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Arts of Europe

The MFAH collections of art created on the European continent encompass artistic styles across the time line of history, from the ancient world to the Middle Ages, and the Early Modern era to the 21st century.

© Anselm Kiefer
German, born 1945
The Sorrow of the Nibelungen
Oil and charcoal on burlap

118 ¼ x 173 ¼ inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gift of Caroline Wiess Law

Arts of Europe

Born in Germany during the last weeks of World War II, Anselm Kiefer has made the intellectual and modern history of his country one of the chief sources of his art. Here, he creates an animated stage for a tragic drama.

The title of the painting is a pun that plays on The Song of the Nibelungen, an epic poem from the 13th century adapted by composer Richard Wagner in the influential 19th-century opera known as the "Ring Cycle." The plot revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule. Adolph Hitler was a great admirer of the opera, seeing in it the embodiment of his own vision for the German nation.

For Kiefer, The Sorrow of the Nibelungen reflects not only the tragic ending of the saga, but also the perversion of German history in the 20th century.
By changing one word in the title of the poem—using the word sorrow
("leid" in German) in place of the word song ("lied")—Kiefer transforms
the popular legend into an elegy for the dead. He memorializes the slain protagonists of the poem by writing their names beside pools of blood on the floor. The grand space of the timbered room is based on the attic studio where Kiefer was working at the time. The swirling lines of the wood grain and the dramatic illusion of deep space set the stage for the drama.