Joseph Beuys

May 12, 2021…100 years ago Joseph Beuys was born.


100 years ago, on May 12, 1921, German artist Joseph Beuys was born. For those who occasionally pop into contemporary art museums, you might come across some of his puzzling, decidedly peculiar, almost “strange”, but tremendously human and familiar works.

This artist was a shaman and prophet of his time, and of what was to come, declaring with his art the evils done by humanity and the way to its salvation. Lover of the thought of Søren Kierkegaard and the music of Richard Strauss and Erik Satie. Follower of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical theories known, even before the war, by a friend, Fritz Rolf Rothenburg (deported and killed in 1943, in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen), but deepened for having assiduously attended the Academy in Düsseldorf.

His first sculpture was, in 1947-48, Cross with the Sun, a sculpture that constituted an essential synthesis between his love for nature, medicine, humanity and art. In a poetic fragment written in 1942-44 we read: “Work of love. On the earth, men, animals, plants, mountains, rivers, winds, lights bursting, resemble each other. Signs on us, Christianity, bursting through the power of Christ in me. Lifting the gaze as a new being, expanding into a greater breath. He needs to find himself. Without end to the whole conversion and in the blood of love, and radiate more liberation, weaving inductive pharmacy, metamorphosis, thought.”

Cross with sun 1947/48

The first to deal with nature violated and on the precipice of annihilation. “Art is not meant to be understood, otherwise we wouldn’t need art.” Committed to social and political issues, anti-militarist, ecologist and anti-nuclear. “All men are artists”, all must transmit living energy, the same that is in nature, because man and nature are made of the same thing. The beauty is in front of us and the search is in the natural world, there is no need for anything else, self-destruction is a process to be watched with the thought of prevention, of self-determination to affect the universe around and avoid the evil and pain of us all.

His work is closely linked to his being in the sense of his daily life and what naturally happened to him or happened to him, in fact everything begins as in a dramatic and suggestive script written for a film, almost a cosmic fatalism that brings us back to a great artist in history: On March 16, 1944 Beuys was at his battle station (i.e. tail gunner) on a Junker 87 Stuka in action in the skies over the Crimea. The plane was hit by Russian fighters and crashed to the ground in a few moments. The pilot was disintegrated on impact, but Beuys, who had fired at the canopy to open it, was thrown into the snow at a distance. Not only was his head and jaw severely injured, but he was completely sunk in the snow for some time. A group of Crimean Tatars fleeing the war dug up his body and comforted him with gifts from the earth: animal fat and layers of felt that regenerated his warmth and held him in place.

The flashbacks of his existence will be the ones that will bring him back with his art always to the materials and treatments he had after the accident, that was his “call” to start again, to be able and to have an impact on the world.

In its non-verbal essence, art represents a dimension that now presents itself in its dichotomy of FORM and CONTENT, and with regard to these two expressions, we need to go beyond the sphere of the boundaries that delineate them in order to pause and analyze the materials, that is, that concrete essence that in Beuys becomes fundamental for being active, for being builders of a social art.

In Beuys we see the most pragmatic synthesis of evidence, that is, a concept of exemplification that concerns human action in its context, in its space, in order to be the creator of a total work of art, which is existence, man makes art with his work, with his dignity.

Beuys took part from the fifties in the Fluxus movement, a current that brought to Europe the concepts of American Neo-Dadaism.
In the art of these new trends, introducing the object into the work or making the object the work meant moving from representation to the “presentation” of what was the signifier.

The object is made up of its elements and they do not tell a story, a narration but express themselves.

So also the performance is part of the artistic elaboration of Beuys as that of the man whose body is total art, living sculpture, a conjunction between being and nature so the artistic action was a means of ritual healing and salvation.

In this perspective are placed the materials used by Beuys, materials to which he recognizes owned properties, which aim to express his concept of social art as art that intervenes and shapes the society of which the creative individual is part.

The objects and materials of Beuys’ works do not represent or refer to anything other than the works themselves.

Man must establish a spiritual bond with nature from which he receives positive energies, hence the choice of materials used in many of his works, including animal fat and especially real animals, dead or alive.

Beuys was recognized in the ’60s and ’70s as a shaman-artist.

The shaman-artist often uses within his works the animal, he is interested in the animal as a living being, represent the animals often dead is precisely the attempt to demonstrate the fragility of their lives, and to dialogue with society on the “memento mori” that is in us.

Animality is something fragile unlike the logos, the animal dimension that characterizes every man is the expression of the mutability of nature, its fluidity.

In the works of Beuys is present the hare that appears for the first time in the performance “Siberian Symphony Section 1” in 1963.

“Siberian Symphony Section 1” – 1963 –

In this performance Beuys ties a dead hare in front of a blackboard, which is flanked by a piano. Says Beuys commenting on his performance, “…when I use the hare, for example, which appears here for the first time in the flesh, my intention has nothing to do with the hare, but is meant to be the expression of transformation through matter, of birth and death.”

The hare represents transformation, natural metamorphosis, through matter of birth and death. The symbol in Beuys’ art does not have a meaning of metaphor, allegory or sign as it may have in other artistic languages. Nature for Beuys is understood as a process, and artistic creation is not conceived as the creation of a precise form, but as a decisive action in the stimulation of a thought through which man finds the animal and the consciousness of nature.

The imprinting, the spark of artistic genius is therefore a direct energy derived from what was fundamental in saving his life, what in his consciousness elevated him to a more spiritual sense of existence and closer to the natural elements.

Felt, for example, is a fabric that has no warp and weft, it is hair that is woven through only the soaking of water and soap, so the invasiveness of technology and man is minimal.

Beuys wants to give a critical solicitation to the viewer but does not intend the work as an entity that separates the artist who creates it from the public who observes it, he conceived it as an anthropological and spiritual involvement. Art is not a one-size-fits-all tool for a viewing public but a spiritual collector for a mutant and vital organism that is society, which is the collective consciousness. The artist acts as a preacher for the common good that goes beyond the mechanisms of art itself.

The “chair with fat” of 1963 put into practice the link with a material that had been curative and as such made it cathartic in a universal and naturally anthropological sense for whoever had it in front of him. A chair with fat that could represent the lower part of the human belly or the sexual condition was there in its essence, which could be hard or soft, changing in the interpretation of the viewer himself, changing according to the emotionality and spirituality of those who took note of it.

Chair with grease – 1963 –

Beuys is the emblem of free man and that is why he represents anthropological art and manifests social sculpture, man is always at the center of the thought of this great artist.

Freedom is the supreme value of man and to which every man aspires, man lives free to the extent that in an autonomous and self-determined takes a position in front of every event in life.

This vision of art as improving and participating in the fate of the community, as a collective essence, as a point for the search for a shared beauty reverberates in the political expectations of the artist.

Beuys in an interview by Werner Krueger in 1974, speaking of the already established F.I.U. (Free International University), states that he would not want a “free space” for it, because the rules within a school are necessary and essential, but rather a “space of freedom”, where you start from scratch to create ideas and develop thinking in different directions.

And it is precisely thought that must be spoken of when dealing with this issue, because for the artist, man is free first and foremost in thought.

The artist’s vision is wide and broad and directed towards the needs and necessities, not only of his own country, but of several nations put together, in a perspective that can be considered Europeanist.373 Certainly, in Beuys’ thought, there is a need for communication and therefore collaboration between the various European countries, from a social, political, economic and especially cultural point of view.

Beuys said that art should not be interpreted, those who live it should be brought to an irrational dimension, where reason leaves room for sensation, for instinctive reaction. Every human being has the duty to show what he has produced with his freedom. The artist tries to stimulate in himself and in others his ability to feel, to perceive, to know. Intuition is a characteristic for Beuys’ art, because it allows man to think outside of pre-established patterns.

Joseph Beuys was first and foremost a man who loved men, the crisis of contemporary man, the loss of identity, were the essential motivations that have engaged his entire life, he conceived of man as an artist because it is life itself that must be explored with great creativity.

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