Anselm Kiefer is considered one of the giants of post-war German art. Born in Germany at the tail end of World War II, his work – like those of his contemporaries Gerhard Richter and Georg Baselitz – is permeated by the Nazi legacy.
Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory), is a life-sized sculpture of an aircraft and is modeled after a 20th-century warplane owned by the artist himself. The plane will never fly: it is made of lead and zinc and looks old and battered on the outside. The viewer cannot help but associate it with black-and-white newsreel images of combat during World War II.
Kiefer recalls that, growing up in the Germany of the 1950s and '60s, he was not really aware of the Nazi legacy and its ramifications. "From the Seventies, there was a lot of discussion in Germany about the war. Every week there was a television program about that period. But at that time, the Fifties and Sixties, people didn't want to talk about it," he says.
It was not until someone gave him a recording of speeches by Hitler, Goebbels and Goering – a recording produced by the American forces to raise awareness of Germany’s recent past – that he became conscious of what had actually occurred.
"I was shocked, horrified, but also fascinated," Kiefer recalls. "I realized I had to find out more … as an artist, you have to find something that deeply interests you," he explains.
"It’s not enough to make art that is about art, to look at Matisse and Picasso and say, 'How can I paint like them?' You have to be obsessed by something that can’t come out in any other way. Then the other things – the skill and technique – will follow."
The son of an art teacher, Kiefer grew up in the Black Forest region of Germany and started drawing and painting when he was a little boy. He decided from a young age to become an artist, but he thought he was good enough to skip art school, so he took up law studies initially. He then changed his mind, enrolling at art academies in Freiburg and Karlsruhe.
While he was still a student, Kiefer created a set of controversial works: he had himself photographed wearing his father's military uniform and imitating the Nazi salute as he traveled through picturesque corners of Switzerland, France, and Italy. In the 50 years since he began working as an artist in post-war Germany, he has found inspiration not only in Germany’s wartime history but also in literature, poetry, alchemy, astronomy, mythology, and religion.
Now based in France, Kiefer has been the subject of major international solo exhibitions at SF MoMA (which has a strong collection of his work), MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum, Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Royal Academy of Arts in London among other institutions. In 2007 he became the first artist since Georges Braque to be commissioned by the Louvre Museum in Paris to create a permanent work for the museum.