Joseph Beuys’ Milestones

Tabita Sīmane

On September 12, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art opened its retrospective exhibition of the works of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) – Germany's most notable artist of the second half of the 20th century. Part of the “Year of Germany in Russia 2012/13” cultural program, the exhibition “Joseph Beuys: Appeal for an Alternative” will run through November 14.

On July 18, 1963, Joseph Beuys performed his first public “action” with fat, at the Rudolf Zwirner Gallery in Cologne, right after Allan Kaprow had finished his talk on “happenings”. Fat, felt and honey – the materials that became signature symbolic elements of Beuys' work – have an essential significance in both the semantic meaning of his work and at the level of his personal consciousness as an individual. In the case of Beuys, these two concepts are not mutually exclusive – he was the first who so explicitly moved the emphasis from what the artist creates to the artist's own persona, activities and opinions. Beuys presented his expanded concept of art through performance series and public discussions.

Substances of warmth

Today, materiality definitely stands out as one of the most prominent characteristics of Beuy's art. When speaking about his work, Beuys often mentioned “warmth” and “energy”, and the materials that he used in his sculptures are also associated with either the generation, storage or transfer of energy. To Beuys, this was a metaphor for creative and spiritual energy which, as he believed, must be prompted by art in every individual, as well as society as a whole.

Beuys reasoned that the substances that he used in his sculptures and installations were semantically multi-layered and rich with associations which, when used repeatedly, acquired a personal symbolism. A controversial legend also played a hand in the symbolism of this materiality.

Beuys revealed his war story to the public in 1979. After being drafted into the German army at age 20 in 1941, Beuys was trained as an aircraft radio operator, and became a member of various bomber units. On March 16, 1944, his plane came down in the Crimea, close to the village of Znamianka. This is all proven fact, but what follows is Beuys' interpretation of the ensuing events.

“Had it not been for the Tartars I would not be alive today. They were the nomads of the Crimea, in what was then no man’s land between the Russian and German fronts, and favored neither side. I had already struck up a good relationship with them, and often wandered off to sit with them. ‘Du nix njemcky’ they would say, ‘du Tartar,’ and try to persuade me to join their clan. Their nomadic ways attracted me of course, although by that time their movements had been restricted. Yet, it was they who discovered me in the snow after the crash, when the German search parties had given up. I was still unconscious then and only came round completely after twelve days or so, and by then I was back in a German field hospital. So the memories I have of that time are images that penetrated my consciousness. The last thing I remember was that it was too late to jump, too late for the parachutes to open. That must have been a couple of seconds before hitting the ground. Luckily I was not strapped in – I always preferred free movement to safety belts… My friend was strapped in and he was atomized on impact – there was almost nothing to be found of him afterwards. But I must have shot through the windscreen as it flew back at the same speed as the plane hit the ground and that saved me, though I had bad skull and jaw injuries. Then the tail flipped over and I was completely buried in the snow. That’s how the Tartars found me days later. I remember voices saying ‘voda’ (water), then the felt of their tents, and the dense pungent smell of cheese, fat and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in.”

Although witnesses attested to the fact that the pilot died shortly upon impact, it is known that Beuys was conscious when found by a German search commando. In addition, there were no Tartars in the village at the time. Beuys was taken to a military hospital, where he spent three weeks; in August, he was sent to the Western Front.

This mixture of fact and fiction was a trait of Beuys' self-made personality, and this re-interpretation of his own biography was not necessarily in opposition to his art, as indicated by a much earlier event in his creative career. For a festival of new art held in 1964, at the Aachen Technical College, Beuys had made up an idiosyncratic CV called Lebenslauf/Werklauf (Life Course/Work Course). It was a deliberate retelling of the artist's life story, in which historic events were intertwined with metaphoric and mythical episodes. It should be mentioned that, at this same festival, Beuys created an “action”, or performance, that was interrupted by a group of students; one of the students attacked Beuys and hit him in the face. A photograph taken after the incident – of the artist with a bloody nose and a raised hand – was widely distributed in the media, and made Beuys a publicly recognized figure.

However fictionalized the story about the plane crash and the Tartars may have been, it undeniably served as a powerful myth about the genesis of Beuys' artistic identity, and also provided an interpretative key to understanding his use of unusual materials – of which fat and felt were the most significant. Fat appears in many of Beuys' sculptures. He chose to use it, in part, to prompt discussion of how “a material very basic to life but not associated with art” can appear in art. Secondly, the flexibility of fat – how it changed from a solid substance into a liquid one at a certain temperature – allowed him to use fat as an effective symbol of spiritual transcendence. The significance of felt, on the other hand, was its ability to absorb everything that came in contact with it. Felt was an insulating material that became a symbol for warmth, as well as a silencer of sound when Beuys would wrap it around a piano, television or loudspeaker.

Fat and felt were the most personal and “deepest” materials for Beuys, but two other “warm” materials that he utilized were honey and wax – which he saw as both spiritual substances and as something that represented political harmony. Beuys was amazed by the social organization of bees, and described them as a “socialistic organism” which functioned ‘in a humane warm way through principles of co-operation and brotherhood’. The artist also used metals, such as iron; Beuys associated the cold strength and durability of it with war, Mars, and everything masculine. Beuys placed iron in opposition to copper – one of the softer metals and a conductor of electricity, and which he associated with Venus and everything female. The use of gold indicated magic, alchemy and transformation.

Healing shamanism

It could be that the legend about the Tartars bringing the dying radio operator back to life had some connection to Beuy's self-proclaimed status of shaman in art/life. Beuys believed that performance art can trigger a spiritual reaction in the viewer, making it a healing process. His performances, or “actions”, were like rituals that included powerful symbols of birth, death and transformation. Even his clothing had a ritualistic aspect to it – Beuys' standard “uniform” consisted of a felt hat, a felt suit, a vest and a cane.

In childhood, Beuys was fascinated by nature, and he obsessively cataloged the surrounding flora and fauna. At the same time, he was spellbound by Northern mythology and folklore, in which all creatures possessed magical powers. Beuys never lost this reverence of the natural world, which could also be seen in his art. He identified himself with certain animals, believing that they were his totems: “The figures of the horse, the stag, the swan and the hare constantly come and go: figures which pass freely from one level of existence to another, which represent the incarnation of the soul…” In the 1970's, Beuys was active in the politics of environmental protection, and was one of the founders of the Green Party.

Beuys accepted shamanism as not only a method of presenting his art, but as life itself. Although the “artist as shaman” was a fashionable movement in modernistic art, Beuys stood apart from the rest in that he balanced and united his “art and his life in this shamanistic role.” Beuys believed that humanity, with its concentration on rationality, tries to destroy “emotions”, thereby destroying the greatest source of energy and creativity in each individual. In his first lecture tour of the United States, Beuys said that humanity is in a developmental stage, and that as “spiritual” entities, we must draw on both our emotions and our thinking – because they both represent the human being's total energy and creativity. Beuys posited that we must find and activate the spirituality within us, and we must link it with our power of thinking because “our vision of the world must be extended to encompass all the invisible energies with which we have lost contact.”

“So when I appear as a kind of shamanistic figure, or allude to it, I do it to stress my belief in other priorities and the need to come up with a completely different plan for working with substances. For instance, in places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear.” As Beuys often explained in interviews, he viewed and used his performance art as a shamanistic and psychoanalytical technique to educate and heal the public. “It was thus a strategic stage to use the shaman’s character but, subsequently, I gave scientific lectures. Also, at times, on one hand, I was a kind of modern scientific analyst, on the other hand, in the actions, I had a synthetic existence as shaman. This strategy aimed at creating in people an agitation for instigating questions rather than for conveying a complete and perfect structure. It was a kind of psychoanalysis with all the problems of energy and culture”.

In this aspect, Beuys' art was both educational and therapeutic – his objective was to make use of both of these forms of discourse and styles of knowledge as learning tools. He used shamanistic and psychoanalytical techniques to “manipulate through symbols” and to influence his viewer. From 1955 to 1957 Beuys went through a period of deep depression. When he had emerged from this, he stated that a “personal crisis” had made him reevaluate everything, becoming a kind of “shamanistic initiation”. Shamanism is connected to death, and a shaman is a mediator between this world and “the other side”. Beuys saw death not only in the inevitability of human mortality, but in the surrounding environment as well. Through his art and political activities, he became a powerful activist for environmental protection. At the time, Beuys said: “I don’t use shamanism to refer to death, but vice versa – through shamanism, I refer to the fatal character of the times we live in. But at the same time, I also point out that the fatal character of the present can be overcome in the future.”