Osiris und Isis by Anselm Kiefer (1985-1987)

The myth of Osiris and Isis is a story of death and resurrection. The legend goes that the god Set, jealous of Osiris’ power as king of the gods, devised a plan to rid himself of his rival (and brother) by creating a sarcophagi to his measurements. A party is thrown whereby the sarcophagi would be gifted to whomever could fit inside. Osiris was encouraged to try his luck however, as soon as he lay down, the lid was shut, sealed with molten lead and thrown into the Nile. Isis, Osiris’ wife, was mortified upon hearing of  her husband’s murder. She also feared that he would not be able to join the world of the dead if he did not receive a proper burial ceremony. Unfortunately, despite Isis concealing his body in secret marshes, king Set found the casket and destroyed it into many pieces, spreading the parts across the land. Once again Isis set out to find and reassemble her husband. However, one piece was  never found, having been eaten by a fish. Isis did not lose faith and sung, and danced until her husband came back to life. This enabled the couple to conceive a son, Horus, who would go on to avenge his father’s death and reclaim the throne of Egypt.

In the 1980s Anselm Kiefer developed a new approach to painting – his brush strokes became more violent and unforgiving. He also started to use monumental canvases as to make his work naturally and immediately overwhelming. Indeed, the focal point of this work is the huge pyramid that dominates the canvas – huge in size, but also in terms of the substance that it is composed of. For Kiefer does not merely use paint, but also slabs of clay to make his building blocks. At the apex of this pyramid we notice a motherboard and connected to it, long copper wires tumbling down the façade of this structure. There are also seventeen piece of porcelain scattered at the bottom of the canvas and all this under a sombre and menacing sky.

So, how do all these elements fit into the story of Osiris and Isis? First, we must remind ourselves as to what a pyramid exactly is. Traditionally, the pyramid is the tomb of an Egyptian king and therefore a symbol of death. However in the context of the myth, this pyramid is also a symbol of resurrection and life. The second important detail is the use of clay. Clay historically is one the oldest building materials used by man. But again, clay has a double meaning. Clay in Ancient Egypt, where this myth is set, was also one of the most common instruments to write on. Knowing this you should now be able to see that the bricks used to build the pyramid also look like ‘books’. Now, look at the motherboard. The motherboard is an element of a computer, or in this case a television, which holds all the crucial components in order for the machine to function. Essentially, it is the ‘mother’ of the system. Next, look at the wires. These also hold a function – to transport electricity. Observe how the dominating sky above this pyramid of wires and clay is full of energy, torn apart with thunder. Finally, and perhaps most obviously, the 17 pieces of porcelain represent Osiris’ dismembered body.

Ultimately therefore, the reoccurring themes of this work are unification, seperation, and material transformation, just like the myth of Osiris and Isis (Osiris is not only broken apart, reassembled, and brought back to life, but also reunited with his wife to create an heir). Kiefer skilfully integrates this transformation into his painting. Imagine the electricity from the sky being captured by the motherboard and sent ripping down the copper wires to transform clay into porcelain (a finished product). Moreover, Kiefer also integrates unification into the very canvas of the painting – two canvases attached together to create the final piece.

However, there is still one vital question left to answer in order to fully understand this work; why was Kiefer applying his materials so violently? For example, rather than simply attaching the various wires to his canvas, Kiefer eroded these rods and then attached them to his canvas which he had burnt using paint and tar. Equally, rather than simply glueing the shards of porcelain onto the painting, Kiefer solded them on with molten lead.

Kiefer applied his materials so violently to his work in an effort to warn his viewers about mankind’s ability to destroy. ‘Osiris und Isis’ was released at the height of the cold war, a time where a threat of nuclear destruction shadowed the globe, from Chernobyl to Iran. Looking at Kiefer’s work, it is impossible to deny the overwhelming sense of destruction, darkness, and corrosion, which highlights his fear of nuclear proliferation. The artist critisises the modern man for using his pyramid of knowledge (the clay pyramid that looks like a stack of books) for horrific ends, rather than for good, much like the god Set. In this way, Kiefer’s work questions whether we will continue to accept this state of affairs, of whether we, like Osiris and Isis, will use our knowledge for good, rebuilding society fragment by fragment.

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