ARTIST ROOMS: Joseph Beuys A Language of Drawing, 30 July – 23 October
Richard Demarco & Joseph Beuys/ A Unique Partnership, 30- July – 16 October
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.
2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), an enigmatic figure in the history of twentieth century art whose concept of “Social Sculpture” feels urgently relevant. Beyond the historical context of post war Germany; his belief in the ability of each human being to use their innate creativity to build a better society remains aspirational and politically charged. Parallel exhibitions at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA) provide the opportunity to explore and re-evaluate Beuys’s work, legacy and his relationship with Scotland as part of a wider sphere of European culture. Joint ARTIST ROOMS holdings from the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate have been brought together for the first time in Joseph Beuys- A Language of Drawing, featuring over 100 works from 1945 to 1984. Complimenting this significant survey of Beuys’s drawings is Richard Demarco and Joseph Beuys: A Unique partnership; an exhibition of objects, photography, film, posters, recordings and original correspondence exploring the collaboration between Beuys, Edinburgh gallerist Richard Demarco and the impact of Scotland on the artist’s practice. Beuys’s choice of media and raw elements are invested with intentionality and his delight in playing with language. He utilised his drawings as “reservoirs” of ideas, often preceding what he described as “actions” in performance, teaching and political activism. Using a wide variety of materials; graphite, ink, industrial “Braunkreuz” oil paint, watercolour, newsprint, leaves, bone, hare’s blood, felt, fat, stone dust, clay, zinc, lime, copper and iron oxides applied to paper, card, metal and wood, Beuys’s drawings are a wonderful window into the endlessly fertile ground of the thematic obsessions, concerns and beliefs that define his art.
It feels very timely to go back to the Beuysian origins of the phrase; “everyone is an artist”; to extrapolate the real aspiration behind it from what it has become in the popular imagination. In the 21st century access to technology has given many the capacity to create and perform online to an increasingly global audience. In this environment seemingly anyone with a platform is an artist. But having access to new tools to express and project your own desires doesn’t constitute “cultural democracy “(or progressive civilization) on its own. Having the purchasing power to buy the latest upgrade is a profit making trajectory that doesn’t necessarily equate to the growth of awareness and conscience needed to actually use it. Joseph Beuys declared that “the creativity of people is the real capital. Art=capital” and he was right, however the word capital in the 21st century has been reduced to only one meaning; monetary wealth. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contemporary art world aligned with the language of advertising. In looking at Beuys you have to re-examine how we define art and culture and completely re-evaluate the role of the artist as compliant agent or resistant activist as part of the wider question: “what is Art and what is it for?” The striding Western Hero in La rivoluzione siamo Noi [We are the Revolution] (1972 (phototype on polyester sheet, with hand written text, stamped (based on a photograph by Giancarlo Pancaldi), GMA 4563, SNGMA) cast Beuys resoundingly as the resistant activist. Although the cowboy swagger is arguably part of the artist’s mythical persona, within his statement that “everyone is an artist” there is also the assertion, commitment and intentionality of building a better society. Significantly there is a sense of collective responsibility underneath that iconic hat.Beuys understood the power of mythology which is why, in the story of him being rescued by a group of nomadic Tartars, he rolls himself in insulating fat and felt; an act of psychological survival after being shot down in the Crimea during WWII whilst serving in the Luftwaffe. Although criticised for the lie of being rescued by a tribal culture, the truth still resides in the myth. Shamanic is a word that gets used a lot around Beuys, however he is iconic not for the cloaked mystery of his artistic persona or for the celebrity treatment of becoming a Warhol multiple, but for his actions; “My art is my teaching” was how he described his own work and his art expands way beyond gallery walls. He was a passionate advocate of the capacity of art to heal individual and societal wounds and like other German Artists of his generation, used his language of drawing as a way of coming to terms with the atrocities of Nazism and human complicity, including his own. From the end of WWII he was actively reclaiming the language of his homeland; the idea of the gesamkunstwerk; the total work of art, which had been misappropriated in Wagnerian proportions during the Nazi era. For Beuys this was an ideal within and without, a synthesis between different disciplines, a total work of art as bound to human life, manifest in the concept of “Social Sculpture”. Psychologically he was his own gesamtkunstwerk;
“I outlined a new biography in drawings. I had already conceived the idea of a social work of art upon which I am still working”. (Joseph Beuys, 1980).
The idea that people can use their creativity to bring about positive cultural, political, economic, ecological and social change is an eternally hopeful premise for reconstruction. The imperative then was a world visibly in ruin in the aftermath of industrial scale warfare, genocide and the age of the atom bomb. The imperative now is displaced humanity, global corporate rule and impending ecological disaster.
In the poignant drawing Dove, Food, Rainbow (1949, Graphite and watercolour on card, AR00095 ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) Beuys uses simple linear graphite and white washes of watercolour on a raw, textured ground of found card, to create a feeling of profound lassitude and hope. The bowed head of the dove linked to the promise of a rainbow which has not yet burst into colour and the mountainous horizon is both a statement of loss and aspiration. When I think of Beuys I think of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs and belief in the motivational capacity of human beings for self-actualisation and self-transcendence. As a follower of Rudolf Steiner’s teachings, there are elements of ethical individualism and spiritual science that become integrated Beuys’s in the trajectory of his drawings.
Beuys can be seen as shamanic in his depth of awareness; of the nature of mythology, culture and the universal tribe of humankind. It’s what makes the simplicity of Acer Platanoides (1945, Leaf on paper, AR00630, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) so revelatory; a fallen leaf on paper, felling the then blackened mythology of the German forest to the ground. Out of the fascist cry of “blood and soil”, Beuys leads the viewer back to the possibility of survival and growth through creativity. Nature in Beuys’s work is very much in the German Romantic tradition of Friedrich– we are always aware of a human mind beholding it. Beuys’s drawing The Centrifugal Forces of the Mountains (1953, Graphite on paper, 3 parts. ARTIST ROOMS, National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Lent by Anthony d’Offay, 2010. AL00196) acknowledges and crystallises that dynamism. There is a human presence in all his drawings, whether they are figurative or not. A fluid horizon of hare’s blood, fat transformed by human warmth, a symbolic battery of positive and negative forces, the flow between masculine and feminine, reason and intuition, present meanings sensed and felt in the action, rather than seen. If you go looking for the artifice of beauty in this artist’s work then you are destined never to find it. The beauty in Beuys lies in belief and aspiration. His connection with Scotland and interest in Celtic mythology shares a kinship with the bardic tradition of creativity as a source of transformation and renewal. His drawings are the process, sometimes unrealised actions, part of the trajectory of a life and linked with many others. This clearly presents a problem for some art critics and viewers hunting for explanatory meanings, traditional linear narratives or illustration. There are many works in the exhibition that document actions where the artist’s presence was vital and equally many drawings and objects that stand apart from the myth of the artist, transcending their maker. Beuys challenges traditional/ art historical classifications, his art was as much about founding the green party, lecturing, teaching, performance and the energy of raw materials as it was about the fine art practices of drawing, sculpture and installation.
In Richard Demarco’s essay Ex Cathedra; he refers to performance art as: “ essentially a form of drawing through what Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist called La Poetique de L’Espace. Performance art reveals 20th century man’s need for ritual. The artist’s work through performance art can be linked to that of the ritualist, alchemist, priest and master of ceremonies and guide and explorer, of all the secret places normally hidden from view, which we need to know to truly inhabit a living space, both interior and exterior.” (A Unique partnership-Richard Demarco / Joseph Beuys, P70 Luath Press Limited, Edinburgh2016)
Tails (1962, Oil paint[Braunkreuz], graphite and felt AR00654 ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) is a very potent expression of the artist, ritualist, alchemist, priest/ shaman and explorer, half human half animal, in the process of transformation, rendered in bloody, earthen pigment. The elongated scale of the figure gives it a monumental presence and the gestural marks have the feel of an act of worship written and illuminated on ancient cave walls. The oil based Braunkreuz paint Beuys often used in his drawings was in industrial/ domestic use in Germany at the time, it is also a play on words- translated as “brown cross” anchoring the earth bound pigment to faith, the floors/ foundations of people’s homes and to the world of the everyday. It is a powerful material anchor to what may seem a highly fantastical image. Another fibrous layer in this drawing is a sewn hole of felt heralding ritual rebirth which the figure appears to bow before. The Shaman’s Two Bags (1977, Graphite, crayon and ink on paper, AR00129, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) is another example of the artist’s preoccupation with humankind’s interior and exterior life, above and below, uterine in form and crowned with antler.
Beuys’s treatment of the feminine in his work is extremely interesting as a manifestation of creative and destructive potential. In Witches Spitting Fire, (1959, Graphite and oil paint (Braunkreuz) on paper, AR00109, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) the squatting armless figures engulf the ground of the drawing in a frenzied dabbing of reddish, brown marks in stark contrast to their lithe, dellineated bodies. The energy of the drawing is intensely visceral; channelling a deeply instinctual and uncontainable drive. The female figures consume the space they inhabit with the associative pigmentation of blood, soil and excrement. The mystery of the female body is amplified by the male artist’s gaze in Pregnant Woman with Swan (1959, Oil paint and watercolour on paper AR00114, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008.) Here the swollen female figure in silhouette contains the ghostly masculine form of the child/ swan. The head is bowed limply in a Freudian twist; vulnerability held within the body of the Great Mother. The form echoes stone age Venus figures, the earliest depictions of fertile human body and imagination in clay.
A drawing such as this has universal resonances regardless of what has been written alongside it. There is a perception of Beuys, reflected in James Fox’s most recent programme; Who’s afraid of conceptual Art? screened earlier this week on BBC4, of being bafflingly abstract or (through the eyes of art historian Fox) allegorical. However I would argue that Beuys’s work is neither too obtuse to be accessible without written explanation, nor does it operate on a level of representation discernible only to scholars. Actions like 7000 Oaks (1982), where Beuys initiated the planting of 7000 oaks, each paired with a basalt stone in the city of Kassel, has spread to other cities around the world; a collective creative act of live sculptural installation, green politics and urban renewal. I think what Beuys was about expands exponentially when seen outside a typical gallery space. This was very much the intention behind Beuys’s first exhibition in the English speaking world; Strategy: Get Arts hosted by Richard Demarco at Edinburgh College of Art in 1970.
The underpinning conceit of Fox’s documentary was that audiences require explanation in order to understand conceptual art, or rather the ideas behind it. As I made my way through the ARTIST ROOMS exhibition a group of young art students came in; “You can draw anything as long as you explain what you’re doing!”, declared one of them, laughing and pointing to the text label beside one of Beuys’s drawings. The student and his three giggling companions exited quickly, their laughter following them down the stairs. On one level I understand their response. For a group of immature, white middle class art students the urgency of having civilization as they knew it destroyed before their eyes wasn’t part of their life experience and nor is it mine. Thankfully we have not been faced with the physical and psychological necessity of rebuilding life as we know it. In such a context Art isn’t a subject to be studied, it becomes an imperative; because in truth it is our only means of human reflection and survival, an idea that is articulated beautifully in Schitten (Sled) 1969 (Wooden sled, fat,, felt, belts, torch, No 47 in an edition of 50) . This piece derived from Beuys’s larger installation- The Pack (1969); a Volkswagen with 24 sledges flowing from the back of it like a team of huskies, each with a felt blanket, a lump of fat and a torch, has a curiously powerful human presence. Beuys commented; “In a state of emergency the Volkswagen bus is of limited usefulness, and more direct and primitive means must be taken to ensure survival.” Seeing this singular, editioned object of endurance and exploration displayed in a glass case has the effect of relegating it as a dead historical artefact, when in imaginative terms it is the creative key to human survival for the journey ahead; the sled to move across the wasteland we find ourselves in, the protective insulation of felt, the sustenance of fat, a torch to illuminate the path ahead and human warmth to transform the world around us. Although both exhibitions are text heavy there are other ways of presenting Beuys, as part of a wider discussion of where we’re all heading. The artist’s interests and concerns were wide ranging; art, mythology, anthropology, history, science, ecology, alchemy, Nature and all of these are combined in the gesamkunstwerk of his life’s work.
Beuys’s Pyramidales Bild (1979, Oil paint on printed paper, AR00687, ARTIST ROOMS National Galleries of Scotland and Tate. Acquired jointly through the d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Art Fund 2008) encapsulates his philosophy in its synthesis of ideas, beliefs and materials. The pyramid is a multifaceted form in relation to Christianity, Theosophy and Steiner, but what is so interesting in this drawing is Beuys’s use of newspaper print and the way that the halo of fat bled into the paper defines and transforms our reading of the more rigid structure within. In this vertical diptych the geometric forms are almost architectural and the fold of the newsprint holds a sun-like apex of fat. These drawings resemble a built structure/ environment but also the human body. The feeling held in this drawing is the softened rigidity of form and feeling. There’s an emotive sense of spirituality and hope grounded in a real world of possibility. This is communicated not by an illustrative, narrative imagery, but by the combination of thought and raw, found, everyday materials which are reconfigured, crafted in an apex of human aspiration, continually striving towards light.