For someone who managed to tell the history of the world in 100 objects, telling the history of one nation in 200 objects should be a doddle. Curiously, however, the tighter the focus the more complicated the task. Not least among the quandaries Neil MacGregor and his curators set themselves with Germany: Memories of a Nation (at the British Museum until January 25) is: which nation are they talking about? Is it the Germania feared by Varus and the Romans or the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne and his descendants? Is it the Germany of the Protestant Reformation or that of the princely states? Is it the dual entity of Austria-Hungary and Prussia or the pan-Germanism of the German Confederation after Napoleon? The Prussian-dominated empire that followed unification in 1871 or Weimar Germany? National Socialist Germany or post-war East and West? The 1990 reunified version or the contemporary primus inter pares country that dominates the EU?
The exhibition makes the task marginally easier by starting in the 15th century but 600 years is nevertheless a daunting span. Describing the aim of the show as the evocation of common “memories” is another way of eliding the complexities. Whichever way you look at it, the task of using artefacts to narrate a history of the German-speaking peoples is formidable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is one in which the exhibition only partially succeeds.
On the accompanying radio series MacGregor could tell the story of each object — the Volkswagen Beetle in the Great Court, for example, or a British imitation of a Solingen sword — but as stand-alone objects without the exegesis they become more mundane. The curators try to explain each piece’s significance through labelling: it makes for a very text-heavy show. There are too many coins and banknotes too.
There are, though, both some very rare objects and some of spectacular quality. Into the first category falls J.H.W. Tischbein’s celebrated 1787 portrait of Goethe in the Roman Campagna which, despite its anatomical oddities (Goethe has two left feet and one over-long leg), can claim to be Germany’s “national painting”: to prise it from its Frankfurt home was an act of high cultural diplomacy. There is also a porcelain rhinoceros modelled in 1730 after Dürer’s print (which accompanies it) by Gottlieb Kirchner. While it is a curiosity it is also an example of the work supervised by the great porcelain artist Johann Kändler in the early days of the Meissen factory.
More potent, perhaps, because they refer to Germany’s wider role as both a unifying force and a divisive one are a Gutenberg Bible — the book that hinted at pan-Europeanism — and a signed bible belonging to Luther — the man who split Germany and much of the continent.
Other items include a replica of the gate of Buchenwald concentration camp with its inscription “Jedem das Seine” (To each his own). Ironically the gate was designed by Franz Erlich, a student of the Bauhaus, which the Nazis detested. This conjunction is said to be “subversive” though it is not quite clear how. The gate and an anti-Semitic poster are the only overt references to the Holocaust, surely one of the seminal episodes in all German history. Goethe meanwhile is represented by no fewer than 10 different objects, while there is nothing on Beethoven.
The best of the artworks are Tilman Riemenschneider’s Four Evangelists. Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531) is hardly ever seen on these shores but his facility as a carver, most particularly of limewood, mark him out as Dürer’s equivalent in sculpture and a vital figure in the northern transition from the Gothic to the Renaissance. These four figures, 1490-92, are remarkable not just in their rendering of drapery, which has the angularity of manuscript illustrations, but their depiction of emotion. Each composition shows the saint seated with his gospel but their body positions are different and each head looks a different way. Together, they are a paragon in which Riemenschneider shows that sculpture can match the variety of expression and plasticity of painting. Here too is a composite image of Catholic Germany just 25 years before Luther intervened.
If the ambition of the exhibition ultimately exceeds its reach it has, appropriately, a forebear that carries a German name: the Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities. The visitor doesn’t need the historical overview to enjoy it as such — with the proviso that some of the objects are considerably more curious than others.
One of the contemporary artists represented in the exhibition is Anselm Kiefer, who is the subject of a major show at the Royal Academy (until December 14). Kiefer is the living German artist par excellence because his country’s past — both ancient and modern — has always been the motive force behind his paintings and sculptures. He is an artist who works on a vast scale and who fills his work with repeated motifs: there are lead boats and eagles, huge books and fields of wheat, Norse myth and Egyptian gods, embedded objects from straw to diamonds, and philosophy from alchemy to Kant.
While such a personal iconography is almost impossible to unpick, what it transmits unequivocally — and often in literal form — is the weight of German history, and Kiefer’s work can be seen as an attempt to get it out of his system. He was born two months before VE Day and so had no experience of the war itself. What he did experience, though, was the national sense of denial that followed. Even though he has lived in France for many years there remains a tangible connection to German Blut und Boden — it is the tilth from which grows everything he does. Kiefer is an unremittingly visceral artist but an undeniably powerful one too, one of the very best at work today.