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Before looking in detail at Beuys’ educational theories and teaching practice, it is worth first reviewing some of the childhood experiences that helped mould his later views. Much of the information concerning this period of Beuys' life relies on accounts spelled out in 'Joseph Beuys Life and Works' by Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, Karin Thomas'. This book includes many quotes from conversations with the artist himself. The other important source is Heiner Stachelhaus's 'Joseph Beuys'. Stachelhaus got to know Beuys in 1966, five years after Beuys had been made Professor of Monumental Sculpture at Düsseldorf Academy. They met frequently and had long discussions, often in Beuys' house in Düsseldorf.

Beuys as a boy

From a very young age Beuys seemed interested in everything - from industrial-sized mechanical equipment to the tiniest living creature. But elements from the living world seemed to dominate his curiosity.

It would appear that his father was strict, and not one for displaying loving tenderness towards his son. He worked with his brother who, in 1930, started a flour and fodder business in Rindern, just a few miles from Kleve. This was at a time when Germany was in the middle of the Depression of 1929 – 1933 which had followed on as a consequence of the recall of U.S. loans following The Wall Street Crash in 1929. Beuys' mother was reserved and remained in the background.

Beuys' uncle's house in Rindern just a few years ago. The name HUBERT BEUYS is still just about visible. His uncle, Hubert, and father ran a fodder business from here.                                                                                                                 Image: Cliff Gorman

 Beuys' uncle's house as it is now. The name BEUYS lost in the changes.
Image: Cliff Gorman

In these circumstances it is not surprising that Beuys spent much of the time exploring the surrounding countryside, developing a strong independent personality, and a lasting bond to the area.

Beuys in Adriani et al: '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.' [Beuys' interest in technology was stirred by these childhood experiences as early as the age of four or five. The Sanders' laundry was situated opposite Beuys' family house in Kermisdahlstraase, Kleve]

But these experiences with fascinating machinery were just one side of the coin. Beuys goes on to recall: '….I can still remember that for years I behaved like a shepherd. I went around with a staff, a sort of 'Eurasian staff', which later appeared in my works, and I always had an imaginary herd gathered around me. I was really a shepherd who explained everything that happened in the vicinity. I felt very comfortable in this role, in which I sought to immediately invent experiences I had had.

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’.

But Beuys was not only curious and adventurous. He was mischievous and studious. Stachelhaus: “He was a wild child who would rather climb up the downpipe and go in through the skylight than use the front door, and in school he used to demonstrate his acrobatic skill by racing down the stairs on his bicycle”.

After attending the local catholic primary school (Katholische Volksschule) he went on to study at the secondary school at Kleve (Staatliches Gymnasium Cleve). During this period teachers identified his predilection for drawing and music (he was taking piano and cello lessons at this time). He was also showing interest in Nordic history and mythology and particularly the natural sciences.

Adriani et al: “Beuys' interests were many-sided, ranging from the stories of Hanns Heinz Ewers to Kierkegaard, from Richard Wagner and the impressionist piano pieces of Eric Satie to Richard Strauss. The polemic between classical and Romantic literature had an especially important place in Beuys' studies, as did Schiller and Goethe, Hölderlin and Novalis, as well as the Nordic element, the thematic and visual inventions of Edvard Munch, Hamsun and all of Scandinavian literature, which Beuys had read almost in its entirety”.

Beuys' secondary school as it is in Kleve today. The memorial was on the triangular piece of ground (where the Kleve Live! sign is)  Image: Cliff Gorman

But, of course, this was at the time of the rise of Hitler and Nazism, from which Beuys could have had no escape. Indeed Beuys mentions in a 1976 interview with Georg Jappe that 'in Cleves [now Kleve], shortly before I became a soldier I was glancing through a few books which I had saved from the book burning, which of course we had in our school yard' [from pg 190 'Joseph Beuys Mapping the Legacy' ed Gene Ray]. Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, one of the books Beuys saved was Carl Linnaeus's  'Systema Naturae'.

Also, when Beuys was 13 years old extensive building works were taking place in the triangular piece of land directly opposite his school. The site had been chosen for a memorial to the soldiers who fell in WW1 and a great inaugural ceremony took place on 22nd October 1934. (The images are taken from a book “Ewald Mataré Der ‘Tote Krieger’ in Kleve”). But the central sculpture ‘Tote Krieger’ (dead warrior), which was by Ewald Mataré, later to become Beuys’ teacher at the Düsseldorf Academy and described by Hitler as a ‘degenerate artist’, was very quickly condemned by the National Socialists. A monument that symbolised suffering, grief and death - a victim rather than a hero - could not be tolerated. After just four years, and on a foggy night, the sculpture was smashed and buried on wasteland. In 1968 the rest of the memorial was demolished. And in 1981, after much restoration and reconstruction of its damaged remains, Mataré’s ‘Tote Krieger’ was re-positioned in the grounds of St. Maria Himmelfahrt, Kleve

The memorial under construction in 1934. Image: from “Ewald Mataré Der ‘Tote Krieger’ in Kleve”

The inauguration ceremony in October 1934. Mataré’s sculpture sits at right angles to the line of the 4 pillars. Image: from “Ewald Mataré Der ‘Tote Krieger’ in Kleve”

Demolition and removal of remaining elements of the monument in 1968. Image: from “Ewald Mataré Der ‘Tote Krieger’ in Kleve”

Mataré's re-positioned ‘Tote Krieger’ as it is today. Image: Cliff Gorman

It is hard to imagine that Beuys was not aware of all what was taking place right outside his school. The smashing and removal of the Mataré sculpture took place when Beuys was 17 years old and just two years before he finished his studies at school and, like all boys at this time, he was a member of the Hitler Youth - which had been made compulsory in 1936. [Beuys “everyone went to church and everyone went to the Hitler Youth'  (Caroline Tisdall 'Joseph Beuys' pg 15).]

Towards the end of his school years, Beuys became restless and unhappy with his petty-bourgeois surroundings. In fact, in 1939, a year before he was due to leave, he ran away and joined a travelling circus. Naturally this was a worry for his parents, who later tracked him down again on the Upper Rhine. They suggested he take up an apprenticeship at the local Margarine factory (a safe job!). Instead he went back to school, eventually leaving 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). This is disputed by Peter Riegel in “Beuys Die Biographie” who suggests 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.

Düsseldorf Academy now Image: Cliff Gorman
Düsseldorf Academy after WWII

  Image: Walther Benser / CC BY-SA (

A turning point

In Spring 1941 Beuys volunteered for the Wehrmacht (the Nazi unified armed forces), first training as a radio operator in Poznań (a city in occupied Poland) under, rather fortuitously as it turned out, Heinz Sielmann, who later became well known as a wildlife photographer and documentary filmmaker. Through him Beuys' interest in botany, zoology and geography developed such that he was allowed to attend lectures in these subjects as a guest student at the University.

But, as much as Beuys was interested in these scientific subjects - and at this stage he was thinking of a possible career in the medical sciences – he recalls a startling revelation:

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).

The thought of spending the rest of his life as a scientist, which almost certainly necessitated him to specialise, was too much. Consequently he changed direction, and in a letter to his parents dated May 18, 1943, he wrote that he was thinking of becoming an artist after the war.

But not long after that he was worrying about having to specialise at art college too. In an interview with Georg Jappe, 27th September, 1976, he says:

When I later studied at the art academy here, I saw that the concept of art is equally limited. That was another experience, being sent to a particular teacher. At that time you were still assigned to a teacher. You were received in a very friendly manner at the door, unlike today. On the first day as a student you were greeted warmly by the Director, and in those days you didn’t have the opportunity to choose your teachers freely (the entire academy was burnt out, no roof, and you could see through to the sky), you were allotted to specialized classes.”

At the end of the war Beuys arrived back to his parent's house in Kleve and soon made contact with Walter Brux, a sculptor, and Hanns Lamers, a painter, who had recently formed the Kleve Artists Association – an Association which Beuys duly joined, going on to participate in their group exhibitions. It is with their encouragement that Beuys pursued with his art, and on April 15th 1946 he was enrolled on the Monumental Sculpture programme at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts where he was initially assigned to the class of Joseph Enseling. He was one of the first students in the recently reopened and severely war-damaged academy.

The Academy

Adriani et al write: “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 the previously quoted interview with Georg Jappe, Beuys recalls his introduction to Enseling: “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)

After just three semesters with Enseling, Beuys switched to Ewald Mataré's class. 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.

Mataré's ideas for educational reform

As director, Mataré had hoped to make sweeping changes to the teaching activities at the academy, much based on his own previous experience, which included 15 years of self-study before he started his actual work (Hans van der Grinten in 'Ewald Mataré als Lehrer').

"The teacher can only direct, but not conjure something forth from the student. Individual study is everything. No teacher helped me advance." (Mataré: Tagebücher pg 18 quoted in "Joseph Beuys: The Pedagogue as Persona" thesis by Cornelia Lauf )
I am reminded here of Goethe: “Everyone holds his future in his own hands, like a sculptor he will fashion the raw material into a figure. But it’s the same with that type of artistic activity as it is with all others: We are merely born with the capability to do it. The skill to mould the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated”.  The growth of personality doesn't come naturally - we must ourselves learn how to shape a fine character.

Matare's proposed programme as recalled by van der Grinten involved a twelve-semester plan of study which included:
*the early start of academic studies at the age of 14
*the waiver of school-based prerequisites
*a strict standard of the course with around 40 hours of tuition per week, in which:
*from the 1st to the 4th semester, drawing was to take central position and be taught for 4 mornings, totally 16 hours per week.
*In the second study phase from the 5th to the 8th semester, the sculptors should be trained 4 times a week in wood or stone carving, the painters in painting, and the graphic artists in printmaking techniques.
*In the last phase from the 9th to the 12th semester students should carry out independent work in the own studio under the supervision of the teacher with the special obligation to participate in community tasks
*The remaining hours of the week were to be occupied with general subjects - German, biology, religion and philosophy as well as with artistic auxiliary subjects such as modeling and rhythmic spatial studies.
*A large proportion of time was to be given over to art comparison - 4 hours per week over a period of 4 academic years.

Mataré believed that class communities should form early and stay together in order to be able to work together even in an advanced stage.

Düsseldorf Academy after WWii

 Image: unknown

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). This may have proved fortuitous for Beuys because, to quote again 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.”
Mataré would, for example, 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 .
Beuys, 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,

Two of four doors for the south portal of Cologne Cathedral

Image: Doppelklecks      / CC BY-SA (

"Mourning Parents" Old St Alban Church, Cologne

 Image: © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Beuys carved the father, Heerich the mother, both hewn from porous shell limestone ("Art and Social Change" Klare Scarborough, Susan Dixon pg 144)