The Unknown Masterpiece

Artist: Anselm Kiefer (German, born Donaueschingen, 1945)

Date: 1982

Geography: Country of Origin United States

Medium: Watercolor, gouache, graphite, cut and pasted printed papers on paper

Dimensions: 25 1/16 x 28 1/2 in. (63.7 x 72.4 cm)

Classification: Drawings

Credit Line: Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky, in memory of her father, Joseph H. Hazen, 2000

Accession Number: 2000.96.8

Rights and Reproduction: © Anselm Kiefer


Kiefer inscribed the title of this work in French at the bottom center-Le chef d'oeuvre inconnu-a title shared by Honoré de Balzac's story from 1831 in which an aging Baroque painter named Frenhofer works for many years to perfect a portrait that consumes him completely. Frenhofer labors in secret, painting layer upon layer, year after year, but when his followers finally view the picture, they discover that it is nothing but an unrecognizable and endlessly layered abstraction. They deem it the work of a genius gone mad. As if to link the madness of Frenhofer-whose story has also been read as an allegory of modern art-with the architectural fantasies of Nazi Germany, Kiefer bases the watercolor backdrop on a rendering of the projected Soldier's Hall for Berlin that was first sketched by Adolf Hitler in 1936. Albert Speer commissioned the architect Wilhelm Kreis to design its barrel-vaulted interior on a huge and unprecedented scale. It was never built. Meant as a monument and ceremonial hall to celebrate the victories of the German army, now its endless, imaginary columns are imbued with the horrors of the Holocaust.

To explain the layering in his own architecturally inspired works of the 1980s, the artist has stated his deep interest in the reuse and recycling of architecture: "You know, normally you don't destroy buildings ... usually you transform them, like the Christians transformed old temples or the Pantheon into Christian churches. That's what I was doing, too. … Because you never succeed in really destroying something, it always lives, and it's more efficient to transform than to destroy."