Joseph Beuys

Joseph Beuys was a man of vision. While difficult to understand his art, but possible through looking into his life, he was often referred to as a shaman, or as he preferred a spiritual leader, because of his intentions towards the public. He was not interested in the aesthetic aspect of his art much, but to the meaning of his sculptures, performances, installations. He would refer to his work as a means of effecting modern consciousness, which awakens interest and curiosity. A shaman possessed by a great love for nature and humanity, who his intentions were to educate with a hint of magic and humour, to pass his ideas to the world. Those purposes lead him to political activism, something he was sometimes praised for, but more often accused of. His idea of a Genuine Democracy, even led him to run for a seat in the West German Parliament as a non party candidate, and later in the European Parliament.
An interesting aspect of his work is the way his ideas manifest themselves into it. Beuys work doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with every day life. When the theme in which he created his installations is about either the creation of the world or an apocalypse, it feels as if it is elevated into different planes than what one might think is reality. This comes to a direct opposition with the materials he uses, which mostly come from everyday life such as fat, felt, clay, copper and the figures of animals, which have direct links to certain meanings in a society.
One very good example of his work is the Lightning with Stag in its Glare which is now exhibited in the Tate Modern Gallery, in London. Located in the Poetry and Dream theme, part of the Artists Rooms collection which is held jointly by Tate Modern and National Galleries of Scotland, his work is presented in two corners of a room. Any person standing with their back against the windows, would be able to observe the way light behaves when reaching the clay and metal, the materials of which the work is consisted. Through the symbolism of the materials, the shapes of the objects and their use, it is possible to recognize a deeper meaning in Beuys’ work. ‘Symbolism allowed Beuys to link his need for the metaphysical, which for him is cosmic and not personal, to necessary substance, to an existence that should lead to the road of development.’ (Durini,1999,13)
Beuys uses symbols as another artist might use words. They have a universal appeal, with little differences that come from the viewer’s personal experience. In lightning with stag in its glare for example, what can be more powerful than the energy of the lightning itself, and every person who has ever experienced the light, the sound, the atmosphere that surrounds the idea of a lightning is able to understand its impact.
The stag on the other hand is a symbol derived from Beuys’s childhood and education, but very much imprinted by his own understanding of the world and its creation. The Stag is the symbol of gods, with an element of apocalyptic meaning ‘The stag is connected with the universe, the cycle of blood; it is the beast of the gods in Germanic mythology, it is one of the guiding and protective signs’ ( Bastian, Verlag, 1986,26) Thus Beuys is using the meaning of symbols in his work, which have established themselves in a society. The Lightning on the other hand, is not a mythical figure of a specific culture, but more of a global idea, of something very momentarily, but with strength deprived from its size and shape. The way
the bronze object was erected in a vertical position more than six meters high, touched the ground only at a single point. It could ‘resemble a huge dark shadow. A vision of the materialization of t lightning frozen in space, immediately above the ground’ (Bastian, Verlag,1986,14)

Joseph Beuys, Stag Hunt, 1961
As for the primordial animals, they represent lesser forms of life, or even elements of life that have not completely evolved just yet, as the whole installation seems to remind us of a long lost memory, that of the world’s creation at the beginning of time.. the animal’s crude shape suggests that perhaps they weren’t given much attention, because they weren’t supposed to. As forms that haven’t yet evolved, but none the less are there to witness the act of creation…

In the massive installation Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958-85), the suspended, bronze triangle embodies the energy of a powerful flash of lightning, which illuminates a group of half-formed creatures. The ‘stag’ of the title was originally made from an ironing board and then cast in bright aluminium to suggest the glare of the lightning. The cart represents a goat, and the clods of bronze on the floor are primordial creatures. A small compass, mounted on top of a box, is another reference, with the lightning flash itself, to the natural energies of the earth. (From the display caption November, 2010)

Joseph beuys, Lightning with Stag in its Glare (Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch), 1958–85
An other very interesting aspect of Beuys work is the choice of his materials, Carefully selected substances that stir feelings or bring up emotions, materials that make the viewer interact with the work through personal experiences of memories. He had a unique love for nature. Beuys didn’t worry about using colours or anything to add in the appearance of his installations. His materials were such as bronze, aluminum, clay. ‘Clay is the substance of earth, Beuys had written in his preface, the substratum on which we stand and from which we will awaken in the planet to life after the dreadful slayings.’ (Cited in Bastian/Verlag, 1986, p14))
Materials have a special meaning for Beuys. As for most artists, the substances of his sculptures are not at all chosen randomly. What could one say about his cooking; the ingredients which he used had a particular significance for their touch, scent and flavor, as much as their symbolic meaning through cultures and history. He would use various aromatic plants and spices, such as rosemary, a symbol of energy and life force, and garlic, which have always been considered by many cultures, to be infused with magic and protective virtues, along with other beneficial powers.

His installations were not an exception. Copper pieces, cord, felt and fat where his main materials. In 1943 Beuys was fighting as an aircraft pilot. He was injured many times but the one that specifically imprinted in his memory was when he was crashed while flying over the Crimea. Tartar tribesmen found him unconscious. He would say when regained consciousness in a German field hospital, that he remembered how they covered his body in fat to help regenerate warmth, and wrapped him with felt to keep it.

He would also remember the felt of their tents and the smell of cheese, fat and milk. As one can understand those two materials were very important to him, materials that could save lives, substances capable of warmth, symbols of healing. Other similar symbols were copper for spiritual conduction, and cord, which as a readymade has fascinated artists from Piero Manzoni to Dorothea Rockburne.
Beuys would also use other, less conventional materials, for his very unique sculptures, even ones that often were not what one would think, materialistic. For example, while the visual materials he used did have a significant meaning especially to him, the invisible materials where exactly the things he worked with; the people’s minds, thoughts. Because Beuys wanted the public to engage with his work, to stop for a moment and think while looking at his installations, about their theme. In the case of the Lightning with stag in its glare, the installation itself by even making the person seeing it, wanting to understand the meaning, an other action had already begun, a sculpture in Beuys’ own words, which was formed by the thoughts and the mind of the viewer. And that, according to the artist, is the ultimate performance, action.

‘Joseph Beuys used all his energies to create social sculpture, embodying them in visual, olfactory, auditory, manual, emotional, mental, and linguistic powers. These powers constituted his invisible materials: word, gesture, smell, sound, discussion, behavior. For his formal sculptures, on the other hand, Beuys used visible materials; fat, felt, copper, honey, animals, plants, all elements that transmit energy and heat.(Durini, 1999,p.13)

Joseph Beuys, Animal Woman (Tierfrau), 1949, cast 1984
Another important part in Beuys work is the use of the objects he creates. Often those objects are mentally connected with feelings, experiences, and thoughts. By creating things that the viewer can relate to, they acquire a global meaning, at the same time as having something very personal, one fine example of this could be ‘Boothia Felix’, a sculpture which consisted of a sculptor’s modeling base, with a pedestal and the bronze resting on it. Its name refers to

‘the most northern point of the American continent, Cape Murchison. When it was discovered, the northern magnetic pole was situated on its western coast. A small compass which Beuys put on the surface of the bronze sculpture, establishes a secret relation to that distant topography, like a meridian who points over the sea.’ (Bastian, Verglag, 1986,18)

But even as abstract as they are, his work doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s outdated or cut off the current society’s problems. Quite the opposite as Beuys was a very active person in the sociological sense.
Beuys did not remain in just the area of installations. There are different views about the impact of his work on society and the general every day life, but what is most truthful to say is that while one person can be heard, it takes a lot of people’s actions to make a significant difference. And that is the biggest point about Beuys’ work. With his speeches, lectures, political engagement and environmental action he might have not saved the world from itself, but he did prepare the ground for something bigger to come. A very poetic example was given in the Unbowed: A memoir.

In 1982, one of Germany’s most important postwar artists, Joseph Beuys, proposed the planting of 7000 oak trees as “a sculpture referring to peoples’ life, to their everyday work”[…]A great river always begins somewhere. Often it starts as a tiny spring bubbling up from a crack in the soil, just like the little stream on my family’s land in Ihithe, which starts where the roots of the fig tree broke through the rocks beneath the ground. But for the stream to grow into a river, it must meet other tributaries and join them as it heads for a lake or the sea. So, when people ask about my life and the work of the Green Belt Movement and ask me ‘why trees?’, the truth of the matter is that the question has many answers. The essential one was that I reacted to a set of problems by focusing on what could be done. As it turned out, the idea that sprang from my roots merged with other sources of knowledge and action to form a confluence that grew bigger than I would ever have imagined. (Wangari Maathai, 2007, cited in Araeen, Rasheed 2009)

For Beuys art was his life. By using art to change the world, it meant that he had devoted his life to that purpose

For twenty years I have been working on an anthropological, human concept of art in which every human being is involved in the process of creation. With which one actually – and with true enthusiasm – arrives at the conclusion: Every human being is an artist! And that begins in the mind. For living thought is already a sculptural, i.e. sculpturally formative procedure, and from this epistemological truth, the human being derives himself as an artist – as a shaper – of the social organism. (R. Bergmann, Interview, Stuttgarter Nachrichten, Sept. 22, 1979)

His intentions were to provoke people to question, to think and therefore criticize contemporary subjects such as politics, environmental problems, even individual and social psychology.
In conclusion, Beuys is using the mind and the culture in societies, as a sculpture, to ‘pass’ meanings or at least to create the initial force, that encourages the public to start questioning the world. Through his environmental action, he would set an example for future generations, and leave behind him works of art that correspond to modern issues ‘His love for the earth, for nature and for humankind, led him to create the greatest social masterpiece in the history of world art, of the last fifty years. The operation, Defense of Nature.’ (Durini, 1999, 21) One might also look at his work as a means of recording, or addressing contemporary issues. Talking about our modern world, Beuys said in one of his Discussions:

‘Its sole objective is the exploitation of the world, and digging out of everything which can be extracted from it, exclusively in the interests of what we might term a sort of selfish profit. We can also recognize that this leads to the final crisis -the simultaneous destruction of the human species and of nature’ (cited in Durini, 1999, p.131)

Joseph Beuys, F.I.U.: The Defense of Nature (F.I.U.: Difesa della Natura), 1983–85.

It is obvious that even today his field of work is as valid, important, and applicable as ever.



Bastian H. Verlag B. (1986) Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch, Germany, Bentel Publishing House

Durini L.D. (1999), Joseph Beuys The Art of Cooking, Milano, Edizioni Charta

Wangari Maathai (2007), Unbowed: A Memoir, London, William Heinemann


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