Beuys: Unwrapping the Enigma

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Joseph Beuys, Musik als Grün (Grüne Geige) / Telephon S – – – – Ǝ [Green Violin / Telephone S – – – – Ǝ], 1974, violin, paint/tin, oil paint (Braunkreuz), string, paper. Installed in vitrine: 183 x 154.5 x 63.5 cm. Collection of Céline and Heiner Bastian, Berlin. Photo by Jörg von Bruchhausen, Berlin. © Estate of Joseph Beuys/ SODRAC (2016)

Whether you’re encountering Joseph Beuys for the first time, or have admired his work for years, a new exhibition at the National Gallery provides a fascinating look at one of the most influential artists of the postwar era.

“In Germany, Beuys is a household name; he’s like their Tom Thomson,” said Adam Welch, NGC’s Associate Curator of Modern Canadian Art, who explained to NGC Magazine that the idea for an exhibition presented itself after an introduction to Céline and Heiner Bastian. Heiner Bastian was a long-time associate of Beuys and the Bastians hold a considerable collection of his works. Many of the sculptures were on long-term loan to the Hamburger Bahnhof — Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin. “I think the Bastians really wanted to see the work travel and get some exposure in North America,” says Welch.

The exhibition, which includes 20 sculptures and 60 works on paper, is presented as a chronological survey of some of Beuys’ seminal pieces from the 1950s through to the early 1980s. Beuys’ early drawings are considered the most accessible because they’re still figurative, making them subjects that are easier to read. Included in the exhibition is one of his most important sculptures, Torso (1949/51), his culminating project while a student at the Dusseldorf Academy.

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Joseph Beuys, Torso (detail), 1949/51, plaster, iron, gauze, wood, lead, paint. Installed in vitrine: 300 x 115 x 115.5 cm. Collection of Céline and Heiner Bastian, Berlin. Photo by Jörg von Bruchhausen, Berlin. © Estate of Joseph Beuys/ SODRAC (2016)

“Usually when we talk about ‘student work’ we’re not seeing anything that reflects the artist’s later, more mature style,” says Welch. “However, it’s really quite interesting to see in Beuys’ early work — the way he handles material, the way he’s using found and readymade wire, plaster and bitumen, for example — something that speaks to what he would develop over the course of the 60s and 70s.”

Beuys developed his own mythological, pseudo-scientific system around which his art is structured, creating a complete universe with recurring elements and materials. As an artist, he straddles this world, albeit with some controversy. His own biography involves a story of being shot down while a pilot in the Luftwaffe. He was, indeed, shot down, but historical fact blurs into the realm of myth, as the story continues to suggest he was found by a group of Tatars, who wrapped him in animal fat and felt and then nursed him back to health. 

“This myth had very little traction in North America with critics and curators who, when Beuys veered into the kind of ‘artist as shaman’ facet of his practice, became highly sceptical and quite resistant to his work,” says Welch. “In postwar American art, the artist figure recedes and the object stands alone. Beuys is really interested in cultivating the artist persona and developing the narrative around his own life experiences, presenting himself as a kind of healer or teacher."

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Joseph Beuys, Infiltration-homogen für Cello [Homogenous Infiltration for Cello], 1966–85, cello, felt, fabric. Installed in vitrine: 154.5 x 183 x 64 cm. Collection of Céline and Heiner Bastian, Berlin. Photo by Jörg von Bruchhausen, Berlin. © Estate of Joseph Beuys/ SODRAC (2016)

The story, ultimately, became the origin of Beuys’ “warmth” sculptures. The exhibition includes the iconic Infiltration Homogen für Cello (Homogeneous Infiltration for Cello), which is a cello wrapped in a grey felt cape with a red cross. In Hasengrab (Hare Grave), you see felt and the remnants of a hare incorporated into an assemblage, making the connection between felt, nurturing and death much more explicit.

Beuys had always hoped to present an exhibition in Canada. In the 1970s, he visited the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, from which he received an honorary doctorate. “His presence there and the reverberations from that visit were important for a lot of Canadian artists,” says Welch. This is reflected in works in the national collection, such as Arnaud Maggs’ 100 profile views of Beuys and Betty Goodwin’s vest for Beuys, which is an explicit reference to Beuys’ Felt Suit.

“I’m really hoping that this exhibition serves as an opportunity for folks to become acquainted with Beuys’ work,” says Welch. “It’s also a chance for keen art historians, students and lovers of art to delve deeper. It’s a modest selection – but one that’s very, very significant.”


Joseph Beuys is on view at the NGC until November 27, 2017.

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