As a child, I was unnerved by our attic. Every Christmas, when my father climbed its ladder to retrieve a box of tinsel or lights, I cowered from that dark space, afraid of whatever unseen thing I knew lived up there. Our attic was not the charming variety where make-believe stirs young imagination, but was rather – in the spirit of Jane Eyre– like the realm of a madwoman. Indeed, in art as well as literature, attics often represent metaphysical spaces. An ascent into this space can be translated as a descent into one's own psyche.
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This is evident in the work of Anselm Kiefer, whose attic scene, Quaternity, is part of our permanent collection. Born a few months before Hitler's suicide, Kiefer belonged to a generation of German artists who sifted through the rubble of a broken national identity in the aftermath of World War II. His paintings probe the depths of heaven and earth (as explored in a previous exhibition of his work), as well as humanity's relationship to both. As such, they become stages on which memory, religion, and history all bear conflicting roles.
Quaternity depicts a sparse attic that once served as Kiefer's studio. The rough grains of the floorboards are traced in charcoal lines that bleed over a burlap canvas. Three flames burn at the center of the painting. In German script, Kiefer christens each as one member of the Christian trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. At the bottom right-hand corner, a snake emerges from shadow to commune with the flames. The snake is labeled Satan.
Being familiar with Christian theology, this image intrigued me. In Christianity, God is a "trinity" – three entities in one person – who inhabits a space called Heaven. Satan is a rebel angel, who wanders the earth wreaking havoc. Quaternity ignores the boundaries that divide God from Satan, and consequently, heaven from earth. By placing Satan equidistant to the trinity, Kiefer suggests their relationship is more complex.
Carl Jung first proposed the concept of a quaternity in his book, Answer to Job. This influential psychiatrist, who endured both World Wars, believed Christianity had suppressed the role of evil. According to Jung, God has a "shadow" – a dark side– that must be recognized for wholeness within religion to occur. Every trinity, he proposed, has a hidden fourth, the whole of which is a quaternity.
It is no coincidence that Kiefer titles his painting by this name. Germany, the home of both the printing press and Protestantism, became a perpetrator of unspeakable horrors in the 20th century, particularly during WWII. Hitler's abuse of power shook the foundations of German religious belief as they tried to reconcile the role of the church within the tide of genocide. As a result, many post-war Germans suffered a radical shift within their spiritual mindset from pre-dominant Protestantism to agnosticism or atheism.
Despite its confrontational nature, I don't think Quaternity contains an absolute statement regarding good or evil. The painting's narrative seems frozen in time – as if Kiefer was still sorting through his own beliefs when he painted it in 1973. While the untended flames should naturally consume the whole attic, what he depicts is yet contained. Sometimes paintings don’t end with a giant punctuation mark or grandiose statement. Sometimes they are, instead, like twigs broken along a path: impressions left from silent searching. Kiefer leaves it up to us, the viewers, to navigate the work’s troubling spiritual and historical dichotomy.