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Germany’s Nazi past is evoked in Anselm Kiefer’s first retrospective in the UK

Dealing with the traumatic experience of growing up in a nation rising from the ruins of the Third Reich has been an important theme in the artist's work

London

At a talk earlier this year at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA), Anselm Kiefer recalled how as a boy he wanted to be Jesus, then the Pope, before settling on being an artist. Born two months before the end of the Second World War, he grew up surrounded by the debris of the conflict—the bombed-out house next door was his playground. But at school he learned little of the Nazi era, he recalled.

Kathleen Soriano, the RA’s former director of exhibitions, who has co-organised the exhibition with the artist, writes in the accompanying catalogue of the shock that Kiefer felt when he first heard recordings of Hitler ranting and raving. How German artists should deal with the traumatic past and the formative experience of growing up in a nation rising from the ruins of the Third Reich have been important themes in Kiefer’s work.

The exhibition includes early work from the photographic series “Occupations” and the “Heroic Symbols” paintings. In 1969, he visited historic sites across Europe wearing parts of his father’s army uniform, even raising his arm in a parody of the Nazi salute. Breaking taboos was a way of coming to terms with a terrible history that no one spoke about at home. His work was negatively received in Germany at first; Jewish-American collectors in the 1980s were among the first to appreciate it, he reminded the RA audience.

Kiefer has been an Honorary Academician since 1996. “He is a great supporter of the Summer Show, submitting a work every year,” Soriano says. In 2007, Kiefer created Jericho, which consisted of two towers made of roughly cast concrete, and was exhibited open to the sky in the RA’s courtyard. Soriano says new works will make up around 40% of the exhibition, among them a surprising piece for the courtyard. “It will be the first time he has installed this type of work outdoors,” she says.

The exhibition is sponsored by the bank BNP Paribas.

• Anselm Kiefer, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 27 September-14 December