Andromeda shows both wonder at the ‘starry heavens above’ (the title of a 1980 painting of Anselm Kiefer’s), and the moral depths which humanity is capable of plumbing. Two enormous lead sheets cover the upper and lower parts of the work. On the exposed canvas in between, ocean waves roll towards us.
Scientific taxonomy and mythological attempts to grapple with the immensity of the heavens jostle in this painting: NASA’s alphanumerical designators appear alongside a number of the heavenly bodies, while white lines of connection cross the sea to pick out the ancient constellations of Andromeda and Pegasus, their names faintly scrawled in chalk towards the top of the painting.
The mythological resonance of the winged Pegasus develops a recurring theme of wings and flight in Kiefer’s oeuvre, an image of the artist’s search for transcendence and for communion between heaven and earth. But Kiefer’s mythology does not only soar. In this work, the celestial and the earthy cannot be free of one another. The clouds and nebulae of the heavens are rendered in brown drips and chalky deposits. The corrosion of the lead sheets by wind and rain imbues the image with an integral earthiness. The breaking waves that interrupt the heavens insistently recall the darker sacrificial narrative of the mythical Andromeda, chained to a rock as an offering to the sea monster Cetus.
Even more troublingly, given the prominence of references to the Nazi past in Kiefer’s earlier work, the alphanumerical star numbers seem also to suggest the tattoos on the inmates of the Camps. If this is an image of the unfathomable mystery of creation, it is one drawing on Job as well as Isaiah, in which we find both light and darkness, weal and woe (Isaiah 45:7).
This painting suggests that neither the imaginative—but arbitrary—lines of ancient astrological myths, nor the astronomical mapping of stars long dead by the time their light has reached the earth, are able to fathom the meaning of the cosmos. The Lord who alone stretched out the heavens also makes fools of the diviners, and turns back the wise and makes their knowledge foolish (Isaiah 44:24–5; Job 9).