Born in the last months of World War II, Anselm Kiefer grew up in the ashes of the Third Reich. Though his art frequently addresses historical themes, including the Nazi era, Kiefer neither commemorates nor illustrates. Rather, he employs history and mythology (another form of memory) together with science, literature, and philosophy in a sustained meditation upon time, existence, and the tragic course of human events.
The Museum's painting presents a vast, cosmic vision, the interpretation of which is left deliberately ambiguous. The three-part format, reminiscent of a Christian altarpiece, identifies the painting as a symbolic representation of a spiritual mystery. The drama is played out against a scarred landscape that can be readily imagined as the dark and rain-sodden aftermath of war.
A great serpent coiled at the foot of a ladder dominates the central panel. The ladder, forged of lead, might refer to the dream of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, who saw angels descending and ascending a ladder from heaven (Genesis 28:12). The identity of the serpent is more puzzling. Is it the snake that brought evil into the Garden of Eden?
Around the snake and ladder swirls a vortex of charred paint and splattered lead. Straw, embedded in the wet paint and set afire, registers only as blackened residue. The two flanking panels also feature puzzling objects: lead-dipped stones suspended by cables and a strange, funnel-shaped vessel. A mysterious process seems to be in motion: the lead rains down on the right side, then is "funneled" to the left side, where it rematerializes as a cluster of stones. Like some medieval conjuror, Kiefer presents before our eyes a vision of the cosmos, endlessly created and destroyed.