwar generation, of which Kiefer is one, who felt that concentration on material regeneration had been achieved at the expense of the vitally necessary questioning and soul-searching about the National Socialist era. Many young people in Germany during the 1960s felt that their parents had never come to terms with the Germany of their own childhood. The national guilt resulting from the horrors perpetrated under National Socialist rule had merely been repressed rather than confronted.

The student protest movement, with an ideological basis in anarchism and Communism, grew substantially in the late 1960s. Hans Josef Horchem describes the protest movement as follows: 'The student revolt mirrored the revolutionary groups in the Third World. Revolutionary violence against dictatorship and 'terror from above' in the Third World served as an example for dissident youth and as justification of their own violence against a democratic society (Hans Josef Horchem, West Germany's Red Army Anarchists, London and Reading 1974, p.1).

The escalation of violence and the willingness to use violent means for revolutionary aims increased in the late 1960s and early 1970s. An arson attack on a Frankfurt department store in April 1968, brought important members of the RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion or 'Red Army Group') in contact with one another: Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin were both activists and Horst Mahler was Baader's lawyer. Meinhof, a journalist working for the magazine Konkret, defended their action. The youth protest movement, which gained initial momentum in Berlin (the city provided the alternative focus for many young people, not least because its four-power status freed its inhabitants from compulsory military service) spread throughout West Germany during the early 1970s.

After 1970 members of the group, including Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof, Mahler and Astrid Proll, went underground. Jan-Carl Raspe began to take part in the group's activities in the autumn of 1970. The RAF had, by 1972, built up a nationwide network, upon which the core group could call when necessary. The various groups acted independently and emerged from the broad base of student protest. The Baader-Meinhof group, with its radical, Maoist ideology, remained apart from other protest groups, which grew out of the drug scene in Berlin; the movement which later became the '2 July Movement', for example.

At the time of a series of bombings against American (particularly as anti-Vietnam feelings were running so high), state and right-wing targets (such as the Springer publishers) in May 1972, many of the the terrorists had been arrested, including Mahler and Proll. The atmosphere of terror, however, was still pervasive at the highly charged scenes during the trials, which lasted into the late 1970s, and the periodic outbursts of terrorist activity which continued into the 1980s. By including the names of the core activists in the Baader-Meinhof group, Kiefer refers to an immediate, contemporary instance of deep social and political strife, where reconciliation appears impossible and guilt about the past insoluble.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.515-9

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