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Joseph Beuys – An Artist of Western Art With a “Background”

February 4th, 2021

There is an unwritten rule in the art world, as is in the other branches of human endeavor, that an artist never ever tries to explain the beauty of his/her work. In fact, Picasso was the champion of the case that art should affect the viewer and the later should not develop a bias by what any other artist says. Obviously, Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), a key contributor to Western Art, had never heard of this concept. His rhetoric on his own work outshone all the other modern artists in their brazenness of self-worship. Joseph created performances, wrote plays, sculpted, and produced prints, which were electric and ushered in an era of forceful art. He, however, undid all that with his wild and unbelievable tales.

Joseph Beuys had German roots. He was born on May 12, 1921, at Krefeld to Josef Jakob Beuys (a merchant) and Johanna Maria Margarete Beuys. Beuys soon shifted to Kleve. Joseph grew up in Hitler’s Reich since 1940, when he joined German Air Force. He was often a part of the Nazi juggernaut that rolled all across Eastern Europe. He would fly as the radio operator of bomber units, after his formal recruitment for the same in 1941. A brush with a near to death experience during the Crimea War in March 1944, however, changed him from a devoted servant of a unit to a world rebel. Beuys’ traumatic experiences during the war transformed him. His troubled self would often pour out through his artistic pursuits.

Post war Joseph Beuys returned to Rindern. Mostly struggling with dire finances, he devoted himself to formal self-education. In 1947, Joseph joined Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Ewald Mataré. He graduated in 1951, armed with a wealth of knowledge from contemporary classics centered on art, literature, philosophy, science, and spirituality. One of these, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” inspired him to draw a series of drawings during 1958-61, which are often considered an essential extension of the book. Beuys married Eva Wurmbach in 1959. They had two children from the marriage. In 1961, Joseph Beuys joined his alma mater, Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, as the professor of ‘Monumental Sculpture.’

All this was through the years of anonymity until in 1964, when the artist, while staging a play on Hitler’s assassination attempt, was injured, as some rowdies entered the play and bashed him up. His bloodied mug photo flashed across the newspapers. Reading the waters, Beuys, launched into a self-promotional extravaganza. This circus included a fictional CV, “Lebenslauf/Werklauf,” where he described his birth as an ‘Open Wound’ and often indulging into utterly unbelievable rhetoric. It was not an autobiography, but an autobiographical pamphlet, which was every bit what he wanted to see except the truth. Despite that, however, he had entered public consciousness and no one realized it better than him.

Joseph’s first solo exhibition on November 26, 1965, was staged on himself in an exhibit titled, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.” In this display, he sat covered in honey and gold, mumbling into a dead hare’s ears, whom he cradled in his arms. The exhibit was something strange; a cross between ‘Static Art’ & ‘Performing Art,’ and soon Beuys was hailed as an avant-garde performer. He never stopped after that. He would often create such performances as “Eurasia (1965),” a ritualistic musical that was either too mundane or too artistic for the critics. Joseph Beuys dabbled in Politics too during 1960s, often publishing essays and art with political overtones. His sculptures like “Homogeneous Infiltration for Piano (1966)” also gave him the aura of an eccentric genius (an aura that he was himself desperate to generate).

More than an artist, Beuys was a performer with the world as his gallery. He played on even if no one cared. His displays employed the events of his past, present, and future with some degree of panache, which his worst critics cannot deny. Whether his creativities were great art is a question he left for the time to solve, he was too busy to think of that. Joseph Beuys died on January 23, 1986.