Urd Werdande Skuld (The Norns) depicts a long, vaulted passageway with brick pilasters and flagstones lit by a fire that blazes at its centre. The strong perspective lines serve as a guide into the far recesses of the hall, which appears unending. Kiefer has inscribed the Norse title of this painting ‘Urd Werdande Skuld’ in spidery, scrawled text onto the ceiling of the interior using white chalk. This inscription refers to three female beings in Norse mythology that are thought to represent Past, Present and Future. These ‘fates’ are traditionally represented in a hall, spinning the threads of destiny beneath the branches of the Yggdrasil (‘life tree’). Although they are absent from the painting itself, their presence is suggested by the thread-like strings that hang from their names, the setting of the hall, and the associations of ‘time’ suggested by the passageway.
Composed in a sombre palette and standing at over four meters high, Urd Werdande Skuld (The Norns) is an imposing painting, its scale emphasising the enormous interior space depicted within it. The painting combines a number of materials including plant fibres, leather strings, shellac, paper, white chalk and oil paint (applied with a brush and palette knife), fused and layered together. The densely textured and friable surface is so heavy that an additional linen canvas support is used to reinforce the back of the canvas. In keeping with his characteristic technique of using blowtorches to scold, blacken and fissure the surface of his paintings, this work shows signs of being deliberately burnt in places. Keifer has said that he scorches his paintings in order to ‘heal the imagery, to come to a raw stage, the nigredo’ (quoted in Auping 2005, p.36) – a state in alchemy, a subject of interest to the artist, that precedes transformation of base materials into gold.
The painting was completed in 1983 in the artist’s studio in Hornbach, Germany, in the Oden Forest. Kiefer described his studio as ‘a place to teach myself history’ (Auping 2005, p.35). Paintings that explore the studio’s hermetically-sealed wooden attic space include the series of Parsifal I 1973 (Tate), Parsifal II 1973 (Tate) and Parsifal III (Tate), completed a decade before Urd Werdande Skuld (The Norns). In terms of its subject, however, this painting bears closest resemblance to works such as Heliogabal 1974–91, Gewölbe 1983 (Paul Maenz, Cologne) and Shulamite 1983 (Saatchi Collection, London), which portray similar vaulted passageways and use burning fires as focal points.
This cycle of canvases depicting monumental architectural spaces was largely based on photographs and documentation from Nazi-period architectural plans and buildings. A precise source for this painting is unknown and it may therefore simply present a fictional, generalised ‘hall’, though it is reminiscent of the interior space represented in Shulamite, which was based upon the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers, in the Hall of Soldiers, Berlin, designed by Wilhelm Kreis (1873–1955).
The references in this work to Kiefer’s painting Shulamite (a Hebrew name, associated with the Biblical Song of Solomon, and used for example, in Paul Celan’s 1948 poem about the concentration camps, ‘Death Fugue’, known to have influenced Kiefer), together with the evocations of death and mourning in the scene, and the fire (suggesting associations with the menorah and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem) imply that the Holocaust is a central, if implicit, concern. The use of centralised perspective converging on a low horizon line may also allude to Kiefer’s use of emphatic perspective devices in so-called ‘mournful’ works depicting railway tracks or paths through fields vanishing into the distance, which have been linked to the Holocaust. Much of Kiefer’s work before Urd Werdande Skuld (The Norns) expressed grief and pain for Germany’s lost and murdered Jewish population. However, this is an important transitional work that registers both the specificity of German subject matter that was Kiefer’s main focus before the 1980s and his growing interest in mythic timescales and cosmic themes. Hence, the title of this piece – recalling Past, Present and Future – declares an interest in the nature of time itself, not as historical and linear but as dynamic and synchronous.
Such a cyclical, non-teleological conception of history is indebted to figures such as the Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922) and the German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), whom Kiefer admired. In this context it is possible to see the fire burning at the centre of the ‘passageway’ of time as a symbolic furnace unifying Past, Present and Future. The regenerative and transformative potential of fire – a frequently-used symbol in Kiefer’s work – points to the artist’s or individual’s ability to use myth to transcend the horror of history. Such a reading realises art historian John Hutchinson’s account of Kiefer’s artistic method which ‘attempts to lead us through the vestibule of recent history, by way of myth, to the consideration of questions of “Being”’ (Hutchinson 1990, p.73). But given Kiefer’s fascination with beginnings and creation myths, this painting may also constitute a symbolic representation of ‘Kiefer’s cosmology’ in which curator Michael Auping says, ‘the universe is an immense athanor, or alchemical oven, where spirit and matter are in a continual process of creation and destruction’ (Auping 2005, p.41). Kiefer himself has remarked: ‘There is always the distant memory of an ancient fire that creates and destroys. Everything comes from and returns to fire. It is as powerful as time’ (Auping 2005, p.62).
John Hutchinson, Anselm Kiefer: Jason, exhibition catalogue, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin 1990.
Daniel Arasse, Anselm Kiefer, London 2000.
Michael Auping, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, exhibition catalogue, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth 2005.