It is true to say that most of the visitors to the Resource Centre at WorthAttention have never heard of the name of Joseph Beuys, even though he was probably the most famous European artist in the 1970's/80's. I wish to draw attention to his work and ideas because I believe many of the social concerns which he addressed in his art are still around today, perhaps even more so.
but first a little background
Beuys was born in Krefeld, near Dusseldorf, Germany on May 12th 1921. His father owned a flour and fodder business in Rindern, near Kleve, and it was there that the Beuys' family lived. Beuys attended school in Kleve. He was a likeable, but wild child, who took an early interest in the sciences. He was also musical, playing the piano and cello. The landscape of the lower Rhine had a lasting influence on Beuys, who recalled learning about plants and keeping a botanical collection. He was a keen observer of nature, down to the most minute of detail. He was a boy of many interests and even at fifteen he showed talent as an artist. He also read widely: the philosophical works of Kierkegaard, and the Romantic writers - including Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin and Novalis.
Three years before his graduation Beuys struck up a relationship with a Kleve sculptor Achille Moortgat, visiting his studio on many occasions. However, it was after he had rescued from one of the nazi book burnings a catalogue depicting the sculptural works of Wilhelm Lehmbruck that he admitted to being 'given his first real feeling for sculpture'.
But his strong interest in science and technology eventually led him to a scarcely thought-through decision to train as a pediatrician. In the end this never materialised and he was soon obliged to joined the Air Force. He trained first as a radio operator, later becoming a dive bomber pilot. As a Stuka pilot in World War II, Beuys was involved in many instances where his plane was hit by enemy fire, and on one occasion he was forced to make a crash landing. After a sortie over Russia his plane was badly damaged but he managed to bring it back behind German lines, only to have the altimeter fail during a sudden snowstorm. He crashed in the snow in the Crimea. Beuys survived, his other crewman was killed. Beuys maintained that he owed his survival to a band of nomadic Tartars who, finding him unconscious, coated his body with fat and wrapped him in felt.
He went on to often incorporate these materials in his sculptures as symbols of warmth and healing.
Beuys was badly injured during the war (double fracture of the skull, broken ribs) and awarded several medals for bravery, including the German equivalent of the Purple Heart. When he became a prisoner of war in Cuxhaven, near Hamburg,he was in a very poor state of health.
It is interesting to note, in the context of WorthAttention, that when Beuys had been stationed in Erfurt he made a visit to Weimar, city of Goethe. Heiner Stachelhaus writes in 'Joseph Beuys': "In May 1941 Beuys traveled from Erfurt to Weimar, where he visited the Nietzsche Archive. There, behind Schloss Belvedere, he drew an abstract form in watercolour and pencil on top of text he had previously written on a double-perforated printed form. The text reads as follows:
This effusive poem to nature indicates that the twenty-year-old Beuys was indeed a long way from the reality of war".
But this is also very reminiscent of Goethe's way of seeing nature, and leads me to suggest that Beuys must have been inspired to write this under his spell.
After the war Beuys returned to Kleve where he resolved to become an artist rather than go into the sciences. Specialisation really did not suit him, and maybe at this time he began to form in his mind what later became his 'expanded' notion of art. Kleve must have had a developing art scene at this time, with local sculptor Walter Brux and painter Hanns Lamers resurrecting the Kleve Artists' League, a successor to the former artists' league 'Profile'.
By studying with Brux, Beuys was able to gain admission to the Academy of Art in Dusseldorf. His main influence here was Matare, who had been dubbed one of the 'degenerate' artists by the National Socialists.
To be continued