The following books have been the principal sources of information for this biography: Göz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, Karin Thomas “Joseph Beuys – Life and Works”; H P Riegel “Beuys Die Biographie Band 1, 2, 3”; Heiner Stachelhaus “Joseph Beuys”; Christiane Hoffmans " Beuys Bilder eines Lebens".
To write their book, Adriani et al used Beuys’ own narrative chronicling of his experiences as a guide. Beuys called this narrative, which he produced in 1964 (and enlarged in 1970) “Life Course Work Course”. In it Beuys colourfully interprets many of his life experiences as ‘exhibitions’ as is demonstrated in the first line that chronicles his birth as 'an exhibition of a wound drawn together with plaster'. By so doing he conflates his life and his art. Adriani et al expand on each of the events listed by Beuys and often include quotations by Beuys relevant to the events. This makes the book a very useful source of information concerning Beuys’ life but, like any autobiography, is selective and open to artistic license.
Riegel has devoted much time to finding documentary evidence to corroborate, or otherwise, the events/statements which have been up to now accepted as facts. This too is very useful; but when any evidence is found that contradicts Beuys’ statements it is easy to then cast doubt on the reliability of other statements and the motives for writing them. And, of course, when those facts are expanded upon by the different authors there is the chance that their own prejudices will be displayed. This is true of the biography and chronicling of events given here.
Since this document will be referenced I start with Beuys’ “Life Course Work Course”, which was first introduced to the public in the programme produced for a Fluxus Festival in Aachen:
Life Course Work Course
1921 Kleve Exhibition of a wound drawn together with plaster
1922 Exhibition of Rindern dairy near Kleve
1923 Exhibition of a moustache cup (contents: coffee with egg)
1924 Kleve Open exhibition of heathen children
1925 Kleve Documentation: “Beuys as Exhibitor"
1926 Kleve Exhibition of a stagleader
1927 Kleve Exhibition of radiation
1928 Kleve First exhibition of an excavated trench
Kleve Exhibition to elucidate the difference between loamy sand and sandy loam
1929 Exhibition at the grave of Genghis Khan
1930 Donsbrüggen Exhibition of heathers with healing herbs
1931 Kleve Connecting exhibition
Kleve Exhibition of connections
1933 Kleve Underground exhibition (digging parallel to the ground)
1940 Posen Exhibition of an arsenal (together with Heinz Sielmann, Hermann Ulrich Asemissen, and Eduard Spranger)
Exhibition of an airfield, Erfurt-Bindersieben
Exhibition of an airfield, Erfurt-Nord
1942 Sebastopol Exhibition of my friend
Sebastopol Exhibition during the capture of a JU-87
1943 Oranienburg Interim exhibition (together with Fritz Rolf Rothenburg and Heinz Sielmann)
1945 Kleve Exhibition of cold
1946 Kleve warm exhibition
Kleve Artists' Union “Profile of the Successor"
Happening Central Train Station, Heilbronn
1947 Kleve Artists' Union “Profile of the Successor”
Kleve Exhibition for the hard of hearing
1948 Kleve Artists' Union "Profile of the Successor"
Düsseldorf Exhibition in the Pillen Bettenhaus
Krefeld Exhibition “Kullhaus” (together with A.R. Lynen)
1949 Heerdt Total exhibition three times in succession
Kleve Artists' Union “Profile of the Successor”
1950 Beuys reads “Finnegans Wake” in “Haus Wylermeer”
Kranenburg Haus van der Grinten “Giocondology”
Kleve Artists' Union “Profile of the Successor”
1951 Kranenburg “Van der Grinten Collection” Beuys: Sculpture and Drawing
1952 Düsseldorf 19th prize in “Steel and Pig's Trotters" (following a light-ballet by Piene)
Wuppertal Museum of Art Beuys: Crucifixes
Amsterdam Exhibition in honor of the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal
Nijmegen Museum of Art Beuys: Sculpture
1953 Kranenburg “Van der Grinten Collection” Beuys: Paintings
1955 End of the Artists' Union “Profile of the Successor”
1956-57 Beuys works in the fields
1957–60 Recovery from working in the fields
1961 Beuys is appointed Professor of Sculpture at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art
Beuys adds two chapters to “Ulysses” at James Joyce's request
1962 Beuys: The Earth Piano
1963 FLUXUS: Düsseldorf Academy of Art
On a warm July evening on the occasion of a lecture by Allan Kaprow in the Zwirner Gallery, Cologne, Kolumba churchyard, Beuys exhibits his warm fat Joseph Beuys Fluxus stable exhibition in Haus van der Grinten, Kranenburg, Lower Rhine
1964 Documenta III Sculpture, Drawings
Beuys recommends that the Berlin Wall be heightened by 5 cm (better proportions!)
Catalogue Update by Joseph Beuys
1964 Beuys "VEHICLE ART": Beuys the Art Pill, Aachen; Copenhagen Festival; Beuys Felt works and Fat Corners. WHY?; Friendship with Bob Morris and Yvonne Rainer; Beuys Mouse Tooth Happening Düsseldorf-New York; Beuys Berlin “The Chief"; Beuys: The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated. 1964, Beuys Brown Rooms; Beuys Stag Hunt (behind); 1965 and in us ... under us ... land under, Parnass Gallery, Wuppertal; Western Man Project; Schmela Gallery, Düsseldorf: ... any rope. . .; Schmela Gallery, Düsseldorf "How to explain pictures to a dead hare”; 1966 and here already is the end of Beuys: Per Kirkeby “2,15”; Beuys Eurasia 32nd Movement 1963 – René Block, Berlin - “with brown cross"; Copenhagen: Traekvogn Eurasia; Affirmation: the greatest contemporary composer is the thalidomide child; Division of the Cross; Homogen for grand piano (Felt); Homogen for Cello (Felt); Manresa with Björn Nörgard, Schmela Gallery, Düsseldorf; Beuys The Moving Insulator; Beuys The difference between Image Head and Mover Head; Drawings, St. Stephan Gallery, Vienna; 1967 Darmstadt Joseph Beuys and Henning Christiansen "Mainstream"; Darmstadt Fat Room, Franz Dahlem Gallery, Aha-Strasse; Vienna Beuys and Christiansen: “Eurasienstab” 82 minute fluxorum organum; Düsseldorf June 21 Beuys founds the DSP German Student Party; 1967 Mönchengladbach (Johannes Cladders) Parallel Process 1; Karl Ströher; THE EARTH TELEPHONE; Antwerp Wide White Space Gallery: Image Head - Mover Head (Eurasienstab); Parallel Process 2; THE GREAT GENERATOR 1968 Eindhoven Stedelijk van Abbé Museum Jan Leering. Parallel Process 3; Kassel Documenta IV Parallel Process 4; Munich Neue Pinakothek; Hamburg ALMENDE (Art Union); Nuremberg ROOM 563 x 491 x 563 (Fat); Earjom Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Braunschweig, Würm-Glacial (Parallel Process 5); Frankfurt/M: Felt TV II The Leg of Rochus Kowallek is not carried out in fat (JOM)! Düsseldorf Felt TV III Parallel Process; Intermedia Gallery, Cologne: VACUUM-MASS (Fat) Parallel Process. . .Gulo borealis. . .for Bazon Brock; Johannes Stüttgen FLUXUS ZONE WEST Parallel Process - Düsseldorf Academy of Art, Eiskellerstrasse I: LIVER FORBIDDEN; Intermedia Gallery, Cologne: Drawings 1947-1956; Christmas 1968: Intersection of the track from IMAGE HEAD with the track from MOVER HEAD in All (Space) Parallel Process - 1969 Düsseldorf, Schmela Gallery FOND III; 2/12/69 Appearance of MOVER HEAD over the Düsseldorf Academy of Art; Beuys takes the blame for the snowfall from 15 - 20 February; Berlin - René Block’s Gallery: Joseph Beuys and Henning Christiansen Concert: I attempt to set (make) you free -- Grand piano (fieldjom). Berlin: National Gallery; Berlin: Academy of the Arts: Sauerkraut Score - Eat the Score! Mönchengladbach: Transformation Concert with Henning Christiansen; Düsseldorf Kunsthalle exhibition (Karl Ströher); Lucerne Fat Room (Clock); Basel Kunstmuseum Drawings; Düsseldorf PROSPECT: ELASTIC FOOT PLASTIC FOOT. Basel Kunstmuseum Works from the Karl Ströher Collection. 1970 Copenhagen Werks from the Karl Ströher Collection, Hessisches Landsmuseum Darmstadt Karl Ströher Collection.
Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld on May 12th 1921, the only child of Josef Jakob Beuys (1888–1958), who worked in a coffee roastery in Krefeld, and was married to Johanna Maria Margarete Beuys (nee Hülsermann, 1889–1974). Just a few months after Joseph's birth the family moved to Kleve in the Lower Rhine region close to the German-Dutch border and with a population of around 20,000. There they lived in Kermisdahlstraase, within the shadows of the Schwanenburg Castle. Riegel states that it is very likely that Beuys' father ran a business trading in flour from there from 1921 to 1926. After that his father worked at his brother Hubert’s shop in nearby Hau, which traded in similar products – agricultural fertilizers and fodders etc.
Fields and houses surrounding Castle Schwanenburg in 1923. The Beuys family house was situated just to the right of the houses below the castle.
In 1927 Beuys started at school; a 20 min walk away. His journey would take him away from the more open countryside shown above and very quickly into industrial Kleve (in the direction to the right of the castle above). On his way to school he would pass two margarine factories (Wahnschaffe’s and the massive Van den Bergh complex), the train station, the cocoa and chocolate factory Bensdorf, and also pass a then major landmark of Kleve - the Lohengrin statue.
Lohengrin is the Knight who, in one version of a legend, was pulled along in a boat by a shiny silver swan on his way to defend the honour of a Duke’s daughter. The legend came to be associated with the town and the rulers of Kleve who took the swan as their crest. The tower of the castle is topped with a golden swan. The statue of Lohengrin was destroyed in WWII.
The legendary Swan Knight, Lohengrin, on a Kleve postcard dated 1933.
The Beuys' family remained in the same house until late 1935, so the 1922 to 1933 entries in the 'Life Course Work Course' need to be read in that context. They seem to reflect Beuys' preference for spending more time exploring and enjoying the countryside rather than venturing into industrial Kleve except where necessary to journey to school. Rindern is a very rural area just a few miles from Kleve. It would become tangibly important to Beuys when his uncle moved his fodder [dairy] business from Hau to Rindern, with Beuys' father working there too. But this was not until 1934, so it would appear that Beuys was using artistic licence for his 1922 entry – maybe suggesting that he was a 'country boy' almost from the moment he was born. Yet that doesn't mean to say he didn't take an interest in mechanical things too, for Adriani et al quotes Beuys as saying: 'There were among our neighbours, certain men who one could look upon as models. Johannes Sanders, for example, who had a great influence on me, had a big laundry near my parent's house which was bombed during the war and therefore no longer exists. This laundry was a dark building with huge chimneys. Sanders himself was a progressive spirit who regularly experimented with all sorts of equipment. There was always interesting equipment at his place, such as boilers and heating fixtures, ironing machines and centrifuges with enormous flywheels. As a youngster this naturally fascinated me, it was fantastic and grotesque at the same time.” In fact the Sanders' laundry was situated opposite Beuys' family house in Kermisdahlstraase.
Friends, relatives and acquaintances who knew Beuys as a boy tend to describe him as a scamp, yet also as a bit of a shy 'loner'. He has stated that “for years” he acted out his imagination of himself as being a shepherd – running around with a staff, and always having an imaginary herd gathered around him. Yet his country pursuits went further: “I began to take an interest in plants and botany and learned just about everything there was to learn in that field, which I put down in several notebooks. On regular excursions with other children we assembled collections which were accessible to the public. Naturally, all this still had the character of a game. From old towels, rags, and remnants, which we obtained by begging, we built big tents where we displayed the objects we had collected, from flies, reptiles, tadpoles, fish, beetles, mice and rats to old mechanical equipment and any sort of technical apparatus, in short everything we had gathered. There was also much digging, we built a mass of trenches with underground rooms. All this occurred in Kleve between 1925 and 1933.” Here Beuys elucidates on his entries in 'Life Course Work Course' to that date. Donsbrüggen is a village set in a very rural area about 5km from the centre of Kleve. Here, on Donsbrüggen's outskirts, Beuys would come across Schloss Gnadenthal and be entranced by the heroic exploits of its once owner, one Baron Anarcharsis Cloots (24 June 1755 – 24 March 1794), who was guillotined during the French Revolution for, amongst other things, maintaining the universal validity of human rights. Like much of Beuys' childhood experience this association to the local area was to later re-surface in his art.
There can be no doubt that Beuys was particularly knowledgeable about plants, learnt through a keen scholarly interest taken from this early age. He even knew all the latin names. Stachelhaus maintains that “he kept a botanical collection in his parent's house and also maintained a small zoo and laboratory”. Plants became an important ingredient in his art, installations and actions. How his parents reacted to their son's passions is unknown but Beuys has described his relationship to them as “not close” and one where he had to take care of himself from an early age. But in Germany times were very hard at the beginning of the 1930s – stemming from American financiers calling in foreign loans as a consequence of the Great Depression.
Nonetheless, it would seem that Beuys' parents, like any good parents, wished to see their son prosper and go on to a good school, which in Beuys' case was the local grammar school. They also supported his musical interest by purchasing a piano and providing for lessons for him from an early age. Indeed when he was just coming up to his tenth birthday, he was sufficiently confident with his playing to perform three short solo pieces at a student concert, consisting of two traditional folk songs "Give me the flower" and "Soon I'll be grazing on the Neckar" and "The Huntsmen's Chorus" from Weber's opera "Der Freischütz" - it based on a German folk legend.
Listen to a piano version of "Give me the flower" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2JmqMRgapU , a piano version of "Soon I'll be grazing on the Neckar" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDUaWhybDeo and a piano version of "The Huntsmen's Chorus" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90m6k8wjUpQAs parents of limited means, sending their child to the grammar school and providing piano lessons would involve considerable funding and sacrifice and would, no doubt, require a degree of hardship on their part, but so it was that from Easter 1932 Beuys started at the Kleve Royal High School in Römerstraße - an all-boys school. The school's name changed towards the end of his time there to the Hindenburg State High School for Boys. Here the focus was on ancient languages and the sciences, with little emphasis on art. And, although Beuys took a great interest in the natural sciences and in physics, he also, according to Christiane Hoffmanns, was so good at art that he had a series of his landscape watercolours hung in the stairwell of the school. One of these, “Landscape at Rindern”, has survived.
Beuys' secondary school as it is now Image Cliff Gorman Beuys' “Landscape at Rindern” Image Schloss Moyland
Just one year after Beuys had started at the grammar school, Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) came to power and everything started to change at the school. As early as May 18th 1933 a book burning took place in the courtyard of Beuys' school. We know Beuys had knowledge of this since he is quoted as saying that Linné's "Systema Naturae" was among some books he had saved from the burning heap. In July 1934 the existing headmaster was dismissed as not sufficiently loyal to the National Socialist ideology and was replaced by a Nazi Party loyalist and author of several books on German history with such titles as “The People and Empire of the Germans, a history book for high schools and grammar schools - Prussia and Germany (from 1648 to 1871)”. What was taught in schools was pretty soon distorted to reflect anti-Jewish sentiment and German Nationalist views. Music also featured prominently in the Hitler Youth movement. Hitler Youth (HJ) orchestras were established and Beuys' music teacher, a 'brownshirt' by the name of Hanns Schwarz, was head of one such orchestra. He actually taught wearing his Storm Detachment (SA) uniform.
And in town everywhere began to be plastered with the flags and trappings of the Nazis. As Riegel points out “Beuys grew up in the reality of a society that was enthusiastic about marching music, flags and torchlight procession,and ritual mass events in homage to its Führer". Indeed, when Beuys was 13 years old extensive building works were taking place in the triangular piece of land directly opposite his school preparing a memorial site to the soldiers who fell in WW1. The central sculpture of the memorial, ‘Tote Krieger’ (dead warrior), was by Ewald Mataré, who was later to become Beuys’ teacher at the Düsseldorf Academy. A great inaugural ceremony took place there on 22nd October 1934 with the square in front of the school being filled with the ranked members of the armed forces of the Third Reich and the Hitler Youth. Although Beuys did not become a member of the Hitler Youth until it was made compulsory in 1936, Riegel claims that Beuys participated in this event, but this is far from being certain. Interestingly Beuys would also have been aware that after only four years the central sculpture by Mataré (who was later to be described by Hitler as a ‘degenerate artist’) was smashed and removed. The monument, which symbolised suffering, grief and death - a victim rather than a hero - could no longer be tolerated by the Nazis. See more here.
In September 1936 Beuys took part in a march to the week-long 8th Nazi Party Congress of the NSDAP in Nuremberg, in common with uniformed delegations of the HJ from all over Germany (see a 1937 rally here for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYBPKgVRAK4). The penultimate day, 10th September, was given over to the HJ. Just before 10 a.m on the Sunday morning Hitler arrived, walking slowly through the columns of the SS along with the Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach, Reich Minister Rudolf Hess, and the regional youth leader Hartman Lauterbacher. As part of his address to the 45,000 young Germans, Hitler proclaimed: “You do not know how much the German people love you. You have become such a part of our national life that we can no longer imagine it without you” (source: https://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/pt36hj.htm). Indoctrination and propaganda, no doubt, but spell-binding to such a gathered youthful audience. See an example at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJCR6TtMKcM.
One has to wonder what the effect of all this was on a boy from a relatively rural town set on the outer edges of Germany on its border with Holland and in an area known to outsiders for the superstition of its inhabitants and the atmosphere that prevails over the dune and marsh that lies between the Rhine and Mass on its way towards the sea. Kleve is also somewhat of an oddity - being a Celtic and Catholic enclave in a Germanic and Protestant country - and a place where the border counts for little in the minds of the people. By name and culture many inhabitants aren't German, but Dutch, just as the land has been at times past. [Caroline Tisdall 'Joseph Beuys' pg 10]
Kleve set between two rivers & close to the Dutch border Typical landscape on outskirts of Kleve Image Cliff Gorman
In his 'Life Course Work Course' Beuys does not provide any entries for the years 1934 -1939, his teenage years. This is somewhat puzzling and maybe a little disturbing. But I believe he is being frank and honest when he makes statements about his time as a Hitler Youth such as: “I had no scruples about it; perhaps my parents did. One must admit that, in contrast to today, the situation was to a certain extent ideal for young people to live a full life. Nevertheless I constantly perceived myself, out of a feeling of inner protest, to be an outsider both at home and at school” (Adriano et al pg 12). And as he also said “Everyone went to church, and everyone went to the Hitler Youth” (Tisdall pg 15). As previously mentioned Beuys was perceived as a 'loner' and a 'prankster'. But it is perfectly possible to be a loner in a crowd, and to actually enjoy a certain 'esprit de corps' (something that the HJ were particularly adept at inculcating amongst the young). Beuys clearly did not want to be the 'odd one out' in this respect. The fact that he suggests that he might have been in disagreement with his parents is no surprise either. The Nazis deliberately went out to drive a wedge between the generations. And what child with the nature of a prankster would not find journeying outside the confines of their home town and their own petit-bourgeois family irresistibly exciting? And don't most teenagers burn inside with protest, perceiving themselves as alone in not being listened to or understood? I doubt whether many of the HJ at the time really realised just how much they were being manipulated and what Hitler's ulterior motive was. And this was probably true with regard to much of what was happening at school and in town. Later - after all the 'excitement' of these times had died down and the devastating consequences of Nazism and the role he had played in it dawned on him - then he paid the penalty and worked for the rest of his life to make amends. What is more difficult to understand is why Beuys failed to include any of this in 'Life Course Work Course'. The answer may lie in the fact that this artistic biography was first published by Beuys in the programme for ‘Actions/Agit-Pop/DeCollage/Happening/Events/Antiart/L’Autrisme/Art Total/Refluxus’, a Fluxus event due to take place in Aachen on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the attempted assassination of Hitler on July 20th 1944. Was Beuys sensitive to the fact that any entries linking him to Hitler might not go down well on an evening supposedly celebrating his attempted assassination? This event was indeed closed down by police after trouble, chaos and uproar erupted about a third way through the performances.
Beuys' interests were wide ranging. He remarks of his time at school: “One investigates and examines much at this age, most of which consists of specific stimuli. I wanted to take in everything that was forbidden during Hitler's reign. It is often said that I have a special preference for the spiritually radical changes of the turn of the century, for Jurgendstil and symbolism. Literary figures such as Maeterlinck, George, Oskar Panizza, and others are given an importance which they neither directly nor indirectly had for me. I have read some of their works, but my enthusiasm for them never went so far that they in any way influenced me. The talk about Jugendstil is also nonsense. Jugendstil did not influence me at all; on the contrary, I had absolutely no sympathy for it, neither then nor now”. (Adriani pg 13)
Towards the end of Beuys' time at school his restless nature and thirst for freedom, together with a circus girl 'turning his head', caused him to run away and join the travelling troupe where he put his hand to everything, whilst at the same time learning to respect performers and their nomadic life. This adventure didn't last long since his father caught up with him in the Upper Rhine. Although his parents would have liked him to leave school and work in the margarine factory in Kleve, Beuys in fact went back to school to carry out his last year of schooling. (The circus episode is another event that Riegel takes issue with, arguing that it was very unlikely that a child would be able to run away during this Nazi period, and equally unlikely that the headmaster of the school would take him back!).
As previously mentioned Beuys showed early talent in art and although the subject was taught at school his first real connections with art were made when he met Achilles Moortgat (1881 - 1957). Moortgat was a well-respected Belgian sculptor/artist with a house and studio situated on Beuys' route to school. Beuys visited him on several occasions. Moortgat worked in the tradition of the Brussels Academy and had worked in sculptor Gerd Brüx's (1875 - 1944) Kleve studio. [Brüx's son Walther (1917 – 2006), a sculptor, painter, architect and politician, was later to encourage Beuys to take up art as a full-time career and made several portrait sculptures of Beuys]. Moortgat introduced Beuys to the work of another Belgian artist Constantin Meunier (1831-1905), whose work reflected the industrial, social and political developments of his day and which offered a compassionate and committed view of man and the world, and to Georges Minne (1866 - 1941) famous for his idealized depictions of man's inner spiritual conflicts and whose "Kneeling Youth" sculpture series were confiscated by the Nazis. As Hoffmann's writes: “These first experiences with an artist [Moortgat] were certainly exciting for the student, but it was the encounter with a sculpture by Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881–1919) - initially only as a black and white photo in a booklet – that was formative.” According to Beuys it was Lehmbruck's sculpture that was the initial spark for Beuys' later preoccupation with sculpture. It was Lehmbruck who gave him the decisive impetus not to regard sculpture solely as a three-dimensional, solid material structure. For Beuys, sculpture came to mean a lot more. For Beuys this first encounter with Lehmbruck contained the seeds of his “expanded concept of art” and his “social sculpture”, which he developed from the mid-1960s onwards (Hoffmanns) .
Images - Left to right - Achilles Moortgat (Hendrike♒ 07:34, 24 June 2007 (UTC) / Public domain); Constantin Meunier (Constantin Meunier / Public domain);
Georges Minne (Sailko / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)); Wilhelm Lehmbruck (Cliff Gorman)
Beuys eventually left school at Easter 1941 - this according to Reinhard Ermen in ‘Joseph Beuys’ pg 11, with a "Reifeverschrift" (a school leaving certificate awarded to students in their final year and who were called up for military duties). Riegel also disputes this, suggesting that Beuys may have left school in 1940 and without a qualification, and certainly not with the Abitur (equivalent to U.K. ‘A’ levels or the Continental Baccalaureate) that he claimed he had when applying to go to the Düsseldorf Academy. Certainly Beuys 'Life Course Work Course' fits in with the 1940 scenario.
Beuys had demonstrated an interest in the sciences from an early age and he considered taking up medical studies but, in the atmosphere of general mobilization, he joined the Wehrmacht instead. According to his school friend Wilhelm van den Boom, he and Beuys together decided to volunteer for the Air Force on 10th May 1940, the day Hitler sent his forces into Holland and Belgium. “It was difficult for me to commit myself in any way; besides, the goal of becoming a pediatrician was never anything concrete. This idea was only a manifestation of my strong interest in science and technology, as was my decision to join the Air Force”. (Adriani pg 14)
In the meantime his father had left his brother's company and had been employed in the Kleve administration offices since October 1939 and the family had moved to Karlplatz 2 (now Hanns Lamers-Platz) during those years. Here Beuys will have spent the last weeks of his youth before going off to war.
In an extensive interview published in the May 1980 edition of Penthouse, André Müller asked several questions pertinent to this time and I feel it important to provide the exact wording of Beuys' replies. Beuys answers were remarkably frank and in them he took issue with some of the criticism he had faced on this subject. To the question: Why did you join the Air Force, of all places, when the chances of survival are comparatively low? Beuys answered “I just wanted to take the risk and still survive, as I still do today, i.e. to do something that represents a radical external position and still win, to assert myself with something where you think you had made the right decision. I still think today that it was a sensible decision to volunteer at the time. Some, who so snootily know everything better today, say yes, these national instincts that came up under National Socialism, they have now been overcome, so they sit on their big horse and say: How could you get into the Hitler army back then ? I see it completely differently.” When pushed on this Beuys replied: “Well, I see it first of all as a feeling of belonging and solidarity with my peers. I just wanted to share the same fate with them. I didn't want any extra sausage, I didn't want to take a cowardly, pacifist attitude. I have always been fundamentally against all emigration. I wanted to be in the middle of the shit that everyone else was in. So I still consider my decision at the time to be morally correct today”. And when asked whether he knew about the background to the war he was going into, he replied ”I knew, of course, that everything was a result of the Versailles Treaty. It was clear to me that this treaty was absurd for Europe and especially for Germany, but of course it was only clear to me in the form in which it was taught to me by my teachers, whom I venerated and still venerate today. They were all former officers, they all had a leg or a hand off somewhere, what do I know, they were badly battered, mentally, psychologically and physically. As a result, they were of course very well suited as role models for us children, because you know that children have a lot of powers of imagination, also powers of devotion and worship. So there was always something going on when they talked about their war adventures”. In Beuys' mind, as in many German minds, the Versailles agreement provided justification for Germany's attempt to reassert itself on the world stage.
When the interviewer suggested that Beuys' emphasis on comradeship was misguided and was something that Hitler had cleverly manipulated for his evil ends, Beuys was adamant: “I've never experienced it like that. I went into life. For me the war meant: life. I didn't want to stay at home in this death zone. I said: I want to have the same fate as my peers. I saw no ethical or moral reason to stay at home, knowing the tricks that could have been put in place to do so . Something like that: sticking together for better or for worse.” By "death zone" Beuys was referring to the rural, sleepy town of Kleve. And when pressed on the deaths that occurred during the bombings Beuys admitted that there were deaths, but he was defensive, suggesting that they “never attacked cities like the Americans or the British, only tactical targets”. On learning of the true extent of the atrocities, Beuys was “shocked, definitely, and irreversibly, with a feeling of grief“ and he “immediately began looking for a way to make amends on a large scale. At that time it being particularly necessary to see the possibility of goodness in mankind. Without idealism, as one would call it, there would have been no way around it. Actually, this shock after the end of the war is my original experience, my basic experience, the one which led to the fact that I even started to deal with art, that is, to orient myself again, in the sense of a radical new beginning. I had studied natural sciences before the war, and now I made up my mind to break out of this materialistic field of science and try a more comprehensive discipline, which I thought at the time, even if only emotionally, could return to more human terms. Move the focus. That was the feeling. At that time I made this decision more out of a feeling, because I saw the whole catastrophe before me and I had read a lot. So it came from an inwardness, a feeling that I had”. The feelings of guilt didn't play a part – he couldn't afford that since that would have prevented him from moving forwards and would have had a paralysing effect - but he did feel a sense of responsibility.
Erfurt and Weimar
Beuys began his military training as an aircraft radio operator in 1941 in Posen. Posen had been part of Prussia until most of its territory was ceded to Poland under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. In 1939 Posen was annexed by Nazi Germany. In Posen Beuys befriends both his aviation instructor, Heinz Sielmann, who was later to become the producer of television documentaries such as "Expeditions to the Animal Kingdom”, and the head of armoury, Hermann Ulrich Asemissen, who would go on to teach philosophical and ethical anthropology at the University of Kassel. He mentions these in 'Live Course Work Course' together with Eduard Spranger, a German philosopher and psychologist, promoter of holism (which regards that parts cannot be understood without reference to the whole) and whose theory of education emphasised the harmonious development of all human powers (Stachelhaus pg 20). In his leave time, for seven months he attended biology, zoology, botany, geography, and philosophy lectures at the University of Posen. But it was after attending a lecture at Posen that Beuys resolved not to become a scientist and to seriously consider a career in the arts. “I experienced it as a vivid shock in the middle of a lecture on amoebas by a professor who had spent his whole life pondering a couple of fuzzy images of single cells somewhere between plant and animal structure. It gave me such a fright that I said: No, that’s not my idea of science. I’m still haunted by the image of those little amoebae on that blackboard”. (Caroline Tisdall: ‘Joseph Beuys’ pg 18). Maybe he was thinking back to his conversations with Moortgat and his discovery of Lehmbruck and how much more expansive art could be. Beuys, however, maintained his interest in nature, in botany, biology and philosophy, continuing to read extensively on these subjects. He also turned to reading the works of Paracelsus and subsequently to Rudolf Steiner's teaching. It was also at Posen that any ambitions Beuys may have had to become a pilot were dashed since in a medical examination it was discovered that he suffered from red-green blindness.
In December of that year Beuys was transferred to Erfurt to continue his training as a radio operator. It was here that he most likely flew in an airplane for the first time. Erfurt is only about 25km from Weimar and at about the time of his birthday, May 12th, he took the opportunity to journey to this well known city of culture and to visit the houses of Goethe and Schiller, and the Nietzsche Archive. He also visited the Belvedere Palace, a 45 min walk away which would take him through the 'Park an der Ilm', unchanged much since Goethe's time and designed in the English landscape tradition, and through the Palace's own spacious park. There, behind the Palace, and presumably having been inspired by what he saw in Goethe's city, and the landscape around him, he penned a poem in pencil on the back of a perforated telex form. Beuys coloured the page, presumably at a later stage, in abstract style, using watercolours in blues, greens and reds. The poem is entitled “Nordic Spring”. It is an ode to nature, to spring and the new budding of life.
Translated from the German here and excluding the alterations that Beuys made:
Your thousand powers flow into me
when I walk through the forest
how tree after tree catches the early light
through the filigree treetops falls the red
shimmer on the meadows.
There flows the stream. There is a silvery ring
as the small waves sweetly splash
over the colourful pebbles. Already the nine-year moss
spreads over the high protruding rocks.
And close beside the brook the vigorous
pushing and reaching of the plants. Everything
reaches toward the glorious early windows of sunlight
above me. Here it turns red, and there
opalescent blue. And now it quivers shimmering
in the grass between the stones.
Ostara [Spring] walks over the meadows. A
tremendous tension mounts between
Fauna and flora. Humans feel the
plants and animals are his kin.
This infinite power, this Dionysian striving
and overflowingness is shaped by Man through his
spiritual vision of the truths in nature
into an Ideal image
and into a pure work of art.
Cellular and biological transformation. The herbal
proliferation and overgrowth spread from ever-new new sources
of exuberant, biological
creative power which the Greeks designated Dionysian.
Man can transform himself through his
genius and his Faustian will, into the Dionysian
With added notes:
Apollo and Dionysus
May behind Schloss Belvedere (Weimar)
The lines of the poem are not only testimony to a young, sensitive and romantic mind, they also suggest Beuys had previous knowledge of Goethe's doctrine of metamorphosis, Weimar Classicism and Jena Early Romanticism - influences that remained with him for the rest of his life. Beuys wrote several poems around this time and in which he seems to question the gulf between the existence offered by the authors of the books he was reading at this time (Novalis, Goethe, Herder for example) and the immediate experiences of the soldiers. It would seem he was going through a period of self-discovery, not having yet decided at this stage to become a visual artist. (The information in this section is based broadly on information that appears in a paper given to me in Jena by Professor Franz-Joachim Verspohl "Joseph Beuys in Weimar. Das Jahr 1942 als Zäsur des Lebenslaufes")
Riegel, as might be expected, questions Verspohl's academic analysis and seems intent on nailing Beuys as a fully paid up Nazi, questioning whether Beuys is borrowing "from the Germanic cult of National Socialism, which was already
hinted at with the title "Nordic Spring" or in expressions
such as "Ostara walks over the meadows", presumably because "Ostara" was also the title of a German Nationalist magazine founded by Lanz von Liebenfels and in which he published antisemitic and völkisch theories. He seems oblivious to the time of the year, to the cultural location, and to the immediate surrounds in which the poem was written.
Back to more training
From letters sent to his parents it is clear that pretty soon after his stay in Erfurt Beuys continued his training by being transferred to Königgrätz (now in Czech Republic a little over 100km east of Prague). He had also won promotion to a sergeant and was now training to be an air gunner. Although in 'Life Course Work Course' Beuys mentions Sevastopol (the largest city and a port in the Crimea on the Black Sea), which was being heavily bombarded by the Germans in 1942, there is no documentary evidence to confirm whether Beuys ever took part in any of the raids. What is clear is that Beuys was able to take a vacation over the Christmas/New Year period 1942/3 into the mountains that border the Czech Republic and Poland (the Giant Mountains). He writes how enchanted he is with the snowy scenery. “Everywhere new views are to be seen, be it from a height in a valley or from the valley against a suddenly rising wall of granite rock on which the morning fog is still lingering, or on those at noon when the sun plays its game. Everything always appears new in a thousand colours - always surprising beautiful.” It seems his poetic mood and love of the countryside had not left him. And more was to come, for by early February he had been transferred to Italy where he writes: “I am enthusiastic about the colours and movement of this landscape. The journey went over the Brenner Pass to Verona - Florence - Rome, Naples - and on. To describe everything I would have to write a little more and so I will phase everything over my coming letters - Italy is beautiful.” I am sure this must have reminded him of Goethe's journey through Italy. And on May 18th he is writing “ I am fine. I am not allowed to write anything about what might be interesting to tell. Life is bearable here and I like it here” and in the next breath he says “I have decided to learn the profession of sculptor after the war. It is my preliminary decision with a view to an early end of the war. What will be, and of the future, and the like, depends on the duration of the war, we do not know. Perhaps I would ask you to send me something in writing regarding the kind of registration required by the academy, etc. Perhaps you will get something applicable”. And ten days later, in another letter to his parents, he shows his concern with surprising urgency saying "Have you already received my letter about my studies? I wrote to the Prussian Academy for Fine Arts in Berlin, stating that I had asked you to provide the documents. Please get the documents.”
Presumably from this we can deduce that Beuys was hopeful that the war would be over soon and that he would survive to take up his studies. But the war was far from over. Records show that Beuys completed his combat training in Italy at the Stuka School 2 in Piacenza-Foggia during October 1943 and in November yet a further transfer, this time to Agram (today Zagreb, Croatia).
The 'Tartar Legend"
It is thanks to Riegel that we have so much detailed knowledge concerning Beuys' movements during WWII and it is he who says that Beuys was next flown from “the mild climate of Croatia, from a country not yet overrun by war, into the icy cold of the East, a gigantic military disaster. Beuys was flown to the Crimea to the German units encircled there, and who had fled to the peninsula in the Black Sea from the Caucasus after bitter retreats.” (pg 61) He goes on to carefully detail the context of an incidence that occurred on March 16th, 1944 that has become contentious in the life of Beuys – what is known as “the Tartar legend”.
This is described in Caroline Tisdall's “Joseph Beuys” (pg 16) where Beuys is quoted as saying: “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 favoured 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 Tatar', 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. I had been disciplined for that, just as I had been for not carrying a map of Russia – somehow I felt that I knew the area better than any map. My friend was strapped in and he was atomized by the 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 it the warmth in.”
In Stachelhaus's 'Joseph Beuys' (pg 21), the incident is described in similar terms: The event that was to have the most lasting effect on Joseph Beuys was his crash in the Crimea during the winter of 1943. After an attack on a Russian anti-aircraft position, Beuys' Stuka was hit as it pulled out of the dive. Beuys and his second crewman were just able to get the machine back behind German lines. Then the altimeter suddenly failed, a blizzard came down, and the plane went out of control and crashed. Beuys was hurled out of the cockpit on impact and pinned under the tail. He lost consciousness. The other man was killed. It was a miracle that Beuys survived, and he owed his survival to a group of nomadic Tartars who discovered the wrecked Stuka and its badly injured pilot in deep snow. They took him into one of their tents, devotedly tended the mostly unconscious man for eight days, salved his massive injuries with animal fat, and wrapped him in felt to warm him and help him conserve body heat. They fed him milk, curds, and cheese.
This description also aligns with that given by Adriani et al (pg 16).
However, for Beuys 1943 entry in 'Life Course Work Course' he mentions only “Oranienburg interim exhibition (together with Fritz Ralph Rothenburg and Heinz Sielmann)". Fritz Ralph Rothenburg being a reference to the death of his friend in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
There is no entry at all for 1944.
The facts of the 'Tartar Legend' have long been discredited, but the power of this account, amplified by Beuys' use of fat and felt particularly in his early art, continues to this day. Tisdall, however, hits the nail on the head when she says: It is certainly true that without this encounter with the Tartars [*even if partly imagined], and with their ritualistic respect for the healing potential of materials, Beuys would never have turned to fat and felt as the material for sculpture. But this does not mean that fat and felt refer directly to the nomads, or simply to this experience of coming back to life from a state of near-death. That state and the properties of the materials remain deeply linked in the mind, and this means that material is imbued with meaning, and this meaning can be extended. When fat and felt eventually appear in the 1950s and 1960s they are not presented as narrative elements, nor as demonstrations of material, but as elements of a theory to do with the potential and meaning of sculpture.” (* my addition)
Riegel argues that, in reality, Beuys, along with many of his compatriots, were totally inexperienced in coping with the conditions. So, too, was his pilot of the same age (23 yrs old), Sergeant Hans Laurinck. It was the lack of experience of flying in what were adverse conditions that caused the plane to crash – in effect it was a crash landing. His pilot was indeed killed and Beuys was admitted to a field hospital where his wounds were recorded as concussion and lacerations to the eye. However a colleague also remembers Beuys as suffering a broken nose. Hans Laurinck's remains were buried in the "Heroes' Cemetery" Kurman-Kemeltschi, individual grave No. 258.
Beuys was released from the Kurman-Kemeltschi field hospital on April 7th. Just a few days later the Soviet army broke through the German defences and Beuys' unit was relocated to Cape Chersonnes near Sevastopol and then flown off the island almost straight away.
Kleve under bombardment
By then the allies had reached France and by September had advanced as far as Nijmegen, just 25km from Beuys' home town of Kleve. In October Beuys' regiment was now stationed near Venlo, itself just 70km south of Kleve. Had the allies taken Kleve they would have then penetrated into Germany, something Hitler wished to avoid at all costs. So for the allies Kleve became the target for a massive arial bombardment together with fierce fighting on the ground. Many lives were lost. The arial bombardment took place on October 10th 1944, with the result that a great deal of Kleve was destroyed. In the meantime Beuys' unit was now relocated to the Reichswald, a heavily wooded region surrounding the south west of Kleve. (And now the site of the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery where 7,594 Commonwealth servicemen of WWII are buried or commemorated). A further bombardment of Kleve took place on February 7th 1945. This virtually flattened the whole of the town.
Kleve 1945 Image: Midgley (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit / Public domain Section of the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Reichswald, Kleve Image: Cliff Gorman
You can get a feel, albeit from a victor's perspective of how life was in Germany after the war by watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2arAuvNZYg
Since Beuys' unit was now located in the Reichswald, Beuys would have had the opportunity of witnessing this devastation and of meeting up with his parents. It's hard to imagine what went through his mind. Nonetheless he would have been one of the soldiers trying to defend his home territory whilst being hopelessly outnumbered and inadequately equipped. In the end the remains of his unit withdrew north-easterly in the direction of Bremerhaven. Up to then Beuys had succeeded in escaping injury in the ground fighting, but in Edewecht (about 260km from Kleve) he was injured, but not severely, when he was caught in the leg by shrapnel. The very next day, on April 28th 1945, his unit surrendered to the British at Edewechter Moor and his war days were over. Stachelhaus' biography states Beuys was taken prisoner in Cuxhaven but this is where the British had set up prison camps and where, on May 9th, Beuys was registered as a prisoner of war. He was released from captivity by the British on August 5, 1945.
Stachelhaus is effusive with regard to the medals Beuys won during his life as a soldier stating, pg 22, that his general insubordination meant he had been demoted from sergeant to private but “He would probably have been more severely punished had it not been for the exceptional bravery that won him the Iron Cross, Second Class and the First Class”, and further on the page, “To his collection of medals for bravery he added the Golden Badge for the Wounded, the equivalent of the Purple Heart”. After his investigations, Riegel concludes this period of Beuys' life with: ”The contradictions in his stories, the ambiguities with regard to his decorations cast doubts on the previously known descriptions of Beuys' participation in the war and also on whether Beuys received the named awards at all, or at least in the stated rank. Neither in his various curricula vitae nor in his diverse biographical descriptions did he, or any of his biographers, provide any verifiable facts or sufficiently convincing evidence.”
It is clear that what Beuys wrote in his autobiography cannot be understood as a precise and factual record of his day-to-day experiences, but as an imaginative picturing and reinterpretation of events as played out in his mind. However, it is equally clear that events that did actually happen in his life, and his own interpretation of them, had a large influence on his art and also on the choice of materials he used in his art. Indeed it all became intertwined into an intriguing whole.
After his release from prison camp Beuys returned to his parent’s house at Tiergartenstrasse 187 in Kleve. It must have been a sobering experience. Field Marshall Montgomery, Military Governor of the British Zone, described in his unpublished 'Notes on the Occupation of Germany' (held with his papers at the Imperial War Museum), the the conditions people faced in Germany: “When the war ended, the chaos and confusion throughout Germany was immense. No central government machine existed; large numbers of displaced persons of all European nationalities were roaming the country, often looting as they went; the transportation and communication services had ceased to function; agriculture and industry were largely at a standstill; and there was a serious risk of an outbreak of famine and disease during the coming months (https://howitreallywas.typepad.com/how_it_really_was/2009/02/index.html)
Lebendiges Museum Online, the online portal on German history, puts it this way: “The Germans live in a ‘collapsed society’: Millions of men are in captivity, millions of refugees and displaced persons from the east are pouring into the four zones of occupation. Search services help locate missing family members. People often live in ruins and begin to clean up under the most difficult of circumstances. Poverty, cold, disease and hunger shape their everyday lives. Cultural offerings provide diversion, which, with the help of the Allies, are put back on their feet immediately after the war”. (https://www.hdg.de/lemo/kapitel/nachkriegsjahre)
In ‘Life Course Work Course’ Beuys describes his return to what is left of his home town as "1945 Kleve Exhibition of Cold" and he didn’t mean “cold” in its limited use as a description of low temperature! He was fortunate in that he could return to live with his parents who, to avoid the main bombings, had taken up temporary accommodation in a barn attached to a farmhouse in a village on the outskirts of Kleve. They lived here until the return to Kleve was possible when they moved back to Tiergartenstrasse 101, a short walk from the centre of town.Many citizens and families simply had to make do, sometimes living in cellars or patched-up houses or living with relatives. The food rations offered by the British for everyone were very meagre indeed. People were always hungry. This video presents a vivid picture of the situation - albeit from a victors point of view.
Beuys described his reaction to all this as: "I was traumatised that we had lost the war after all the years that we had been at the front, and now we were now faced with an absolute landscape of ruins, with an absolute ignorance of what was going to happen now". He must also have been traumatised by his very recent experience of the hand-to-hand fighting in the Reichswald and the carnage to which he would have been witness. Like many soldiers he never really talked about these experiences - mentioning only about the "shit" in which soldiers found themselves.
Yet life had to go on and Beuys’ resolve to become an artist did not waver. It would seem that his first port of call was to make contact with Hanns Lamers. It is almost certain that he would have met Lamers before he went to war when the Lamers’ family lived directly opposite him in an impressive studio house called “Belvedere” on Karlsplatz. Lamers had studied in Munich and in Berlin; had been on study trips to Italy, Tunis, southern France and Corsica; and had studied with Roger Bissière and Gino Severini at the Académie Ranson in Paris. Hanns and his house may well have appeared rather exotic to Beuys. Lamers, had also come back to Kleve from the war and immediately started restoring the family's damaged house. Much of Lamers’ art from about 1950 onwards revolved about themes that set love in sharp contrast to violence and aggression, and about visions of a better world. This was the art of a person who, having fought in two world wars, now exhibited a will for peace. (https://www.museumkurhaus.de/de/8748.html)
Before the war there existed in Kleve and the lower Rhine area a thriving art fraternity. Indeed Lamers with fellow artist and sculptor Walther Brüx had established the "Künstlergilde Profil" (Artist Guild Profile) as early as 1936. This continued after the war, from 1947, under the name "Niederrheinischer Künstlerbund" (Niederrhein Artist Association). Walther Brüx, who was seriously wounded in the war, lived just around the corner from where Beuys lived as a child at Kermisdahlstrasse. As one of the leading local figures in art, it is almost certain that Beuys would have come across him before the war. Other members of the association included Achilles Moortgat (mentioned earlier), Albert Reibmayr, Alfred Sabisch, Hermann Teuber and Rudolf Schoofs. August Lüdecke-Cleve, Helmuth Liesegang, Heinrich Nauen and Bernd Schulte.
As Franz Joseph van der Grinten writes in “Joseph Beuys am Niederrhein” Beuys’ preparations to study art at an academy were greatly helped by Walther Brüx. Brüx was only a few years older than Beuys and became his friend and mentor. Beuys first strictly figurative drawings and watercolor pictures were created in Brüx’s studio and his first sculptures were modeled under the expert gaze of his friend. But the two also drew sketches of each other, together with other participants. And it was during this time that Brüx created an impressively haunting bust of the youthful Beuys. As a leading figure in the Niederrheinischer Künstlerbund, Brüx also gave Beuys the opportunity to participate in its regular exhibitions at a very early stage of his development. Both Brüx and Lamers encouraged Beuys to take up art as a full-time career.
Beuys described this period in his 'Life Course Work Course' entry for 1946 as 'Kleve warm exhibition' and 'Kleve Artists' League “Successor of Profile” and Heilbronn Central Station Happening. The latter reference to Heilbronn station is odd since it is related to an incident that Beuys later described as a happening. At the end of the war he was waiting at the Heilbronn Central Station when the documents needed for his onward journey were stolen by one of the patrols. Rather daringly, and in a way a little reminiscent of his childhood pranks, he figured a way to turn off the main power cable, consequently shutting down the entire station. In the ensuing chaos he sneaked into the patrol office and retrieved his papers, which then allowed him to continue on his way. This incident is now regarded as Beuys' first 'action'.
Having spent just a few months learning as much as possible from Brüx and Lamers Beuys was accepted, probably through Lamers' influence, into the class of Joseph Enseling at Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts on April 15th 1946.
Beuys the Student
Much of Beuys' time at the Düsseldorf Academy is covered in the Education pages on this site but for completeness' sake some of this will be included here.
In 'Joseph Beuys Life and Works', Adriani, Konnertz and Thomas suggest that at this stage Beuys had no clear idea of how he would go forward with his art: “After collaborating on a zoological film about the Ensmoor by Heinz Sielmann and Georg Schimanski, Beuys began, without any concrete ideas about education, learning, or occupational goals, a program of study at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art with Professor Enseling”.
In an interview with Georg Jappe, Beuys recalls his introduction to his new tutor : “Well, he approached me almost like a surgeon, wearing a white smock, with modeling tools instead of a stethoscope like a doctor. It felt like going into an operating room. This experience – finding in art another specialist. With him it was pure academicism, drawing the human figure with constant reference to the musculature. He would say, ‘Look, you haven’t got the muscle right at all’ then he would tap on the studio model, on the muscle. As if art could be built up from the muscle…...Halfway through my studies, I made the effort to transfer to Mataré, who had some freer views about art: that was like a revolution for me”.
Günter Grass paints a beautiful picture of Enseling when he describes him as “an art professor with the right to a lifelong pension”, in his studio “life-size and horribly white nude plaster figures of both sexes, all frozen”. (Riegel pg 91)
When Beuys first started studying at the academy conditions were bleak - no heating, rain coming in through gaps in the roof, and students often hungry (and the Winter of 1946 was unusually cold with the River Rhine being frozen over). It wasn't long before Beuys began wanting to give a voice to the students' conditions. Although he was of a shy nature he was already beginning to demonstrate his need to become involved in how things are run. He became one of the nine representatives of the student council in November 1946. (Riegel pg 89)
It is clear that Enseling's approach was not what Beuys was looking for for after just three semesters with Enseling, Beuys switched to Ewald Mataré's class in late 1947. Mataré had been abruptly dismissed from the Academy in 1933 (the year Hitler came to power) but, being one of the few academy teachers who still resided in the area and whose de-nazification programme happened in a short space of time, he was re-instated as its director in 1945. However, he resigned the directorship just before the academy was due to re-open in January, 1946 when his proposals for a new approach to the syllabus received only a lukewarm reception from government authorities. He was also keen to remove many of the existing professors, something that was bound to create resentment. However, despite his resignation, he remained at the academy as professor of sculpture until his retirement in 1957.
His move to study under Mataré may have proved fortuitous for Beuys because, to quote Hans van der Grinten:
“The cold in the poorly sealed studios was so great during the harsh post-war winter that Mataré transferred his teaching to his Büderich private studio, which, although only temporarily repaired, offered much more bearable working conditions than the inhospitable rooms of the academy building. A class community thus found a certain personal breeding ground under modest external circumstances and with the most economical means, which quickly set them apart from the other classes at the university and also later, with changing personnel composition and after returning to the now glazed and heated academy around 1947/48, remained more or less intact. This is where the teaching activity took place, which began with strict drawing exercises (hatching undesirable) and gradually led to common workpieces and finally to independent, individual results.”
Outside of the Academy Beuys remained a member of the Niederrhein Artist Association, and exhibited drawings and watercolours in their group show. In 'Life Course Work Course” this period, 1947, is again described as 'Kleve Artists' league “Successor of Profile” but with the addition of “Kleve exhibition of the hard of hearing”. This I take to mean that his work was not generally understood or appreciated. Although these first few works received only a lukewarm reception, Lamers at least continued to believe in him. For some reason Beuys did not mention that in January he had taken part in a group exhibition entitled „Junge Ernte“ (Young harvest) in the bomb-damaged Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. Here he exhibited three watercolours, which were labeled »Landscapes« in the catalogue. The exhibition also also included works by another Kleve artist, Ernst Schönzeler. Schönzeler was the son of Dr Heinrich Schönzeler who was Beuys' former English teacher. It was through Dr Schönzeler that Beuys first met Hans and Franz Joseph van der Grinten, who, although in different years, had also been Schönzeler's pupils. Although they were the sons of a local farmer they were both very keen on art and were starting to collect interesting artworks. This meeting between Beuys and the van der Grinten brothers would later turn out to be of huge importance to Beuys. Around this time Beuys also became a member of the "Thursday Society" (‘Donnerstag-Gesellschaft’) which organised meetings of artists and those interested in art at Alfter Castle, near Bonn, from 1947 -1950. It was established by artists Joseph Fassbender, Hann Trier and Hubert Berke and others with the view of reviving the cultural scene in Rhineland after the end of National Socialist oppression.
Meanwhile Beuys was making friends at the Academy and (what we might now call) “networking”. A fellow student Erwin Heerich became, perhaps, his closest friend but he also got to know others who would later become respected artists, for example, Holger Runge and Elmar Hillebrand. Another great and lasting friend was the rather nomadic and mysterious Krefeld poet Adam Rainer Lynen whom Beuys mentions specifically in his 1948 entry of “Life Course Work Course”. (Lynen lived for a while in a hut in the "Kull", a swampy area, in the Krefeld region).
In 1948 Beuys met Max Benirschke an Austrian philosopher, architect, craftsman and illustrator . Benirschke had met Rudolf Steiner when Steiner was giving a lecture in Düsseldorf and consequently attended all of Steiner's lectures held in the Düsseldorf area. Over time Benirschke became a staunch supporter and advocate of Steiner's anthroposophy. After the war he was very active in building up interest in anthroposophy by giving lectures, courses and leading study groups. It was at one of these events that Beuys made the acquaintance of Benirschke and went on to regularly attend study groups. Steiner's book 'Basic Issues of the Social Question” became a guiding principle behind Beuys' approach to social issues. Rudolf Bind in the small publication “Joseph Beuys His Art and Rudolf Steiner” pg 8 writes : “From the age of 20 Beuys and his childhood friend Rolf Rothenburg studied Rudolf Steiner. There followed the intensive study of anthroposophy over several years with Max Benirschke. We can see from the enormous Steiner library (more than 97 volumes were found in Beuys' estate) - books on which you could see he had worked energetically – and his membership from 1973 of the Anthroposophical Society (in the Achberg working group) that the zeal with which he studied Steiner was altogether consistent.” [Sadly, Rolf Rothenburg died in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1943]. Beuys was not alone in pursuing Steiner's ideas as can be seen from another entry in the same publication by fellow Mataré student, Günther Mancke: 'We were a class of nine people. Seven of us, with Beuys foremost, were intensely interested in anthroposophy”.
It cannot be doubted that one of the greatest influences on Beuys was the work of Rudolf Steiner, founder of anthroposophy - nowadays described as a formal educational, therapeutic, and creative system seeking to use mainly natural means to optimize physical and mental health and well-being. Originating at the beginning of the twentieth century, anthroposophy is characterised by an expansion of perception and knowledge (spiritual realism) and the development of individual responsibility for one’s actions (ethical individualism). As ethical individualism it develops and promotes the human being’s capacity for free self-determination. This includes self-knowledge derived from the consequences of one’s actions. As spiritual realism it opens new dimensions of reality, in which spiritual understanding of the human being, gained through reflection and direct experience expands and modifies the physical and psychological view of human beings. Anthroposophy transforms science into practical life and practical life into spiritual culture. This interconnected transformation can be seen as an artistic process, and provide new approaches for artistic creativity. In this way, anthroposophical spiritual science develops through the unfolding of individual capacities in committed involvement with culture and civil society.(https://www.anthroposophie.ch/en/anthroposophy/topics/articles/what-is-anthroposophy/anthroposophical-spiritual-science.html)
Although so many of Mataré's class took an interest in Steiner's ideas, Mataré was not persuaded. However Mataré did study the writings and ideas of Goethe, someone who greatly influenced Steiner. And Beuys would have been very atuned to (and, maybe, encouraged by) Mataré's desire to get to the very essence of a subject, both generally and in his art practice. Certainly Beuys would have favoured Mataré's move to revolutionise the way art was taught in the Academy over Enseling's traditionalist approach.
It is clear that Mataré did not stifle the work and ideas of individual students even though he was a stickler for ensuring that students fulfilled the duties he placed on them. The independence of a student was by no means a concern to him. He also believed, for example, that class communities should form early and stay together in order to be able to work together, even at an advanced stage. As an example, he would get students who were working independently to transfer a leaf or a plant into a relief, which could then be put together into a panel with the work of other students. At a slightly more advanced level students developed larger composite units such as doors, chests and cupboards. Mataré may have taught students individually and personally but he formulated community tasks, even eventually involving students in his own commissions .
for example, assisted Mataré on his most well known commission –
the making of four bronze doors for the south portal of Cologne
Cathedral. He also worked on a gravestone that Mataré designed for
Walter Ophey, and Mataré passed on to Beuys and fellow student Erwin
Heerich the whole of a commission for a copy of the famous statue
"Mourning Parents" by Käthe Kollwitz to be erected in the
ruins of Old St Alban Church, Cologne. Again, in 1950, he entrusted
Beuys to execute a design of his for the gravestone of Walter Ophey,
a painter and graphic artist, and his son, Ulrich
Nikolaus, who had died prematurely.
Gravestone of Walter Ophey and son. Designed by Mataré, executed by Beuys,
Image: perlblau at German Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>;, via Wikimedia Commons
Over time there developed what has been described as a 'love-hate' relationship between Beuys and Mataré. Stachelhaus writes pg 29: “Mataré's teaching programme, inspired by medieval masons' lodges, held a special fascination for his students. Even though Beuys found the confines of any group uncongenial, and remained an outsider in Mataré's class, he submitted to the master's authority without reservation when it came to learning the sculptor's craft. Beuys was one of Mataré's keenest students. His sensitivity to materials, for which he was later to be so much praised, was already fully developed. He had no difficulty modeling a clay pot without a wheel or carving a spoon or a spade directly out of wood. There can be no doubt that Mataré was well aware of his student's exceptional gifts and that this was the source of latent tension between them”.
However, there were many common interests between the two that must have had a beneficial effect on their relationship. For example they both explored German literature, including Goethe and Schiller, they both took an interest in music and philosophy, and both liked to study Nordic mythology.
Mataré was primarily a sculptor who sought forms that would express the essential, the elemental. He particularly worked with animals as a motif, simplifying their exterior form yet, at the same time, exposing their inner being. This goes some way to explaining their extraordinarily elegant form. Indeed, Sculpture, together with woodcuts, became his most characteristic means of expression. Many of his commissions were religious in nature. He held good quality craftsmanship in very high regard, always exhibiting this in his own works. All these traits rubbed off on Beuys and many of them were exhibited in Beuys' own early sculptural works.
It is interesting that Beuys, who had enrolled into both Enseling's and Mataré's sculpture classes, first chose to exhibit drawings and paintings – not sculptures. Indeed he did not exhibit a sculpture until 1949, a bronze of the crucified Christ (Riegel pg112).
From early on he was producing drawings at a prodigious rate, together with a few watercolours, on many subjects and on all sizes, shapes and forms of paper - seemingly anything that came to hand, in these difficult times. His drawings were often intense and are inseparable from his thoughts or feelings. They are the thoughts and feelings materialised – on religious themes, animal motives, the human figure, nature, the landscape and more - in his endless search to express the meaning of the subject. Some are exploratory drawings for what would become a sculptural work.
For examples of some of these early drawings please see “Thinking is Form The Drawings of Joseph Beuys” by Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose, happily made available on The Museum of Modern Art, New York's website at https://www.moma.org/documents/moma_catalogue_387_300063076.pdf. See pages 125 – 132 in particular. (Copyright restrictions preclude me from reproducing them here).
Examples of Beuys' woodcuts at this period, are available at, for example, https://walkerart.org/collections/artworks/wattenmeer-shallows-1949-from-series-holzschnitte-woodcuts, https://www.thebroad.org/art/joseph-beuys/holzschnitte-hirschkuh?page=11
And here you will see examples of his watercolours:
Much of Beuys' sculptural activity at this time concerned the religious symbol of the cross. Indeed, Franz Joseph van der Grinten in the book 'Franz Joseph van der Grinten zu Joseph Beuys” pg 167, stressed Beuys' life-long interest in it, maintaining that “there is hardly any other motif, content or form, that has accompanied Joseph Beuys' life's work as steadily as that of the cross”, putting this down to its complexity of meaning. Not only was Beuys' religious interpretations influenced by Catholicism, but by his openness to historical developments, mythology, philosophy and the sciences. Consequently, his artistic expression drew on the whole sum of this. Although Beuys' intention was that some of his works would be taken on by the church, not one found a place there, presumably because they were just too unconventional. His work of 1947/1948 “Sun Cross” (Sonnenkreuz) is an early example. See https://www.lempertz.com/en/catalogues/lot/1144-1/611-joseph-beuys.html where there is also this description: With “Sonnenkreuz”, one of Joseph Beuys' earliest artistic works, the young artist succeeds in creating a work of unparalleled expressiveness. It is still under the stylistic influence of his teacher Ewald Mataré, but illustrates already the artistically free, independent conception with which Beuys had already made a name for himself as an artist in these years. He uses conventional methods of representation as a base from which to create something new, complexly thought out, that bursts classical iconography. Up until 1952, Beuys worked intensively with Christian themes, he made numerous crosses as well as representations of the Pietà and baptismal fonts. The unorthodox compositions meant however that none of these pieces found their way into a church setting.
The cross beams themselves are not an integral element of the “Sonnenkreuz”; the viewer automatically inserts them at the sight of the characteristic posture of the Crucified. His body is forced into a lineal zigzag form, the body bent several times, and the overly long arms are reminiscent of the intense illustration of Christ's suffering in Gothic crucifixes.
From the beginning, Beuys integrates archaic motifs into his works. Thus, Christ of the “Sonnenkreuz” is crowned with lush vine leaves and grapes instead of thorns, whilst a sun wheel radiates above him. The spiritual motif of the sun wheel or the sun disc is often found in his early work. Ancient sun cults all over the world worshipped the sun as a source of life, and together with the crucifixion of Christ, can be interpreted as a symbol of rebirth. The crown of grapes on the other hand connects Christ with ancient deities such as Dionysus and Apollo. (One of a few casts sold by Lempertz in November 2019 for €396,800, twice its estimated auction price).
There is no more convenient and finer way to see examples of Beuys' crosses than visiting the Kurhaus Kleve and nearby Schloss Moyland, Bedburg-Hau (though it is best to contact the museums before a visit to check the relevant works are on display). In the Schloss Moyland collection there are two very fine examples of crosses made from oak and created by Beuys in 1948/1949 as part of a project initiated by Mataré at the Academy. Entitled "Symbols of Sacrifice and Resurrection" Beuys created two contrasting versions of the cross, except there is no physical cross. In each case the body itself is designed in the form of a cross. The suffering Christ is weighed down by a heavy-looking loin cloth of angular form and a relatively large 'crown' of 'thorns'. The arms are outstretched and appear pinned along a horizontal. In contrast, in the Symbol of Resurrection, Christ appears to be floating with its contours aerodynamically curved, arms outstretched as if in flight, and with no incumbrances. The 'crown of thorns' is replaced by a shining halo. The photographs show the finer detailing that Beuys has applied to the figures, for example the burning heart shown on the risen Lord. Beuys went on to use the resurrection symbol in his monument to the dead of two world wars in Meersbusch-Büderich, just outside Düsseldorf.
Symbols of Sacrifice and Resurrection on display in Museum Schloss Moyland Image: Cliff Gorman
Beuys' Symbol of Sacrifice and Symbol of Resurrection, Museum Schloss Moyland Image: Cliff Gorman
Details - Beuys' Symbol of Sacrifice and Symbol of Resurrection, Museum Schloss Moyland Image: Cliff Gorman
There is no doubt that, even at this early stage, Mataré was impressed with Beuys' skill and commitment – enough to entrust him with the work of creating bronze doors for the south portal of Cologne Cathedral. These doors were executed broadly to the designs of Mataré but Beuys was given a reasonable amount of scope and left to his own devices to find the necessary materials. For example, he located a source of mosaic stones from a destroyed swimming pool for use in the doors. It was Beuys, too, who “felt the need to put something in that throws light” and so incorporated his old shaving mirror for the purpose!
Strangely, Beuys' “Life Course Work Course” entries for both 1948 and 1949 makes no reference to any of this, referring mainly to the Kleve Profile exhibitions, Lynen's influence, and an exhibition in Düsseldorf (Was he mistaken here?, maybe meaning his participation in the “Young Harvest" group exhibition in 1947). Even more mysterious is his entry “Heerdt total exhibition three times in succession'. Heerdt is the westernmost part of Düsseldorf, on the left bank of the Rhine, and Beuys did live there for a while with a poet friend, Adam Reinhard Lünen, but that wasn't until 1951. So maybe Beuys is referring to earlier visits to meet his friend. Riegel notes that during this time: “Beuys temporarily lived in a room in Düsseldorf-Eller on Posener Strasse.... Most of the time, however, he stayed with wealthy art lovers in the villa suburb of Meerbusch-Büderich during his studies. Firstly with the Niehaus family, at Willer 3, and then with the Koch family, owners of a textile department store, at Birkenweg 14, which is now called Erlenweg”. (Meerbusch is about 6km from Heerdt). Hoffmann suggests that Beuys stay with the Koch family probably began at the end of 1948. Caroline Tisdall in her classic book 'Joseph Beuys' pg 21 suggests that this entry refers to the start of Beuys' mental breakdown. This began when he was using an old building located in Heerdt as a studio. However, from accounts I've found there is no evidence that he actually occupied this building in 1949.
Mataré, besides being a teacher at the Academy, was a well respected artist in his own right who secured many commissions and also had collectors of his work. One of these was Marie Schuster. She had inherited an expressionist villa from her mother. The villa, “House Wylerberg“, situated about 15km from Kleve on the Dutch-German border, is one of the most important works of architecture in Germany of the first half of the 20th century. Marie Schuster lived there from 1924 until her death in 1949. In that time she not only had assembled an important collection of modern visual arts with works by Lyonel Feininger, Christian Rohlfs, Heinrich Nauen, Heinrich Campendonk and Ewald Mataré, but also offered hospitality to many artists. Even when her friends' work was banned as 'degenerate art', they remained welcome. Although the house suffered relatively little damage in WWII, it was looted during its evacuation and all of its art treasures were robbed. After Marie's death her daughter Alice Schuster took over the inheritance, and lived there with her long-time friend, the pianist Else C. Kraus. The two women then developed the house into a private cultural centre. In 1950 Mataré worked on the tomb for Alice's mother. Alice studied James Joyce and for many years struggled in vain to translate "Finnegans Wake" (Riegel). How the connections between Schuster, Mataré and Beuys materialised is not known but they probably do go some way to explaining Beuys' 1950 entry in “Life Course Work Course” : “Beuys reads 'Finnegan's Wake' in 'Haus Wylermeer”. Whether such a reading, ever took place as claimed by Adriani has not been confirmed.
The expressionist "Haus Wylerberg"
Image: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>;, via Wikimedia Commons
However it is certain that Beuys was very much taken with the work of James Joyce as can be witnessed in these sentences from Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes' article ‘I will re-create Finnegans Wake anyway’: Joseph Beuys reads James Joyce : For those who visited him around 1962, Beuys already ‘exhibited’ his copy of a translation of Ulysses in the windowsill. One can, therefore, be certain that he owned and appreciated this work early on. Beuys also owned a first edition of Finnegans Wake, the American version with a black linen cover (Viking Press, New York 1939). It contains handwritten notes on almost every page. Beuys purchased the book second-hand: ‘Beare’ is given as the first owner’s last name on the endpaper. He occupied himself intensively with the English language at two points in his biography: during his imprisonment in a British POW camp in Germany, and in the 1970s, when he was in Ireland, before finally exhibiting at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1979. The nature of many of the notes in the Wake may suggest a language learning time: they are English words, most likely from the English-Scottish dictionary, which Beuys possessed, and which, like the grammar textbook with which he learned and studied English, was preserved in the artist’s Estate.
In many respects, for Beuys, the next few years were full-on crazy years which saw him frantically reading, drawing, experimenting, exhibiting, and thinking - combined with discovery, exploration, assimilation and creation and development of his own embryonic theories ... and soon to be followed by the doubting and depression. In 1948 Beuys even designed fabric samples for Fritz Steinert of the Krefeld textile company, Storck Brothers. Fritz and his wife Ilse were members of the German Werkbund and were great collectors of art and lived in an expressionist house in Krefeld. Beuys was later (1950) to take part in an exhibition held in this house. A description by Tisdall in 'Joseph Beuys' pg 18 gives an idea of the range of his sculptural investigations in 1949: “Beuys' early sculptures built up a vocabulary of forms as vehicle for meaning. Right from the beginning this rather than aesthetic effect was the motivation, as three works of 1949 show. 'Head' is the basic solid equivalent of the animal skull that recurs later. Here it is roughly carved in wood, its fetishistic quality reinforced by the fact that it fits snugly into the palm of the hand. Another theme that runs through the drawings, and reaches full expression in 'The Pack' of 1969 is explored for the first time in 'Sleds'. Two bronze wedges demonstrate a principle of oblique sliding movement, a way of condensing natural and physical principles in three-dimensional form. By contrast the wooden 'Crystal', also of 1949 is a construction motivated by 'a basic need to work with mathematical and Platonic orders'. Tisdall goes on to write, pg 20, 'Parallel to these explorations in sculpture were thousands of drawings'.....Many of these drawings have a hovering, almost mediumistic quality that conveys the receptive state in which they were made. This is particularly accentuated when the subjects have to do with death, with natural, geological, or skeletal structure, or with animals traditionally empowered with extraordinary powers'.
During this period Beuys was developing his own sculptural language based on his own approach and his own experience and concerns. What set him apart from other students was his wartime experience and his immense drive to understand the inner qualities and power of materials and the need to understand his own inner energies. One of his great inspirators was Leonardo da Vinci. Beuys was impressed with his versatility and his interest and practical experimentation in a wealth of different fields. Adriani et al quote Beuys elaborating on this: “With Leonardo, in addition to the artistic implications, there is also a very strong political interest in the background that demands an analysis of history as to how one got into the situation in which one exists. As an artist, Leonardo is the one who characterizes how one comes to a bourgeois concept of science. It is exactly the concept of science with which the citizens made their revolution. It starts with Leonardo, and as an artist he is the representative of this tendency , as a scientist it is Galileo."
This keen interest in, and study of Leonardo, at this time explains Beuys' 1950 entry in 'Life Course Work Course': 'Kranenburg, Haus van der Grinten “Giocondology”' - Gioconda being another name for Leonardo's most well-known painting 'Mona Lisa'. Of course, 'Kranenburg, Hans van der Grinten' refers directly to the farmer-turn-art-collector brothers Hans and Franz Joseph van der Grinten and their house in Kranenburg, just a few kilometres from Kleve. Beuys first met the brothers in 1950 at the home of the teacher who taught him English at secondary school, Dr. Heinrich Schönzeler - probably because his son Ernst was also studying under Mataré at the Academy.
1950 proved to be the year when Beuys' work began to find recognition. As mentioned earlier Beuys took part in an exhibition in the home of Fritz and Ilse Steinert. In this exhibition, entitled 'Young Artists from Rheinland Colleges', the 29 year-old Beuys showed a spoon carved from boxwood, an archaic-looking wooden bowl and a wooden crucifix, for which he won a prize donated by the owners. This was one of the first recorded recognitions for his art.
In 1951 Beuys was accepted into Mataré's masterclass and provided with a studio at the Academy which he shared with Erwin Heerich until 1954. At first Beuys worked on some of Mataré's commissions but, presumably as he settled in, Beuys continued his own investigations. Indeed Stachelhaus writes of Heerich vividly remembering: “there was always a hissing and bubbling in his [Beuys] corner of the room. He had set up a lab, just as he had done in his parents’ house as a boy, and experimented with all kinds of chemicals, examined plants and animals, and made analyses using microscopes, magnifiers, forceps, needles, dishes, and tubes. In short, Beuys was assembling the equipment and materials which would deepen his knowledge of scientific and especially biological relationships, of microcosmic events, and of bodily functions. To Heerich, the whole thing smacked of alchemy, but he understood why this scientific groundwork was necessary to Beuys. Recognising the hopelessness of a scientifically oriented world view, Beuys was starting out to discover art as the principle of life”. (Heiner Stachelhaus ‘Joseph Beuys’ pg 34).
Beuys' 1951 entry in 'Life Course Work Course' is a single one: 'Kranenburg, van der Grinten's collection of Beuys: sculpture and drawings'. It appropriately highlights the singular importance of the year when the brothers first bought works by Beuys – two woodcuts and twenty drawings. This helped him financially. He carried out his first private commission this year which was to create a tombstone for Fritz Niehaus for his grave in the cemetery in Meerbusch-Büderich. Fritz was the father of Ruth Niehaus, a famous actress who was called "the Rita Hayworth of the German film of the 1950s". Beuys made the tombstone as a thank you for allowing him to live in the Niehaus' family home for quite some time in 1948.
Fritz Niehaus tombstone designed and executed by Beuys Image: Cliff Gorman
Together with Heerich Beuys also created a copy of the sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz "Mourning Parents". Beuys carved the father and Heerich the mother. Both are hewn from porous shell limestone ("Art and Social Change" Klare Scarborough, Susan Dixon pg 144)
!n the 1952 entry of 'Life Course Work Course' Beuys lists four events in which he exhibited work. The first entry alludes to a 'Iron and Steel' competition organised by the Ironworks Association of Düsseldorf. Beuys entry was an iron relief casting, "Pietà". It depicts Mary sitting with Jesus on her knees in a horizontal position with just the bottom half of his legs dangling down to rest on Mary's support and is 33 x 24cm. With it he won one of the six 4th Prizes – 1000DM. Images are available at https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/joseph-beuys-1921-1986-pieta-4233100-details.aspx or https://www.mutualart.com/Artwork/Pieta/D6B7547DE0DC6373 (accessed 26.11.20). Beuys rather disparagingly recorded this as “Düsseldorf, 19th Prize for 'Steel and Pig's Trotters' (following a light ballet by Piene)”. Another example of his 'tongue in cheek' approach to biographical records!
A fountain 'Brunnen' that is now installed in the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld (as part of a larger installation) was also made by Beuys for exhibition in 1952. This unusual piece was commissioned by the Krefeld Refined Steel Works for the industrial exhibition Rhine - Maas exhibition in Amsterdam. The then director of the Krefeld Museum, Paul Wember, was a supporter of Beuys and tried hard to find Beuys work and the commission was probably a result of his influence and support. The fountain involved the use of stainless steel – an unusual material for Beuys – and still today strikes one as very contemporary in design and very different in style to 'Pieta'. As stated in “Joseph Beuys Raume 1971-1984 Plastiken und Objeckte 1952 – 1974 im Kaiser Wilhelm Museum Krefeld' page 165: “Beuys installed it there in an unusual form, “buried in a 'sand dune', like a stranded UFO (Beuys) […....] that slowly drained away”
'Fountain' ('Brunnen') by Beuys 1952 Images: Cliff Gorman
By far the most dramatic example of Beuys' experimentation in sculpture evidenced itself in 1952 when he produced the sculptures known as "Queen Bee I", "Queen Bee II" and "Queen Bee III" ('Queen Bee I” was actually created in 1947).
With these sculptures Beuys began to show the influence that some of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner had on him and his work. When Steiner's first centre for his anthroposophical movement, the Goetheanum, was being constructed in 1922 in Dornach, Switzerland, the hundreds of workers arranged for Steiner to give them lectures after their morning break. And Steiner welcomed questions from the workers. In 1923, in response to one of those questions, Steiner gave a series of lectures on bees. These were later published as 'About Bees'. (Interestingly he predicted that within 50 – 80 years we would witness the kind of problems we are now seeing with bees). From reading these lectures Beuys would have been alerted to the contrast between the formless wax and the hexagonal crystalline form of the honeycomb, and also the heat associated with the processes involved. As Beuys says in Adriani, pg 41, “The heat organism of the bee colony is without a doubt the essential element of connection between the wax and fat and the bees. What has interested me about bees, or rather about their life system, is the total heat organisation of such an organism and the sculpturally finished forms within this organisation. On one hand bees have this element of heat, which is a very strong fluid element, and on the other hand they produce crystalline structures; they make regular geometric forms. Here we already find something of sculptural theory, as we do in the corners of fat, which also appear in certain situations in a geometric context. But the actual character of the existing heat is a fluid element, whereby the fat is affected by the heat and thus flows off. From this undefined element of motion, by way of a diminishing element of movement, surfaces a form which appears in abstract, geometric configurations. This is practised regularly by bees”.
Beuys' three 'Queen Bees' were all formed from a flat pancake-shaped bed of beeswax with other organic-looking objects sitting on top of, or seeming to emerge from, the beeswax. All three are presented on a wooden base each varying in shape and degree of finish. The objects in 'Queen Bee III' have the closest similarity to a bee and, of course, are formed in the material produced by the bee. It's as though the material produced by the bee has emerged and solidified or crystallised into the form of a bee. The objects in 'Queen Bee I” least resemble a bee and least appear to be emerging from the bed of wax – more as though they have a separate existence. 'Queen Bee II' has an intermediate form.
At the exhibition 'Documenta 3' in Kassel in 1962 Beuys presented the three sculpture sitting side-by-side in a glass-topped showcase in the order, from left to right, of III, I, II. Here, they remind me of the development of a butterfly, first within its chrysalis shell when it looks closer to a caterpillar, through its intermediate form and finally into the perfect imago – a process of metamorphosis. However, Beuys explanation is: "These 'Queen Bees' all possess something that is very strongly organic. In the middle is a sort of heart point, from which the forms radiate and then encircle again. Actually it is a totally organic picture, including things that represent Christianity, heart, love, and. resignation. I attempted to portray this as directly organic, as a sort of psychological process. In this light the 'Queen Bees' are nothing more than moving crosses." (Adriani pg 44). So here Beuys refers, yet again, to the cross, and as mentioned earlier his interest in heat processes.
Good images of the three Queen Bees can be seen at https://chaudron.blogspot.com/2012/06/beuys-queen-bee.html (accessed 4.12.20). What also appears in 'Queen Bee I' and 'Queen Bee II' is a small female figure which Bees uses to enforce the notion of female fertility and creativity.
Susanne Anna notes in 'Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf ' that in 1952 the director of the Kunstverein offered for sale a Beuys' sculpture entitled “Aschenbecher“ (Ashtray) in an edition of 100 for the "Art Association for the Rhineland and Westphalia". Only 63 were made and these are claimed as Beuys' first multiple although it does not appear in what is regarded as the 'bible' on multiples, Schellmann's 'Joseph Beuys Multiples'. Four of them are now included in 'Block Beuys' at Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt.
In February 1953, Beuys reached a milestone for any artist – his first solo exhibition. This is noted in 'Life Course Work Course' as: 'Kranenberg, van der Grintens' collection of Beuys: paintings'. The exhibition “Josef Beuys. Plastik, Graphik“ totaled 85 works of drawings, woodcuts and sculptures and was held at the van der Grinten's farmhouse in Kranenberg from February 22nd to March 15th.
This was the farmhouse of the van der Grinten family, Kranenburg - shown as it is now. Image: Cliff Gorman
An image of the poster for the exhibition is available to see at https://www.fondazionebonotto.org/en/collection/poetry/beuysjoseph/8/7258.html?from=280 (accessed 8th December 2020). On closing and just 8 days later, the exhibition moved to the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal. Note that Beuys first presented himself as 'Josef” - only later did he become 'Joseph'.
Susanne Anna notes again in “Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf '” that Beuys and Erwin Heerich took part in a competition to design the emblem for the exhibition 'German radio, phono and television” (Große deutsche Rundfunk-, Phono- und Fernsehausstellung) which was held in the Ehrenhof, Düsseldorf from 29th August - 6th September 1953. Erwin Heerich described the facts as “The competition was won jointly by the two friends who submitted a wooden model of an eagle, conceived as an outdoor emblem. But this work was never carried out. Joseph Beuys decided to take part in this exhibition inside the building in 1953 with [...] semiscape vibrations around a brass-rosewood core.....” The exhibition attracted 308,0000 visitors.
Beuys completed his studies with Mataré at the end of the 1952/3 Winter semester and from now on he, like any other artist, needed to support himself as much as possible. His tenure at the Academy came to an end in May, 1954 and so he rented what was a former flour store as a studio in Krefelder Straße 34, in Heerdt (one of the older parts of the city of Düsseldorf). He used this until autumn 1958. Here he had the space to design and make several pieces of furniture for Marie Louise von Maltzahn, secretary of the director of the Kunstverein Düsseldorf – three tables, two constructed in pear wood and ebony, one of which had a drawer, another constructed in pitch pine and having two drawers, and a bookshelf, also in pitch pine. Reproductions of these can be seen at https://www.schellmannart.com/sa/sa_furniture_artists.php?aid=24
No mention of this was made in 'Life Course Work Course', indeed there is no entry for 1954 at all. Maybe this is because, when looking back at his time at Heerdt he was reminded of the difficult days that lay ahead.
It would seem that Beuys' artistic output at this time was closely tied to commissions. Once again, exact dates seem confused. What is certain is that Beuys was asked to create a cross for the grave of the Düsseldorf collector, Joseph Koch. In the 1979 edition of Adriani et al's 'Joseph Beuys Life and Works” this is described under the 1953 heading and an accompanying photograph shows the cross erected amidst the still partly destroyed studio at the Academy. However, in the 1994 edition, and most other publications, this construction appears under 1955. It is a monumental, rather undecorated, basalt stone cross standing 4m high. Its upright is squarish in section, slightly tapering towards the top, with the crossbar broadly of triangular section with the front edge face protruding beyond the plane of the upright and set quite high up on the vertical upright. The intersection of upright and crossbar is highlighted by a rectangularly formed centrepiece. Whereas the cross bar consists of polished stone, the vertical upright is roughly structured. An image is available at https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_tro005199001_01/_tro005199001_01_0017.php (accessed 10.12.20). The cross was never erected for the purpose for which it was designed but Beuys later used variations of the cross piece, in cast iron, in several other sculptures.
Two years had past since Beuys had separated himself from his teacher Mataré, explaining in a letter to him “You surely understand best of all that I am now going alone in pursuit of an aim which, however, is not yet attainable, which also cannot be reached through technical competence alone, but is progressing with some other things with which I am occupied. I would surrender my self-realization if I did not make myself independent at the present time. I continue to be aware of the enormous value of having been able to be your pupil. Now I naturally must be completely alone for what I have in mind.” (Valentina Vlašić in 'Joseph Beuys Work Lines' pg 17 here quotes Guido de Werd). Clearly, at this relatively early stage in his artistic career, Beuys was determined to cut a very individualistic path.
But Beuys was finding things tough. His girlfriend had rejected him, he wasn't achieving any really wide artistic recognition, and he wasn't earning enough from commissions. Even the van der Grinten brothers who had purchased two of Beuys' woodcuts in 1951, and were keen to support Beuys by purchasing more of his works, were not wealthy and struggled to find sufficient funds. When Beuys offered them an entire portfolio of works they were not in a position to pay for them and ended up, at Beuys' suggestion, by paying him in instalments. However, Beuys, along with his sculptural work and furniture making, continued to draw prolifically. Ann Temkin in “Thinking is Form The Drawings of Joseph Beuys” pg 29: emphasises this by writing that “After Beuys left the Düsseldorf Academy in 1951 [as an undergraduate], he commenced a period of isolation that resulted in one of the most remarkable outpourings of drawings in this century. Beuys spent close to a decade elaborating a personal idiom, doing so almost entirely in the medium of drawing. Setting aside the functionalism of academic training, he sought in his drawing practice an avenue to other realms of the spirit. Working in solitude in Düsseldorf, Beuys drew prodigiously: thousands of works on paper, watercolour, and ink and pencil record the themes and ideas he was investigating. The intensity with which Beuys worked during these years finds few equivalents in the art of his predecessors.” And his investigations were wide and included the reading and studying the works of Rudolf Steiner (especially “Key points of the Social Question”), Novalis, James Joyce and many scientific writings. The following video includes many Beuys' drawings, though not necessarily from this period. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMX8z8uhJ9M&t=114s.
Beuys 1955 sole entry in 'Life course Work Course' simply reads 'End of the Artists' League “Successor of Profile”' referring to the local artists' guild he had exhibited with. He covers the years 1956 and 1957 with: 'Beuys works in the fields'.
By 1956 Beuys' troubles had started to show in the form of mental depression and physical exhaustion. He completely isolated himself from friends and family by locking himself away in the apartment of his writer friend Adam Rainer Lynen who was away. Hoffmann quotes Maritha Richter, a friend of Beuys, as saying again and again they drove to his apartment in Heerdt to free him from his isolation. There they met a pale, emaciated artist. "He was standing in a white undershirt at the top window. He didn't want to see anyone. It got so dramatic that he threatened if they came in he would take to the knife." (https://www.welt.de/welt_print/vermischtes/article4574391/Die-Geschichte-des-Joseph-Beuys-oder-der-Kuenstler-der-vom-Himmel-fiel.html accessed 12.12.20)
Stachelhaus pg 48 maintains that “Friends eventually broke in through the window to find Beuys in a totally dark room, his legs swollen with edema. The floor was littered with drawings. He kept saying that he wanted to disappear and needed nothing more than a backpack.” Beuys later described his condition: "I think the people who found me at the time realized that the pieces of meat could have been pulled off my arm back then, I was actually that far away from life." (Riegel)
To make matters worse, having returned to his studio in Heedt, an explosion occurred in the premises of a shoe polish manufacturer who occupied the ground floor of the building, and Beuys' studio was caught in the ensuing fire. The charred remains of the door could well be seen as a simile for his condition – black and damaged. In a later interview Beuys' recalls the incident and how he used the door in an installation entitled “Tür mit Reiherschädel und Hasenohren” [Door with Heron Skull and Rabbit Ears]: This is a burned door from a studio that I lived in with my friend, the poet Adam Reinhard Lynen, in Heerdt near Düsseldorf in 1951. This door was not burned by me; it was worked on by an explosion in the house, that is, it was burned. When I moved out of this studio around 1958, I took this door with me and only hung two props on this door. It is about two rabbit ears and a heron's skull, anatomical components of animals that later have a certain meaning in my actions.” (see https://www.mumok.at/de/tuer-0 for more description and image; accessed 14.12.20)
Riegal rather provocatively speculates on whether it was Beuys himself who caused the fire, either deliberately or by negligence, or even in a suicide attempt. He provides no evidence for these speculations other than by highlighting that an image of the building in Heerdt does not seem to suggest that the bottom floor was used for business purposes or as a factory and/or maybe because Beuys sought medical treatment in psychiatric clinics in Essen and Düsseldorf and had hinted at suicide.
In 'Block Beuys' at the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt there is an artwork by Beuys known as the 'Rubberised Box' (Gummierte Kiste). In 1957, i.e. during this very dark period, Beuys instructed a carpenter to make a wooden box which was to be smoothly planed and finished both inside and out. Beuys then covered it both inside and out with tar and rubber and had it delivered to his studio in Heerdt ( which presumably was still usable). The box had no lid and was 43cm x 91cm x 77 cm - dimensions which will just accommodate a person lying curled up into a foetal position. This artwork was one of the many that were included in his exhibition in New York in 1979. Here Beuys elaborated: “The outward appearance of every object I make is the equivalent of some aspect of inner human life. This box came out of my period of crisis and expresses my inner condition. My feelings then had this special kind of darkness, almost black, like this mixture of rubber and tar. It is certainly an equivalent of the pathological state mentioned before and expresses the need to create a space in the mind from which all disturbances were removed, an empty insulated space. Within this empty space investigation can take place, and from this concentration new experiences can emerge. This is a prerequisite for every experiment with the Theory of Sculpture—the principle of the insulator. People will always bring their own association to such an object. Many think of the padded prison cell, for instance, although that was not my intention.” An image of the 'Rubberised Box' is available at https://rubberizedbox.blogspot.com/2007/10/rubberized-box-by-joseph-beuys-1957.html (accessed 14.12.20)
On another occasion in early May 1956 he was visited by his friends Erwin Heerich, Willi Basqué and Adam Rainer Lynen who again found him in a poor state and took him to Krefeld, staying overnight with Basqué and Dora Steinert. where he is reported to have drawn animals on the title pages of a Brockhaus encyclopaedia (the largest German-language encyclopedia in print at the time). His mental health not having improved, the next day his father took him back to stay temporarily in Kleve. Here he received support from his old friend and mentor Hanns Lamers and his wife (Valentina Vlasiç article). In a letter to Sonja Mataré Lamers described his dilemma and frustration:
“It was a terrible situation for me. I, too, treated him with all kindness and finally with evil harshness. [...] You really no longer knew how to treat him, not even the doctors.” (in Riegel pg 121)
For a short while in early 1957 he lived with Helmont Niehaus, the doctor son of Fritz Niehaus (whose tombstone was designed by Beuys, as mentioned earlier). Hans van der Grinten came to see Beuys there – found him still in a very poor state – and went home and asked his mother whether Beuys could stay with them in the farmhouse in Kranenburg. Having very recently lost her husband in a fatal accident, it was with some reluctance she agreed. Beuys needed a lot of persuasion, too.
It is thanks to Heiner Stachelhaus that we know more about how Beuys coped with these new circumstances. He unearthed a mimeographed transcript, in Dutch, of an interview that Hans and Franz Joseph's mother had with Piet van Dalen, director of the Zeeuws-Museum in Zeeland, on the occasion of the 1971 Sonsbeck Sculpture Biennial. Stachelhaus gives a translated version of the full text of the interview in his book 'Joseph Beuys', pgs 48 – 51, which, for example, includes these enlightening paragraphs:
'I was still in mourning, dressed in black. Beuys took Franz Joseph's little room. Franz Joseph was in Bonn, and Hans was here taking care of the farm, which had gone to rack and ruin. The next morning, after we had eaten breakfast, Beuys finally got out of bed, and then I said he might as well go out into the fields with Hans. And he did, though not every single day, and not regularly. He relapsed into a state of shock, and he didn't have the heart for it. And then he didn't get up but stayed in bed until he felt a little better, then he went out with Hans again.
He could do any work, no matter what. Such skill I had never seen. And the mealtime conversations – that was a great thrill for me. We talked about the war, about art, about politics, about foreign countries, about flowers – he had mastered so many subjects.
But in the end he didn't enjoy work anymore, he lay in bed all day, smoking and refused to eat....”
So, in the end, she asked Beuys to leave. When, as part of the ensuing conversation, Beuys had said that the Lord was not with him, she responded :
“Oh, yes, he is, he certainly is with you. He put talent and art in you. And when you promise your mother, 'I'm coming home', and you just stay here and don't let her hear anything else from you, do you think your mother isn't hurt? That sort of thing I cannot accept, and I can't get over it. You don't imagine my life has been all sunshine. Besides my work, I've had plenty of worries and troubles. And in the same hour that my husband died in an accident, I had to milk the cows and feed the hogs – duty never stops, it must be done, and that's how you've got to think too. A person has to have some duty. And once you've found your duty, all the rest will follow.”
This straight talking must have had quite an impact on Beuys for within a couple of days he was back for a visit. Overall Beuys was with the van der Grintens at their farmhouse from April to August of 1957 which accounts for his entry in 'Life Course Work Course': “1956-1957 Beuys works in the fields”. Mrs van der Grinten's kind but no-nonsense hospitality, together with the satisfaction Beuys felt from working with the animals and in nature, undoubtedly contributed to his gradual recovery. And Franz Joseph, like his mother, recalls the intense conversations that were held “ about Konrad Lorenz, whom he had met in a Westphalian moated castle, temporarily the Max Planck Institute, about his joint film work with Heinz Sielmann, about literature - he prompted me to read works by Pannwitz and to buy Péladan for him - about art, about Mataré and his fellow students, about God and the world. There were often situations of explosive serenity, and his recitations of Schwitters' poems still ring in my ears today. But there were also days of total rejection.
Just how deep and wide-ranging (and alternative and experimental) were Beuys' interests and studies can be seen in these sentences. Sielmann was the wildlife and nature film producer who had once been Beuys instructor during the war and who had introduced Beuys to Konrad Lorenz (a zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist and joint 1973 Nobel Prize winner). Rudolf Pannwitz was a German writer, poet and philosopher whose elusive and difficult goal may be seen, according to Raymond Furness, as"the complete re-evaluation of man, art, science and culture envisaged as the expression of an evolving cosmos obeying the laws of eternal recurrence, with Nietzsche-Zarathusta as the supreme prophet". Péladan was a French novelist and author of such titles as 'Le vice suprême”, a work interwoven with Rosicrucian and occult themes. Kurt Schwitters, who lived from June 1945 in the Lake district, England, and who constructed the “Merzbarn” in Elterwater, was a German artist who worked in an incredibly wide range of genre - dadaism, constructivism, surrealism, poetry and sound (as well as media such as painting, sculpture, graphics, typography and, in particular, collage). At a time when Beuys was also studying Joyce it is not at all surprising that he would have been drawn to Schwitter's poems. You can hear a recital here:
Dealing with issues raised in yet another book, a much discussed best-seller, “Verlust der Mitte” (“Loss of the Middle”) by Hans Sedlmayr would have given Beuys more food for thought about the role of the artist in society. In one chapter, for example, Sedlmayr maintains that the unity of art and society evident in earlier times, was now lost – an idea that had emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in German Romanticism - a movement later appropriated by the Nazi party with its anti-Enlightenment ideology. (Sedlmayr was an active member of the Nazi party). It is not certain that Beuys read the book but Gene Ray in 'Joseph Beuys Mapping the Legacy' pg 23 notes that 'following the close of World War II, in a climate of confusion and shame, Germany was in greater need of an artistic educator than ever before. Indeed the urgency of keeping alive the thought that an “empty throne awaits the perfect man” was the theme of another enormously successful if extremely cynical book, published in 1948, Hans Sedlmayr's Verlust der Mitte”. Ray then goes on to speculate that Beuys may well be alluding to himself as that perfect man in his 1955 'Life Course Work Course' entry “End of the Artists' League “Successor of Profile”.
During this period Hanns Lamers and his wife Ilse never gave up on Beuys who, on several occasions, visited them at their house in Kleve. At such times Beuys would have gained strength from Lamers' strong work discipline and through his unending encouragement for Beuys to pursue his art.
Between his work on the farm, his lengthy studies and conversations, and his periods of idleness, Beuys did draw and paint a great deal. Adriani quotes Franz Joseph van der Grinten: “His production continued, there was much continuity, and a joining of old themes and images: there was one theme whose creation was stimulated, namely that of the elk and the elk carrying a woman. From this period comes a whole series of watercolours which deal with the theme of the elk and the woman and the elk. There were also echoes of previous themes, such as pictures of the intelligence of swans or the life of bees or the mother-child problem. Death images and pictures of the grave frequently came to the forefront during this period and then receded. The dominant theme was the theme of the prehistoric grave, where someone like an Egyptian was throwing dice sitting on a stool in an open grave. Beuys often drew this during his crisis. There were also certain things during this crisis he had never done before which were almost reflections on his work itself: for example, representations of a sculptor – strange to say – a sculptor at work, things of that nature”.
Reflecting on these times in a conversation with with Hermann Schreiber in 1980 Beuys acknowledged that it was this period of acute crisis, and the times that followed, which were, in fact, a very fruitful time for his drawing work. Not only that, it was a period were he had to “redefine everything” and “ work much more intensively, more epistemologically and theoretically” and “create clarity with the whole desperate situation of modern art”, which he also gave as a reason for his crisis. Perhaps, more importantly,”that's where the first theoretical structures emerge to expand the concept of art to include people in general - out of the traditional concept of art, from the bourgeois concept of art, from the reductionism that prevails there, and towards the phenomena of life.” (from Hermann Schreiber's “Lebensläufe - Joseph Beuys, Julius Hackethal, Ernst Herhaus, Manfred Krug, Hans Küng, Loriot, John Neumeier, Leni Riefenstahl")
Beuys elaborates further on his crisis in Adriani pg 56, suggesting that he also suffered from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder: “Certainly incidents from the war produced an after-effect on me, but something also had to die. I believe this phase was one of the most important for me in that I had to fully reorganise myself constitutionally. I had for too long a time dragged a body around with me. The initial stage was a totally exhausted state, which quickly turned into an orderly phase of renewal. Things inside me had to be totally transplanted, a physical change had to take place in me. Illnesses are almost always spiritual crises in life, in which old experiences and phases of thought are cast off in order to permit positive changes.
Certainly many men never experience this phase of reorganisation, but when one comes through it, much of what was previously unclear or only vague acquires a totally plausible direction. Such a crisis is a sign that either there has been a loss of direction or that too many directions have been approached. It is a decisive challenge, much has to be settled and one must take new directions towards new experiences. This was the stage at which I began systematic work on certain basic principles”.
Riegel goes into great length to associate the role that Rudolf Steiner's writings and theories might have had with Beuys' way of thinking/interpretation of the crisis. He even highlights the fact that Steiner, at the same age as Beuys - 35 years - underwent a similar life crisis, and suggests that Beuys' account parallels Steiner's description. I am of the opinion that Beuys might well have rightly used Steiner's explanation for what occurred and what changes it solicited - especially when he was studying Steiner's works at the time - whereas Riegel rather derides Steiner's whole spiritual approach. Whatever the explanation, Beuys' stay at the van der Grinten's farmhouse contributed enormously to Beuys' relatively speedy recovery.
On 2nd June 1956 the International Auschwitz Committee, of whom Henry Moore was appointed chairman, announced a competition to design a memorial to perpetuate the memory of those who had died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. No guidelines were issued as to the form the monument should take and the competition was open to anyone except Nazi collaborators. There were over 400 proposals submitted to an international jury convened in 1956. There were many entrants from West Germany - of whom Beuys' was one. His submission, on March 15th 1958, included many drawings, a scale plan, models in wood, pewter and zinc and a costed estimate of construction. He proposed the construction of two concrete 'gateways', the first 25 metres tall standing 5 meters beyond the camp entrance and watchtower, the other similar 'gateway' was to be only 9 metres tall but 375 metres beyond the first. Beyond these two 'gates' was the central element and situated at the end of the railroad tracks located between the two crematoria. It was a crystal-like silver sculpture of large volume and a planned height of about 6 meters (Riegel). In 'Searching for EUR-ASIA Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik' Life Long Collaboration' Shinya Watanabe provides a quotes from Beuys' proposal: ”The first emblem must be seen from very far off, thus it rises far above the watchtower. Its height and planar extension are planned in such a way that it radiates outwards. The second and smaller stand has the task of conveying the expression of the large emblem to the interior of the camp, also aiming in the direction of the monument. Both concrete emblems are to underscore the atmosphere of the concentration camp, heighten and summarise it. Thus these two sculptural bodies are subordinated to a dynamic function and have at the same time an atmospheric value. In regard to the monument it was important to seek a metaphor that rises to the multi-layered significance. The sculpture is a light, bowl, crystal, flower, and monstrance. The morning sun is to refract in it in manyfold ways and radiate into the far distance from the gleam of the polished silver.”
However, Beuys' proposal was rejected, as were all the other proposals. In the end several different contributions were combined to create the memorial which was eventually unveiled in 1967.
Undoubtedly, working on a memorial for victims at Auschwitz, would have given Beuys cause to reflect on the cruelties perpetrated in the name of Hitler and Nazism, and his own role in the war, and help determine the approach he was to take for the rest of his life.
Beuys does not specifically mention any of the years 1957, 58, 59 or 1960 in 'Life Course Work Course', preferring to group them under the heading of '1957-1960 recovery from field work' but plenty of things were happening in his life and work during those years. In 1958, for example, as mentioned above, Beuys submitted his entry for the Auschwitz competition in March. Just one month before that he met someone who was to become his future wife, Eva Wurmbach, who was twelve years his junior and the daughter of a renowned zoologist Hermann Wurmbach. They met at a party at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf where she was an art education student.
Early in 1958 Beuys also worked on a commission in connection with the entrance area for a new extension to the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court. His design was for a bas-relief depicting - very appropriately for Law Courts – a stylised Justitia (the Goddess of Justice from Roman mythology) set in the landscape of the Lower Rhine region. In a note dated May 13th 1958 the design is described as sensitive and “has a special charm and appears capable of development”. It would appear that Beuys was still a rather unknown artist and more proof of the likely quality of his work was required before he was to be awarded the commission. Beuys, however, was sufficiently encouraged that he continued to work up the design, complete it, and have the first version cast. Unfortunately, in the end, the head of the building department rejected the relief and it now appears, in bronze, as part of a sculpture within Block Beuys in Darmstadt under the title of “Sybilla”.
Beuys also suffered another rejection. This time it was for his proposals for the artistic architectural decoration for the surgery clinic of a new medical academy in Düsseldorf, which was to open in 1958. According to information on display at Schloss Moyland, Beuys received the commission in 1957. The clinic had been under construction since 1955 and Beuys “developed a comprehensive programme for the different levels of the building. As numerous untitled and undated pencil drawings reveal, Beuys planned to embed large-scale reliefs into the brick-faced walls. Stylised plant forms constitute the motif of most of his designs for the reliefs”. Beuys' proposals were not realised apparently because they did not meet the approval of the architect, Konstanty Gutschow. “In reaction Beuys then created four medium-sized ceramic reliefs, which nevertheless were also rejected.” These were on display at Schloss Moyland at the time of my visit and consisted of “...four reliefs, which he formed and caste in plaster. With the help of casting moulds, ceramic reliefs were produced, some of which were glazed. The reliefs were supposed to be embedded into the walls of the new building's corridors. The four reliefs depict in stylised form a waterfall, the ocean, a broad landscape and a swan in flight. During the creative process Beuys in part took up earlier designs which he had made at the art academy in Düsseldorf during the 1940s.”
One of the reliefs - a glazed version under the title of “Gräberfeld” (Field of Graves) and from the holdings of the Museum Schloss Moyland - was presented to the German Bundestag for display in the foyer there. Another relief in Museum Schloss Moyland is untitled but has been given the working title of 'Swan flying over the landscape”. A good image of this is available at https://www.phillips.com/detail/joseph-beuys/NY010506/48 (accessed 29.12.20)
In terms of exhibitions, Anna Klapheck who had been a lecturer at the Düsseldorf Art Academy from 1952 - 1966, noted in an article for the Rheinische Post, that Beuys exhibited a sculpture in the "Niederrheinische Künstler" exhibition organised by Paul Wember held in the Krefeld Haus Lange in 1958. We now associate that sculpture with another work now in Block Beuys and entitled “Grauballemann” - after the body discovered in a peat bog in Jutland, Denmark. An image of this can be seen at http://luisalaureatibriganti.it/english/mostre-en/abate/img-baseen.html image number 7 (accessed 29.12.20). And the original “Grauballemann” is shown in the foreground of a poster advertising an exhibition of the photographer Fritz Getlinger here: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/beuys-beuys-1950-1963-getlinger-photographiert-stadtisches-museum-kalkar-ar01087 (accessed 29.12.20)
The influential Krefeld gallery owner Alfred Schmela was on the selection committee for the Lange Haus exhibition and it was here that he became acquainted with Joseph Beuys and his works for the first time and was duly impressed. At the same time as this exhibition took place the Krefeld City Art Prize was awarded. Anna Klapheck was one of the judges and reports that both she and Wember voted for the Beuys' sculpture to be awarded the prize, but it was Heinz Mack who received the award. Beuys had missed out again, but his making the acquaintance of Alfred Schmela would later prove to be of much greater value.
As early as December 1955 Beuys had submitted plans for a war memorial to be erected in the defunct old church tower in Büderich, Meerbusch, not far from Düsseldorf (See here https://www.withbeuys.co.uk/education-1-2-continued) . Mataré and two other artists were also asked to submit ideas for the memorial and in November 1957 Beuys was informed that the commission was his. In the meantime Beuys' father had become quite ill and was hospitalised for some time in 1957; but his home address (and mainly where Beuys was now staying) was Tiergartenstrasse 187, just a short walk away from the large, once elegant but then neglected and vacated Kurhaus (spa house) building. Because Beuys' plans for Büderich were for the construction of a very large cross to be suspended from the top of the tower on a long chain and two monumental carved gates at the entrance to the tower he needed to rent plenty of studio space in order to fulfil the commission. It is thought that Beuys' winning of the commission was a factor in his father's persuading the owner to rent out to Beuys a main room and several smaller rooms on the ground floor, totally about 70 square metres. (Now, after many years of renovation, these very same rooms have once again become the “Atelier von Joseph Beuys” with original items on loan from the Beuys' family and many of Beuys' drawings and sculptures on display). The 'Atelier' is on the ground floor extreme right of my picture of the Kurhaus shown below.
The Kurhaus Kleve with the Beuys' Atelier on the ground floor, extreme right rooms Image: Cliff Gorman
In many respects it is remarkable that Beuys did not specifically mention 1958 in 'Life Course Work Course'. Although there had been a further disappointment for him when a proposal that he should be awarded the professorial chair of monumental sculpture at Düsseldorf Academy was withdrawn due to Mataré's objection [Adriani pg 74], he had won his first major public contract (which must have kept him fully employed throughout the year) and he now had a new girl friend in Eva. Sadly, this was also the year when his father died (in Kleve on May 15th).
But also in 1980 Beuys made the following statement to the Dutch weekly magazine 'Haagse Post': “I have created in drawings a new biography which I started in 1958. At that time I already had the ideas for the social work of art [CG social sculpture], which I am still working on”. As far as I know, Professor Franz-Joachim Verspohl was the first person to highlight this statement and argue very persuasively that Beuys was referring here to an unusual and important 'biography' now known as 'Projekt Westmensch'. This consists of four books, totaling 1168 pages - of which 454 were actually used. Although it has not been fully established when Beuys gave up working on 'Projekt Westmensch', it is assumed that it happened somewhere around 1965. Now is not the place to go into detail about these books (see image at http://www.westdenhaag.nl/exhibitions/16_11_Artists_In_Their_Own_Words_II/works/2 accessed 31.1.21) but their importance cannot be over-emphasised. Here I simply point out that 1958 was the year that Beuys' claimed that his important concept of social sculpture began to take shape - a concept so important that he went on to champion it for the rest of his life.
Confirming the importance of this time for Beuys, Adriani, pg 65, quotes him as saying: “In 1958 and 1959 I had finished all the literature which was available to me in the scientific field. At that point a new understanding of knowledge became clear to me. Through consideration and analysis I came to the knowledge that the concepts of art and science in the development of thought in the western world were diametrically opposed, and that on the basis of these facts a solution to this polarisation in conceptions must be sought, and that expanded views must be formed”.
In the several years preceding, in, and beyond 1958, Beuys intensively read and studied a very wide range of authors and topics. He particularly took an interest in science, and its relationship to the arts. He was passionately absorbed in the writings and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and the notebooks in which da Vinci made drawings and notes on the sciences of anatomy, biology, astronomy, cartography and palaeontology - often adding sketches of his own inventions. Undoubtedly these influenced Beuys' decision to create his 'Projekt Westmensch'.
Sheet from Leonardo De Vinci's notebooks. Image: Wellcome Images CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>;, via Wikimedia Commons
During the whole of the 1950s, as already stated, Beuys was making drawings in pencil, crayon, watercolour, ink and oil (he called them all 'drawings") at an astounding and developing rate. He later referred to these drawings as a reservoir of ideas; ideas to be picked up on for later development. Indeed he referred to this whole decade as one of "preparation". His early works often made use of Christian symbolism; and female figures (but noticeably few men) were constantly used as subjects. Animals, too, such as stags, elks, swans and bees were frequently depicted in his drawings. Less frequently, but none-the-less importantly, landscapes incorporating waterfalls, mountains and natural phenomena such as glaciers and volcanoes began to appear - these latter subjects towards the end of the 50s and reflecting the time when he was beginning to take a greater interest in the sciences. Indeed his drawings then began to include pieces of scientific equipment (such as batteries and inductors). Even energetic processes and fields of energy become subjects.
Once again we see the influence of Leonardo - yet again confirmed when Martin Kuntz asked Beuys about how significant Leonardo was for him. His reply: “A great one. He's always been a very important person for me because he has lived in an historical situation that had its eyes fixed on two sides of the same person. On the one hand, Leonardo is one of the very first people to introduce technological development, so had an analytical methodology that was later taken up by Galileo and became more radical, but he had in contrast to Galileo, of course, the ability to look into all the mythological connotations. This two-sidedness interested me very much; the whole complex, holistic figuration fascinated me, as well as the reconciliation of art and science. Leonardo is the model for that.” (taken from 'From the invisible powers: Joseph Beuys's early drawings' by Andrew Symons quoting Kunz, Martin, ‘Gespräch Mit Joseph Beuys [Conversation with Joseph Beuys]’, in Joseph Beuys: Spuren in Italien [Tracks in Italy], ed. by Marianne Eigenheer and Martin Kunz, Catalogue of an Exhibition Held at the Kunstmuseum Luzern 22 April to 16 June 1979. (Luzern, 1979))
Many of Beuys' drawings from this period were not maintained as individual, isolated artworks but collected together in notebooks such as “Projeckt Westmensch”. Another series of sketchbooks was mentioned by Beuys in his 1961 entry for 'Life Course Work Course' under the heading “Beuys extends Ulysses by 2 chapters at the request of James Joyce'. Known as the Ulysses sketchbooks these consisted of a series of six sketchbooks and were worked on between 1958 and 1961. Unlike “Projeckt Westmensch”, which has been produced and sold in facsimile format, and of which the four originals exist (three of which (Books I, III, IV) Beuys left to his children Wenzel and Jessyka with the remaining volume (Book II) housed in the Marx Collection), what is known about Beuys' “Ulysses extension” is far less certain. Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes cites in her book “James Joyce als Inspirationsquelle für Joseph Beuys” that one H.J. Nielsen had seen a “stack of notebooks with drawings on every other page” . A slightly fuller description is given by Theodora Vischer, who in a conversation with Beuys in 1985, was told” The Ulysses block consists of six exercise books (Din-A5 format) and a larger sketchbook. As a block comparable to the Secret Block, the Ulysses was created in a shorter period of time (1959-61) and as a coherent work: 'In principle, that's exactly the same. It's just a story that was written down pretty quickly, you could say that a lot is straighter than the Secret Block, more inconspicuous. [...] “ The Secret Block refers to another group of drawings that Beuys had selected from his output between 1936 and 1976 and exhibited for the fist time, as a block, in 1974 in Oxford (see latter).
Although Beuys intended the “Ulysses extension” to be a complete self-selected group in book form, it was never exhibited in his lifetime and single constituent sheets were often used in exhibitions or for photographic purposes. Its original contents have since been ascertained (but not necessarily beyond doubt) by piecing together all the information gleaned from the exhibition catalogues and other sources.
This year (2021), thanks to digitisation and new presentation methods, it will be possible for the first time to visualise all the drawings (355 in total) in the six books when an exhibition, entitled “Joseph Beuys. Ulysses “ opens at the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt. The museum claims that the “immense potential of his artistic ideas and energies, which was previously locked and hidden between the six black notebooks”, will then be finally open to the viewer and made accessible.
Around this time Beuys also gives one of the few statements about the effect of his wartime experience. I quote from Adriani’s entry for 1956 -1957: “certainly incidences from the war produced an after-effect on me but something had to die. I believe this phase was one of the most important for me in that I had to reorganise myself constitutionally; I had for too long a time dragged a body around with me. The initial stage was a totally exhausted state, which quickly turned into an orderly phase of renewal. The things inside me had to be completely transplanted; a physical change had to take place in me. Illnesses are almost always spiritual crises in life, in which old experiences and phases of thought are cast off in order to permit positive changes.
Certainly, many men never experience this phase of reorganisation, but when one comes through it, much of what was previously unclear or only vague acquires a totally plausible direction. Such a crisis is a sign that either there has been a loss of direction or that too many directions have been approached. It is a decisive challenge, much has to be settled and one must take new directions towards new experiences. This was the stage at which I began systematic work on certain basic principles."
Beuys' '1957-1960 Recuperation from work in the fields' also extended to his personal life for, on September 19th 1959, Beuys married Eva Wurmbach in the Romanesque Schwarzrheindorf „Doppelkirche“ (double church) in Bonn followed by a honeymoon in Paris. At the time Eva's father was a professor of zoology at the University of Bonn, which probably accounts for why they married in Bonn. The married couple set up their first home at Quirinstrasse 18 in Oberkassel, a pleasant residential part of Düsseldorf.
On the domestic front, Beuys was a good cook. Susanne Anna in 'Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf' quotes Monika Schmela as saying of her and her husband's experience “Beuys cooked with great passion. Aside from wild ducks al dente and lobsters on a very special occasion, once there was a stockfish meal, which was characterised by the fact that those who caught the flatter, salty tail piece died of thirst (Beuys called it piquant). Someone kept going to fetch mineral water from the nearest stall.”
Indeed, a book authored by Lucrezia De Domizio Durini, with copious photographs by her husband Buby Durini, and published in 1990 is entitled 'Joseph Beuys The Art of Cooking'. The title is somewhat misleading though, for as she writes, 'My book in no way intends to place the majestic figure of the German maestro Joseph Beuys.... within the realms of the culinary arts, nor even less to catalogue him in the 'Eat Art' movement”. Nonetheless the book is illustrated with many pictures of Beuys - preparing food, eating at the table, and working in his garden etc.
As it happens 1959 was the year Eva was due to submit her thesis to the Düsseldorf' Art Academy and for this Beuys helped by drawing eleven diagrams to help illustrate how the structure of Leonardo da Vinci's pictures is analysed in the thesis, which carried the title 'The landscapes in the backgrounds of Leonard's paintings'. No doubt Beuys' own interest in Leonardo would have been furthered by this thesis.
In early 1960 Beuys had an accident whilst attempting to clean a stovepipe in his Kurhaus studio and this resulted in the removal of one of his kidneys. He also learned that a second casting of his Justitia sculpture for the laws courts in Düsseldorf had, after all his efforts, been rejected.
Consolidation of thoughts towards his 'Theory of Sculpture'
He continued to consolidate his thoughts on the relationship of art to the sciences concluding “that is, everything human and scientific comes from art. Everything is summed up in this very primary concept of art; one arrives at the fact that the scientific was originally contained in the artistic.”
Concurring with Rudolf Steiner’s ideas, Beuys came to the realisation that Enlightenment thinking of the eighteenth century had transformed humanity’s collective, original culture of inspiration into a culture of rational thinking and materialism. This did not mean that he was against the positivistic or materialistic concept of science. More that this was a necessary step “so that this process could take place through man himself as a personal achievement, as a path of liberation to individuality and not through any kind of authority. All mythological and spiritual contexts, all blood-based ties and clan rules, as well as the wisdom of revelation and inspiration had to be radically abolished”. (Adriani) Beuys’ objections were directed towards the one-sidedness of current thinking, going on to say ‘I do not want to move away modern achievements, but I want to go through, I want to expand by trying to create a larger base of understanding. I want to expand a concept of science, I don't want to get rid of it. I just want to point out its sectored existence, its reductive character. At the same time I point out how necessary it was for this reductive character to take place because through this man was brought into a thought discipline that stimulated his own activity so strongly that it becomes a process of liberation, that is, through it he finds himself as independent of God and of old connections, but finds these connections on a higher level. After he has freed himself, so to speak, he must find himself again, that is a very clear fact.’
To express this, Beuys felt that he should not use the epistemological logical approach, as in sentences in a book. No. “It was important to me that all residuals present in the subconscious should be broken up and put into turbulence in the form of a chaotically dissolving process, because the beginning of the new always takes place in chaos." (Adriani 1994 pg 47)