Mataré's ideas for educational reform  continued....

Düsseldorf Academy 2010

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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. He was a strict task master who expected his students to attend every class and who would not suffer any lateness. However, the independence of a student was by no means a concern to him as is demonstrated by the fact that in 1953 he attended the first solo exhibition of Beuys - that of his early sculptures, drawings, and graphics – showing great interest even though he had not seen most of the work before since Beuys separated his classwork from his own private art productions. (van der Grinten)

Mataré favoured materials like wood since, unlike working in bronze and stone, they did not require the use of preliminary sketches. Nevertheless, Mataré did succeed in familiarising his students with these materials even though he had limited experience with them. Perhaps, as stated by Cornelia Lauf In her thesis “Joseph Beuys: The Pedague as Persona”: “the sculptural concept of preserving a given material's original formal integrity was the most distinctive (although hardly novel) legacy of the Mataré workshop”.
Lauf also gives a revealing (translated) paragraph from 'Mythos und Bibel' by Franz Joseph van der Grinten and Friedhelm Mennekes, quoting Erwin Heerich's experience of Mataré as a teacher:
“One could work freely...especially at home. He always corrected from specific points of view but always trying to find out what the nature of the student was. His teaching was never general and objective...but always related to the capacity of the person to be corrected. I retained this myself later when I became a teacher: the importance of finding out the particular talents of a young person and making the student aware of them and able to draw the artistic consequences.(my emphasis)
Much of Beuys' own insistence on things like attendance and good time keeping, and many of his pedagogic ideas, were influenced by MataréIt is, therefore, quite difficult to understand why he makes very little mention of him when talking about his background, not even mentioning him in his 'Life Course/Work Course' (Beuys' own early artistically and imaginatively embellished C.V.). Indeed, where Beuys has commented on Mataré, more often than not his remarks have been less than complimentary. He writes, for example:
“It was difficult to go to him, and many times I had to make myself go. He was the type who worked with only a few students. Mataré was not prepared for discussions with his students, he was too self-centered for that. His strong point was his spontaneity, not his discussion.” (Adriani et al 'Joseph Beuys: Life and Works. Pg 28.)

There developed what has been described as a 'love-hate' relationship between the two. 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”.
But Beuys' antagonism most probably stems more from the fact that when he first applied to become a professor at the academy Mataré declared:he has the power to fascinate them [students] more than really speak to them. And that is an attribute talent ill-suited to a teacher since he must lead people to themselves” and Beuys appointment was subsequently refused. This was a bitter blow.
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.

Rudolf Steiner (1861 - 1925)

image: Pausoak2018 / CC BY-SA (

Rudolf Steiner

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.(

Anyone who knows just a little about Beuys will sense how much of this is echoed in Beuys' own overall philosophy and practice.

Günther Mancke, a fellow student in Mataré's class, recalls: 'We were a class of nine people. Seven of us, with Beuys foremost, were intensely interested in anthroposophy” (“Joseph Beuys His Art and Rudolf Steiner” pg 8) . And Rudolf Bind in the same publication 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.” [ Prof Max Benirschke had been a personal student of Steiner and lived in Düsseldorf; Rolf Rothenburg died in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1943].

Beuys and Rainer Lynen, poet. and another fellow student (?)(Beuysnobiscum pg 330) had heated discussions about Steiner and other philosophical concepts. Beuys: 'I still clearly remember those polemical discussions. To mention one example which was important for me: we discussed, no argued, often about Rudolf Steiner. While Lynen, then and even today, is a strong opponent of Steiner, I had already been following his train of thought with great interest for many years”. ( quoted in Adriani et al, pg 23)

Beuys became Matare's master student from 1952-1954 during which time he had his first solo exhibition in the farmhouse of the Van der Grinten brothers in Kranenburg, whom he had first met in 1946 and who lived just a few miles from Kleve. He completed his studies in 1954 and moved to his own studio in Düsseldorf-Heerdt. During his time there he suffered a creative crisis, becoming increasingly withdrawn and eventually entering a very moody phase (almost certainly exacerbated by his then-fiancée ending their engagement) and leading to acute depression in 1956. Eventually he went to stay in the farmhouse of the Van der Grinten family, helping out on the farm from April 1957 until his recovery in August 1957. At the end of the year, Beuys moved back to Kleve to see his father who was very ill.

On a happier note he then received news that he had been awarded the commission for his design for a monument commemorating the fallen of both world wars (a monumental oak cross and gates for the old church tower of the parish church of St. Mauritius von Büderich). In order to be able to realize the commission for the monument he rented space in the then vacant Kleve Spa house which stood almost opposite from his parents house. He was officially registered as a tenant from 1 January 1958. ("Work-place and place of yearning: On Joseph Beuys, Cleves and his studio in the spa house" Valentina Vlašić)

Beuys' gates and cross for Büderich

 Images: Cliff Gorman

Beuys' gates and cross for Büderich and showing names of people who fell in WW1 & WWII (all carved by Beuys). On display at Kurhaus Kleve having been removed and cleaned & before re-hanging at Büderich.                                                Images: Cliff Gorman

Later that year Beuys applied for a professorship at the Academy in Düsseldorf, but his application was not supported by Mataré and so he was unsuccessful.
In 1959 he married art teacher Eva-Maria Wurmbach and his cross and gates for the Büderich memorial were installed. Things were on the up.

In 1961 he and his wife moved into a studio apartment in Düsseldorf-Oberkassel and his second application to become Professor of Monumental Sculpture at the academy was apporoved.

Beuys' teaching at the Academy

In terms of Beuys' teaching, there seems little doubt that Beuys' use of blackboards and chalk (albeit mostly white) mirrored Steiner's use of the same (although Steiner made use of more coloured chalks). Interestingly, blackboards are not traditionally associated with the teaching of art – more with the teaching of science – and both Steiner and Beuys had first been attracted to the sciences more than the arts. Steiner used a scientific approach to investigate the non-material aspects of man and much of Beuys early artworks involved scientific equipment and concerned itself with the hidden processes and the hidden energy potential stored within the materials used.
Cornelia Lauf in the above mentioned thesis makes a case for not only Mataré but also Steiner having a strong influence on Beuys' pedagogic approach. She suggests that Beuys even took on some of Steiner's “gesticulations and frenzied draughtsmanship” in his lecturing/performance style.
She writes: “Like Steiner, Beuys's pedagogy was based on the idea of teaching people through oral communication. It entailed 1) communicating the freedom to make decisions to individuals, 2) doing so by teaching these principles and 3) teaching by talking. He founded his theory of social sculpture on Steiner's tripartite social vision: freedom, political democracy and socialism.” and “Beuys included other themes in his pedagogical platform, such as the emphasis on a new society governed by democratic referendum and an organization for direct democracy that would function as a monitoring force. He explicitly rejected the Marxist project of deriving culture and consciousness exclusively from the relation between production processes, believing that freedom and universal creativity would solve societal and economic imbalance:  'For me [Beuys] it is not self-evident that man is the product of the relations of production, that is of the economic process. This is a Marxist theory which I must reject. For me the economic processes are the products of free man, his free creative activity” (my emphasis)
Beuys’ pedagogy broke conventions by including open “ring discussions” (Ringgesprache) where Beuys and his students discussed political and philosophical issues of the day,

It is perhaps no surprise that Beuys sought to make changes on becoming - at the second time of trying - the Professor of Monumental Sculpture at the Academy. After all, even early on as a student he had become involved in the affairs of the Academy as one of nine class representatives of the student council there. Riegel pg 88 tellingly suggests: 'Perhaps Beuys' fighting spirit was already evident at that time, a latent need for self-expression prevailed over his own shyness. Articulating a group must have been a challenge for the introverted loner. Nevertheless, he remained the spokesman for his class in the following years and in 1948 he was a co-founder of the “General Student Committee (AStA)” of the Düsseldorf Art Academy.” A case of: Academy, be warned?

Germany in the late 1950s, early 1960s

At the time of his arrival at the Academy, Germany (i.e. West Germany, FRG) was not at ease with itself and under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, West Germany had built strong relations with the United States and had become members of NATO. Under the Paris protocol to the Treaty of Brussels (1954) Germany had renounced the possession of nuclear weapons. However, Adenauer felt that this agreement was temporary and once the FRG was fully rehabilitated into these world organisations and had become a respectable medium-sized power it too would be entitled to possess nuclear weapons (by 1955 West Germany had become probably the most prosperous economy in Europe – its performance described as the “economic miracle”). Both these issues were creating great tension between the two main political parties in West Germany - Adenauer's ruling liberal-conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the leftish Social Democratic Party (SPD) under the leadership of Kurt Schumacher. Kurt L Shell in “Extraparliamentary Opposition in Postwar Germany“ writes:
“ The year 1960 may be viewed as a watershed in the growth of the APO [Außerparlamentarische Opposition – the extra-parliamentary opposition]. In the previous decade the individuals, groups, and organizations opposed to the process of "restoration" [of German sovereignty through NATO and Western integration] were not entirely without a political home, for the SPD was a harbour for all, however radical in their criticisms, as long as they did not give aid and comfort to "the enemy"- the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Obviously the SPD's policy was not "Left" enough or Marxist enough for many. In particular, the decision to cooperate in parliamentary committees concerned with the newly-established German army had led to protests and even to demonstrative departures of prominent members. The fear of being identified in the popular mind with Communism, however, acted as a brake on experiments and increasingly hampered the party's political flexibility. Following the electoral defeat of 1957, when the SPD had vigorously opposed Adenauer's foreign policy and German control over atomic weapons, the SPD leadership adopted a determined course to achieve "respectability" among the broad depoliticized voting masses with their wariness of "experiments."
Two closely-related actions gave strong impetus to the development of the APO: the abandonment of the organization, "Fight Against Atom Death," founded with the help of the SPD, which had attracted a wide spectrum of support; and the severance of SPD relations with the SDS and subsequently with the organization of professors formed to aid the SDS financially.”

The SDS was the socialist student organization - originally the SDP’s student section, but expelled in 1960.

As an example of some of the shenanigans going on in the late 1950s it is known that Franz Joseph Strauss, as defence minister in Adenauer's cabinet,sought to equip the Federal Army with nuclear-capable carrier-weapons, which, if it came to the crunch, were to be armed with American nuclear warheads and in 1957, without the knowledge of the USA, he agreed a short-lived co-operation project for the joint development of nuclear weapons with his French and Italian colleagues. (Harald Müller - Nuclear Weapons and German Interests: An Attempt at Redefinition). This sort of thing lead many in the world, including John F Kennedy, to suspect that Germany was indeed moving in the direction of having an independent nuclear capability.

And it should also be remembered that early in the 1960s great tensions existed between the West and Russia, and in Germany the East German regime closed the border between East and West Berlin on 13 August 1961, and replacing the barbed wire with concrete elements and large blocks just four days later. The "Berlin Wall' was created.

But there were other problems fermenting in Germany, more to do with the “economic miracle”. Nick Thomas in “Protest Movements in 1960s West Germany" believes that the increasing prosperity and growing consumerism of 1950s and 1960s increased expectations for individual opportunity and freedom while proving socially corrosive in many respects e.g. eroding traditional family relations and undercutting traditional German deference to authority. This led to the protests that started to happen from 1965 onwards and perhaps culminating in the mass student protests of 1968.
Interestingly, because of the “economic miracle”, great demand was put on the Government to take steps to increase the number of skilled and white-collar workers, consequently forcing the Government to dramatically expand post-secondary education and the opening of universities to applicants from broader social backgrounds.

Colin Barker in ' Some Reflections on Student Movements of the 1960s and Early 1970s' writes:
“In West Germany, the universities were re-opened after the defeat of Nazism on an essentially idealistic basis as ‘a community of instructors and instructed’, a place founded with the progressive, if not Utopian aim of serving ‘the development of the intellect, free from material, political and ideological forces’. This created an emergent contradiction with the need to develop institutions to service capital’s demand for scientific and academically-based technical progress (Budderberg, “The Student Movement in West Germany”, International Socialism (1st series), 33, 27-34.). That contradiction, Budderberg suggests, evinced itself in contradictory proposals for university development. On one side, business thinkers wanted universities to become ‘academic Taylorist’ institutions, with shortened periods of study for individual students and stricter regimentation and standardization of courses. Such proposals to increase turnover and output hardly matched the ethos of the traditional university. At the other pole, Left students demanded increased democratization of the universities, in the form of reduction of the universities’ hierarchical structures and an increase in students’ rights of self-determination and co-determination.
However, students in the Arts and Humanities and especially Social Science were not really ‘training’ for entry to specific professions, though many would expect to go into teaching, social work, various forms of administration, or work in the mass media. What they expected from their courses, and indeed were induced to expect, was some kind of nurturing of their ‘critical faculties’ and of their capacities for social, moral and political generalization. These were the students most likely to be searching for something akin to the classical model of the University as a liberal institution promoting freedom of thought and expression, encouraging free debate and argument – in other words, the old upper class model of a university education devoted to the relatively leisured pursuit of ideas. These students were most likely to be disappointed by the reality of university life, and – were radicalization to occur – the most likely to be responsive. They were the ones most likely to be disappointed by the reality of much of their university experience, to find their courses boring, irrelevant and alienating."

I sometimes wonder whether all these socio-economic and political concerns, of which Beuys would most certainly have been aware, might have contributed to his mental breakdown in 1957. Nonetheless it is remarkable that just four years later he was spending up to ten hours a day at the Academy, and even teaching during the vacations, as stated in Petra Richter: “Beuys: To be a teacher is my greatest work of Art”.

At first, just like his own teacher Mataré, Beuys too expected his students to arrive punctually and to attend his classes without exception but, as student numbers grew, this became impossible in any one class. However - unlike Mataré and most other teachers at the Academy at that time - Beuys did not follow a strictly defined curriculum. As Richter points out: Beuys’s first students had been accustomed to such didactic teaching methods, obeying strict rules and executing precisely formulated assignments yet Beuys, on the other hand, expected his students to work on their own, motivated by their own enthusiasm. Beuys based his teaching not on a clearly formulated theory or programme but rather on a concept which he developed on the spot, in interactive dialogue with his students. This left some students at a loss, whilst for others it was liberating. In this respect he was anti-authoritarian yet, on the other hand, his critiques of students’ work are reported to have been (at times) uncompromising and delivered with the full force of his professorial authority.(Jan Verwoert: Class Action

Nonetheless, in several ways Beuys still held on to the requirements traditionally associated with the teaching of art e.g draughtsmanship formed the basis of his teaching – he even held on to the practice of drawing from plaster casts, as well as from nature and live models. This increased and developed a student's power of observation and the drawings became a kind of reservoir of information and ideas to be called upon at some later date perhaps. However, Beuys' idea was not to encourage his students to be able to achieve a correct imitation or copy of the subject, but to somehow get inside the subject, or under the skin of a living being, and to interrogate the forces that are invisible and make them visible. This required his students to use and develop their powers of imagination and intuition and to bring forward new ideas, recalling Paul Klee's: ”The object grows beyond its appearance through our knowledge of its inner being, through the knowledge that the thing is more than its outward aspect suggests”. (Pg 66 Paul Klee Notebooks Volume 1 "The Thinking Eye")

Beuys found that, at first, students had difficulty thinking for themselves and that “the absence of any critical detachment from their former teachers and from what they had been taught was reflected in their tendency towards stylistic adoption” (Petra Richter). He considered, Richter writes “the systematic, regimented teaching of sculptural skills to be far less important than the development of subjective creativity and sensitivity. Beuys’s interest was focused on a categorically subjective, largely autobiographical conception of modern art. He encouraged his students to discover their own individual selves. ‘Every single one of us,’ Bernd Lohaus recalls, ‘was expected to go his own way. Beuys always said: 'You mustn't look how the others draw, but must discover your own way of drawing.' If one or other of his students failed to make headway with a particular assignment, Beuys did not hesitate to suggest that they seek inspiration in works of art or literature. He would advise his students to ‘go into the museum and look at certain paintings, especially if paint application was the problem', or he would tell them to read a book or go back to drawing. Gerda Hühn recalls that Beuys said: ‘Then sit down and draw some more nudes. Or go out and draw the plaster figures or the kitchen sink. Or look at the window!’.

How useful and informative it is to have Beuys' students recall their memory of Beuys' teaching methods and philosophy. Here are a couple of other graphic examples of Beuys approach, as recalled by Jan Verwoert whose father, Walter, had been a student of Beuys: “My father remembers many situations in which Beuys’ critique of students’ works was highly confrontational. He told me about the time Beuys physically attacked a well-executed realist ceramic sculpture of a monk, slapping its face flat with a broad knife and then drawing a smiley in the flat clay. On another occasion, when the same student, Bonifatius Stirnberg, had sculpted a Crucifixion scene, Beuys put a wooden board in front of it, hiding everything but the heads of the figures, before explaining that religion was after all about mystery. In the same way my father recollects having learnt about the effects of negative volume through Beuys simply carving a big chunk out of the clay sculpture he had just finished. Yet my father says he found these interventions very liberating and in tune with the spirit of the moment. On the whole, my father recounts, the break with the conventions of craft that the materialist aesthetics of Beuys, Nouveau Réalisme and American Minimalism all implied, created an overwhelming sense of, as he puts it, ‘Anything goes. Just go for it.’
However, this sensation of potentiality, my mother [Elfi Weimar, who joined Beuys' class much later on] tells me, was at times also mixed with an oppressive feeling of turmoil. For instance, she recounts Beuys locking the doors during a performance at the academy by John Cage, thereby granting the students no release from the experience. She describes this physical sense of being locked in a space full of people and forced to undergo an event of an utterly unpredictable nature and duration as the closest she ever came to reliving the nights she spent in a bomb shelter during air raids as a child.” (Jan Verwoert Class Action
Yet, in a conversation with Richter, Lohaus describes Beuys' impact as ‘From the very start, he set different standards, defined new values and made other things possible; we were taught to call ourselves into question: be aware if you are angry, do whatever you think is necessary. He gave us students a different kind of freedom.’ Clearly the reception of his teaching methods was very mixed, but freedom, creativity and individuality were always at the centre of his work and thus living out the thoughts and ideas of Rudolf Steiner.

ZERO and more

In the same year that Beuys' was appointed to the Academy, Düsseldorf, which is the capital city of the North Rhine–Westphalia region of Germany and lies on the River Rhine, was becoming a magnet to a burgeoning group of diverse artists, all engaged - in one way or another - in change-making and the breaking down of barriers. After National Socialism most German artists sought to abandon any notions of realistic art and turned to abstraction, with the Rhineland artists in particular seeking expression beyond any traditional rules, conventions and authority. And Düsseldorf was ideally placed to become a centre for such experimentation being situated within easy reach of Paris, Amsterdam and Antwerp and now thriving under Germany's “economic miracle”.
Even as early as May 1957, for example, the Düsseldorf gallerist Alfred Schmela (who later became important for Beuys) had brought the French artist Yves Klein and his work to Düsseldorf by exhibiting his series of blue monochromatic paintings.  Abstraction was beginning to take hold in Düsseldorf in the name of the Zero Group led by Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, and Günther Uecker which, as it grew, consisted of a loosely-knit group of artists who sought to create art that was purely about the work’s materials and the world in which those materials existed, de-emphasising the role of the artist’s hand. (Shira Wolfe “Art Movement: Zero Group”
Klein began to work closely within the Zero Group, which helped to solidify Düsseldorf-Paris relations and quickly led to connections with the Italian artists Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni. Both Klein and Manzoni were to make a huge impact in the cultural world in and around Düsseldorf.
A seminal moment arose for Beuys In June 1961 when the Zero group organised the opening of the international ZERO exhibition in the Galerie Schmela together with a ZERO demonstration in the old town - the first “happening” in Dusseldorf. Here, as joint spectators to the actions, Beuys by chance met the South Korean born, but itinerant artist, Nam June Paik who had come to West Germany in 1956, first enrolling on a music history course at Munich University and then moving on to study composition at the Musikhochschule Frieburg. He then went on to work in the electronic studio of the West German Radio (WDR) in Cologne which had become an important centre for contemporary music, attracting young composers such as Stockhausen.
(KIM Hee-young 'Indeterminate Temporality Embedded in Nam June Paik’s Early Experiments from 1959 to 1963')
When Beuys had been a student of Mataré in 1959 he had watched a Paik performance in Wuppertal called 'Homage to John Cage' but at the ZERO 'happening' Beuys introduced himself  and proposed that Paik hold a concert in his studio. However, the initial meeting did not yield a collaboration, as Paik declined because he was intensely preparing for his first solo exhibition at in Wuppertal. But over time they began to work together closely on music-centred collaborations and Beuys would become especially important to Paik.
Recalling his unexpected first meeting with Beuys, in 1961, Paik later wrote, “I couldn’t erase the memory of this stranger from my heart, the image of a man who has never compromised himself in spite of innumerable difficulties.”
( Rachel Jans, “Nam June Paik: Kinship, Collaboration, and Commemoration,” August 2018. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,

And Paik became important to Beuys.... because of Paik's links to Fluxus.