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New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Art into Poetry, Poetry into Art

– or Ekphrasis – 3. Paul Celan’s Death Fugue and the paintings of Anselm Kiefer

 

In Phil Dunn’s fascinating article in Issue 9, From the Other Side, Paul Celan and his Death Fugue  was mentioned.

This particularly interested me because in 2014 I visited the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the two paintings relating to Death Fugue were hung alongside Michael Hamburger’s translation. This was an incredibly moving evocation of the horrors of the Holocaust and it was one of the strongest examples of painting and poetry interacting with one another and strengthening each other’s message that I have ever seen.

Celan’s poetic influence on Kiefer can be seen not only in the Margarete sequence but also in titles of his paintings, like Poppy and Memory,  the title of a Celan collection from 1952, and Sand from the Urns,  the title of a poem in the book.

This subject obviously had a strong influence on Kiefer, because there are around 30 works in the series, created between 1980 and 1983.  There is an interesting  version of the Margarete picture in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni,  Dorsoduro 701, I-30123 Venezia, captioned:-

“In 1945 Paul Celan composed a poem entitled ‘Death Fugue’ from the concentration camp where he was imprisoned. The poem contraposes two women: Shulamith, one of the camp’s Jewish workers, and Margarete, an Aryan mistress of the presiding Gestapo officer. In this sculptural painting Kiefer draws on Celan’s poem as a means to explore the complex relationships between German self-identity and world history. Here, the effects of war scar the landscape of Germany. Ash covers the flowers in the lower right corner while straw is set like jail-bars across the foreground. The canvas documents a process of transformation: straw disintegrates to ash when exposed to fire. Through this, the ghosts of Shulamith and Margarete are evoked: reduced only to their contrasting hair; made of the same element but set in opposition by the fires of history.”

In several versions of Margarete, there is a suggestion of a burnt shadow against the golden hair, for Kiefer felt that the extermination of the Jewish population also destroyed a huge element of Germany’s identity. A post war art and poetry had to be informed by the Holocaust, and the work of Kiefer and Celan shows how Germany’s art historical tradition could not be continued in its pre-Nazi form.

In the RA’s example of Margarete, the darkness has  gone, and Kiefer has used straw with burning tips to represent her golden hair, while the Peggy Guggenheim’s work marries together the light and the dark in one painting. However the whole sequence examines the dark juxtaposition with Shulamith.

The name Shulamith refers to the bride in the Bible’s The Song of Songs as well as to the victim in the poem. Her name is painted in the left hand corner, just as Margarete’s is painted across the centre of the preceding picture, but Shulamith is also represented by the seven flames of the candelabrum of the temple of Jerusalem at the centre of the picture. And this is, in its turn, placed in the funeral crypt of the Soldier’s Hall, Berlin 1939, so it also takes and uses Nazi architecture as a memorial to the dead of the Holocaust.

 

Your Golden Hair, Margarete – Midsummer Night incorporates words from Death Fugue: “we dig a grave in the breezes… and the stars are flashing”,  “death is a master from Germany…your golden hair Margarete”.

Daniel Arasse in his Anselm Kiefer,  Thames & Hudson,  2nd Revised edition  (29 Sept. 2014, p 146) says, “For Kiefer, continuing Celan’s work on his own account, Margarete – Goethe’s innocent, golden-haired Gretchen – has been contaminated by the Nazi cult of death: the mere mention of her is enough to pollute the starry midsummer sky of St John.”

 

 

 

DEATH FUGUE

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown

we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night

we drink and we drink it

we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined

A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair

Margarete

he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he

whistles his pack out

he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave

he commands us strike up for the dance

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown

we drink and we drink you

A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair

Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there

one lies unconfined.

 

He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play

he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue

jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the

dance

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown

we drink you and we drink you

a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

 

He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from

Germany

he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke

you will rise into air

then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany

we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we

drink you

death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue

he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true

a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete

he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air

he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from

Germany

 

your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith

Trans. Michael Hamburger

.

.

 

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