The title of this work refers to Brunhilde's horse in the renowned operatic cycle, The Ring, by Richard Wagner. Near the opera's end, Brunhilde, in grief over the murder of the hero Siegfried, makes a funeral pyre for him and rides her horse, Grane, into the flames to join her beloved in death. The rigid skeletal horse positioned over flames, the primeval scorched landscape, and the tombstonelike format of the composition directly allude to death.
Much of the power of this image derives from Kiefer's forceful use of the woodcut medium; in the jagged edges of the white areas we sense the artist's bold cutting of the woodblock. For climactic drama, he applied white paint to heighten the flames and orange-brown staining for the smoldering glow surrounding the scene. The monumental size of this work required thirteen sheets of paper to be joined together and mounted on linen.
Kiefer has created a large body of work exploring his nation's identity and the moral and philosophical issues facing post—World War II Germany. His imagery contains references to his country's historical and cultural past but also serves as a metaphor for universal suffering, sacrifice, and destruction.
Part of a generation of young German painters dubbed Neo-Expressionists during the 1980s, Anselm Kiefer has explored German myth and history in his art since the early 1970s. Woodcut, the only printmaking technique Kiefer uses, has played a central role in his work. However, rather than creating conventional prints published in standard editions, he incorporates woodcuts into paintings, groups them together to create works that rival the grand scale of his paintings, or uses them in his many illustrated books. To date he has completed approximately one hundred works incorporating the woodcut technique. In 1970 Kiefer began to study with Joseph Beuys at the Academy of Art in Dnsseldorf, where, under Beuys's influence, he embarked on a personal examination of the troubled legacy of Germany's past. He incorporated a wide range of diverse materials into his work, including photographs, straw, tar, lead, sand, and dried plants, as well as woodcut, a technique with a long and distinguished history in German art. Richard Wagner's opera cycle The Ring and the tragic fate of its protagonists Siegfried and Brunhilde form the backdrop for Grane. The heroic role of Brunhilde's horse, Grane, is a recurring motif in Kiefer's work. Here the horse is engulfed in the funeral pyre into which the heroine rides at a climactic moment in the opera. Kiefer's book Der Rhein can be seen as his response to the German tradition of landscape painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and others of the Romantic period. It epitomizes his use of the book format as an evocative metaphor for the communication of collective knowledge and memory.