Image: Baummapper / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)
In response to a question by Willoughby Sharp in 1969 concerning how future historians might judge his contributions to art, Beuys stated ‘After I am dead I would like people to say “Beuys understood the historical situation. He altered the course of events”. (Carin Kuoni ‘Joseph Beuys in America’ pg 92)
In respect of the environment I would suggest that Beuys very well understood the perilous situation the world had created for itself, and devoted much of his life to addressing environmental issues.
From his early childhood growing up in the Lower Rhine town of Kleve, close to the border with Holland, Beuys showed a keen interest in nature. He stated: ‘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……..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 of this occurred in Kleve between 1925 and 1933.’ (quoted from ‘Joseph Beuys Life and Works’ Götz Adriani, Winifried Konnertz, Karin Thomas). This is when Beuys was aged between 4 and 12 years old.
Image: from Museum Schloss Moyland
Clearly there was a budding scientist here but, only a few years later, when Beuys was 15 years old, he also displayed his talents as a budding artist, here depicting a solitary tree in a flat landscape. This painting is one of very few examples which remain of Beuys’ art at such an early age and is part of the Schloss Moyland collection.
Although, at first, Beuys planned to go into the medical side of the sciences, towards the end of World War II he changed his mind and decided to study art. This change of mind occurred after attending a lecture on Zoology – he was struck by the realisation that studying the sciences might take him down a route towards narrow specialisation.
From 1947 until 1951 he attended the State Academy of Art in Düsseldorf mainly under the tutelage of Ewald Mataré – one of Hitler’s so-called ‘degenerate’ artists - whose sculptural works were often of animals and, according to Heiner Stachelhaus, was the outstanding personality in Mataré’s class.
Stachelhaus writes of an amusing period when Beuys shared a room with Erwin Heerich in the attic of the highly dilapidated Academy building: “whenever Beuys was there, Heerich vividly remembers, there was always a hissing and bubbling in his 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).
After Beuys became Professor of Monumental Sculpture at Düsseldorf Academy in 1961, and after his involvement in Fluxus, starting in 1964, he began staging what he termed “actions’ or performances. About the same time he also begun to take a keen interest in politics. The first anti-nuclear protest had taken place in Germany in 1960 and. Indeed. the origins of the environmental movement can be traced back to the anti-nuclear movement which sprang up in Europe about then and which ‘contributed to the rise of the awareness about the fragility of the earth and paved the way for the emergence of further global concerns such as climate change and sustainable development during the 1980s and 1990s (The Politics of the Environment:Ideas, Activism, Policy Carter 2001: 4 - quoted in ‘Understanding European Movements: New Social Movements, Global Justice Struggles, Anti-austerity Protest’ edited by Cristina Flesher Fominaya, Laurence Cox)
So it was from the mid 1960s that Beuys’ art became more political, and towards the end of the decade he had established the first of several political organisations, the first being the German Student Party in 1967, which, as quoted in Carl-Peter Buschkühle “Joseph Beuys and the Artistic Education: Theory and Practice of an Artistic Art Education” pg 24, “attempted to change educational politics” and also “drew attention to the ecological and ethical problems of the fair treatment of animals”.
In 1972 Beuys went on to co-found the Free International University for Creativity and Inter-disciplinary Research (FIU) whose ideas were integral to the later founding of the German Green Party (Die Grünen) in January 1980.
Beuys' first environmental action
Save the woods
Beuys’ first environmental action took place in December 1971 when Beuys “staged a theatrical (and brilliantly successful) demonstration in the Grafenberger Wald outside Düsseldorf against a proposed conversion of part of the woods into country-club tennis courts. Together with fifty students and disciples Beuys swept the woods with birch brooms in a kind of ritual exorcism of the bourgeoisie, painting crosses and rings on the threatened trees as if he were affirming the ancient Teutonic religion of wood-spirits.” (Simon Schama ‘Landscape and Memory’ pg 123).
A poster read: “Let the rich beware, we will not yield. Universal well-being is advancing”.
Beuys: “Everyone talks about environmental protection, but very few do anything about it. We make our contribution with this action, the trees that are going to be eliminated here are vital for future generations. This demonstration was only one of many that will follow. And should anyone try to saw one of these trees down, we will be sitting at the top of that tree.
The forest as an environment is for all of us, it must be protected. This is our first action in the matter of environmental protection, but it is certainly not our last...We will always be…. where environmental questions arise. The environment belongs to us all, not just to high society’. (Op. cit. Adriani, Konnertz, Thomas above pg 240)
I'm with Beuys on the environment! Are you?
Image: Oostvaardersplassen, Flevoland Dominicus Johannes Bergsma / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
The 17th Century is regarded as a golden age for Dutch painting. The low horizons and impressive cloud formations, together with a supposedly special light, created perfect conditions for a more realistic Dutch landscape style to develop.
In the 1970s Beuys postulated that this ‘special’ light, which had lasted for centuries, had lost its radiance for good during the 1950s. Indeed a rather beautiful 2003 documentary film “Dutch Light’ by by Pieter-Rim De Kroon & Maarten De Kroon explored, in part, the question ‘Was Joseph Beuys right?’
Dr. Marcus Schütz, who holds a PhD in Geosciences from Essen University writes: “Beuys saw the reason for its disappearance in the massive land reclamation project in the Zuyderzee (also Zuiderzee), which was a shallow bay, cut off [from] the North Sea by a man made barrier which turned parts of it into the freshwater lake IJsselmeer. In a massive land reclamation project, the Netherlands gained a new province, called Flevoland”.
But the Zuiderzee project, as it was called, had started earlier, indeed:
government agency called the Zuiderzee Project Department was
established on 1 May 1919. The following year, work began on a
dike that would run from North Holland to the island of Wieringen.
After the dike's completion, the project came to a temporary
standstill. Despite its economic problems, the government decided to
forge ahead with the Zuiderzee Project. The civil engineers involved
took particular pride in building the IJsselmeer Dam, which would
enclose the Zuiderzee and thus create the IJsselmeer (Lake IJssel).
In 1930, the Wieringermeer Polder* was the first tract of land to be
reclaimed from the sea ÷ the first of five planned polders.
Two years later, the IJsselmeer Dam was completed, and the Zuiderzee ceased to be”. (http://www.flevoland.to/english/flevoland.html)
(*A polder is a piece of land in a low-lying area that has been reclaimed from a body of water by building dikes and drainage canals).
Wikipedia describes the Zuiderzee Works as “a man-made system of dams and dikes, land reclamation and water drainage work, in total the largest hydraulic engineering project undertaken by the Netherlands during the twentieth century. The project involved the damming of the Zuiderzee, a large, shallow inlet of the North Sea, and the reclamation of land in the newly enclosed water using polders. Its main purposes are to improve flood protection and create additional land for agriculture”.
Work started on the Eastern and Southern Flevoland polders in 1950 and 1959 respectively.
But Beuys was not only concerned about the loss of the special Dutch light in the Zeider Zee area, he was also concerned about other construction (destruction?) activities taking place in Holland, a country where “an estimated 90% of the original raised bogs have now disappeared due to exploitation for farming and peat extraction, and what little remains is under threat from climate change, agriculture and pollution”. (Dr. Roy van Beek Assistant Professor, department of Soil Geography and Landscape and Cultural Geography, Wageningen University. https://www.nwo.nl/en/research-and-results/cases/dutch-raised-bogs-under-pressure.html)
Beuys: “Bogs are the liveliest elements in the European landscape, not just from the point of view of flora, fauna, birds and animals, but as storing places of life, mystery and chemical change, preservers of ancient history. They are essential to the whole eco-system for water regulation, humidity, ground water and climate in general. Drying them out for polders and the Zeider Zee is something I have always disagreed with”. (Caroline Tisdall 'Joseph Beuys' pg 39)
On August 16th, 1971, Beuys was traveling by car from Düsseldorf, together with photographers Gianfranco Gorgoni and Ute Klophaus, to Eindhoven in connection with an exhibition of his work ‘Voglie verse i miei montagne’ due to open the next day. As they passed through the Peel district (an area known for the extraction of peat for fuel) Gorgoni noticed an isolated WWII bunker completely surrounded by boggy land where upon they stopped. Beuys immediately leapt over a wall causing birds to scatter and with Beuys imitating their flight. Jumping over the swamp from spongy grass hummock to spongy grass hummock and arriving at the bunker, Beuys, with face pressed against the bunker wall, took up a crucified Christ position. He entered the bunker, with notebook in hand, and stayed just a short time. He then jumped again from hummock to hummock towards a deeper pool of muddy water whereupon he dived in fully clothed to a depth where only his hat was showing. He smeared himself with mud, swam in the dark swamp water, and emerged at the bank covered in muddy water and with left hand covered in mud. He raised his left arm stiffly and horizontally in front of him and above the water and held his right arm with open flat hand high up like a stylised greeting. He dived in again up to his shoulders. When he came out onto the bank he performed another strange movement of his legs, holding his ankle with his hand to create a kind of angle. (compiled from both: Uwe M Schneede ‘Joseph Beuys Die Aktionen’ pg 312 and Jos Pouls ‘Een half uur lang de heiligste plek van de Peel. ‘Aktion im Moor’ van Joseph Beuys’ https://locus.ou.nl/locus-dossier-culturele-plaatsen/joseph-beuys/)
This whole spontaneous episode is now known as Beuys’ “Bog Action” or “Aktion im Moor” , with just Gorgoni and Klophaus being witnesses to it. Fortunately Gorgioni captured the event in seven spectacular black and white photographs.
Gorgoni recalls that Beuys went back to the car and made to the exhibition, whereupon the Director greeted him and Beuys embraced him, still soaked to the skin!
The straight forward interpretation of this action is that it is an artistic ‘performance’ carried out by Beuys in protest against the continued vast loss of bog/peat lands, and of the draining of the Zeider Zee wetlands for commercial gain, but, as is often the case for Beuys’ artworks, they stimulate deeper consideration and discussion.
As Jos Pouls writes, Adriani, Konnertz and Thomas in Joseph Beuys. Leben und Werk take the view “that the artist displayed a form of 'Umweltschutz' (environmental protection) in the Peel - at a time when it had not yet received wide attention’ whereas Uwe Schneede, who consulted photographer Gorgoni, ‘emphasized the ritual union of Beuys with nature and at the same time sees an 'ökologischer Appell' (ecological appeal), which shows how far Beuys' thinking had broadened at that time’.(Uwe Schneede ‘Joseph Beuys Die Aktionen’ pg 312)
And Pouls himself suggests that ‘The photo that perhaps best summarizes Beuys's vision of nature, and also the character of Aktion im Moor, is the one on which he intently covers himself with mud. He dug up the brown ooze in the water with his hands. The mud was full of the old life of the swamp, and perhaps the material was, in Beuys' eyes, also beneficial. It seems that he thus wanted to become one with Mother Earth and followed that by completely immersing himself as an expression of total unification. Beuys became, as it were, an "organism".’ He goes on to write:
‘Immersion is reminiscent of the Christian baptismal scene, where the baptism is reborn as it were in Christ. However, the baptismal ritual is older, and also known as a cleansing rite from other cultures such as the Egyptian and Jewish. Beuys was certainly aware of this. Considering his critical view of Christian doctrine and the institution of the Church - Beuys had already deregistered from the Catholic Church in the 1960s - a traditional Christian interpretation is not obvious.’
There are some beautifully clear reproductions of three of Gorgoni’s photograph in this article (here).
I am drawn to the importance that Beuys gave to the earth and soil, its care and its cultivation. In the catalogue of his life and works, which he formulated in 1964, and titled ‘Life Course – Work Course’, and where he describes his life in terms of exhibitions, he writes as one of his 1928 entries ‘Kleve exhibition to explain the difference between loamy sand and sandy loam’. Thus, even as a seven year old, he shows a discriminating interest in soils.
It is known, too, that he had in his library copies of Fried and Broeshart’s ‘The Soil Plant System in relation to Inorganic Nutrition’ and ‘Soil Conservation’ by Kohnke and Bertrand, to name but two.
And, as Pouls again writes: ‘From the fifties, drawings and installations were created that specifically dealt with "earth", such as Die Erdhorcher (1957), Erdhaufen u. electronical Gitter (1957), Erdklavier (1962) and Erdtelephon (1967). We also often see large heaps of 'earth' in later works by Beuys. Beuys is not concerned with the molecular or chemical composition of earth, but with the hidden forces and (cosmic) processes that (would) work in the earth. For example, he considered humus to be a sacred substance, referring to human primeval times. The ancient Greeks worshiped the earth goddess Gaia as the primal mother of all life, and many ancient religions had a similar Mother Earth goddess. Consuming medicinal earth - as Heilerde - was recommended by doctors in earlier times (under the name bolus armenicus) and in modern times still by alternative doctors. Beuys was very familiar with this.”
Aktion im Moor (Bog Action) is Beuys’ idiosyncratic, impromptu, and heartfelt response to the ongoing destruction of an ancient peat area at the expense of nature, and to culture in general.
More environmental actions to follow
This website is the personal initiative of Cliff Gorman. Its aim is to focus on the work and ideas of Joseph Beuys, and to be informative but not too academic.
Holmdale Cottage, Broadway
© 2019. All rights reserved