This monumental work is part of a set of works on the Rhine, near Anselm Kiefer’s childhood home, as a cultural symbol and a border. It refers particularly to the Nordic myth of the Daughters of the Rhine, tasked by their father with protecting the gold hidden in its bed. Kiefer’s entire oeuvre explores the memory and history of his native Germany, bearing the traumatic traces of the Second World War. In this work, the artist refers to the Nibelungenlied, an epic poem dating from the early thirteenth century and rediscovered in the nineteenth, when it became the nation’s founding myth and inspired Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen (Ring Cycle, 1849–76).
Kiefer’s composition is the work of over twenty years, its materiality reflecting the process of creation by hand. It is a collage of several black woodblock print fragments worked in with acrylic. The oblong format features the massive bodies of three water nymphs in the foreground, pushing the viewer back from the image. Wellgunde, Woglinde and Flosshilde, who is holding a candle, float on the water like logs swept along by the current, their benumbed bodies lying splayed wide. Yet their parted thighs and nudity are by no means lascivious. The work includes the punning words ‘Die Reintöchter’, ‘rein’ being German for ‘pure’. Kiefer may consider them pure of political instrumentalisation or he may be referring to their innocence in the face of danger.
Kiefer’s first woodblock engravings date from 1974. The Rhine became a theme in his woodblock work in the early 1980s, though he considered the technique to run counter to the river’s very nature. The wood’s resistance countered the fluidity of the water and the two-colour process was incapable of capturing its myriad hues. He used the radical process to recover the integrity of nature.
Antonia Hoerschelmann (ed.), Anselm Kiefer. The Woodcuts, exh. cat. Vienna, Albertina, Ostfildern, Hatje Cantz, 2016: cat. 29.
Jean-Michel Bouhours (ed.), Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat. Paris, Centre Pompidou, Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2015.
Dominique Baqué, Anselm Kiefer: entre mythe et concept, Paris, Éditions du Regard, 2015.