Joseph Beuys, c.1982

I’ve written a short piece for the London Review of Books on an exhibition of drawings by Joseph Beuys, on show at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in London (here).

Joseph Beuys, Untitled [Two dead deer], c.1948.

It’s a fascinating display of drawings from throughout the four decades of Beuys’s life as an artist, with many early drawings, like that of two dead deer shown above, from 1948, when Beuys was moving from the world of natural history (he at first wanted to be a scientist), to that of art.

Joseph Beuys, Untitled [bear], c.1950. Ink on hazel leaf.

The small drawing of a bear, or some such creature, on a hazel leaf (above), made around 1950, shows Beuys making this transition, but also embarking on his lifelong quest to create images and actions beyond the traditional borders of art. To contribute to art, he held, you had to go beyond art, into the real world of politics and history. He was in this sense a Reformer in a long tradition of German Reformers.

Joseph Beuys, Untitled [drawing relating to ‘7,000 Oaks’], c.1982.
Joseph Beuys, Is it about a Bicycle III, 1982. Chalk and paint on blackboard.

The later drawings, from the 1970s and 80s, become more obscure, plans and diagrams that accompanied Beuys’s Actions, and are hard to decipher without background knowledge. The first drawing above relates to his Action begun at the seventh Documenta exhibition at Kassel, in 1982, ‘7,000 Eichen’, (‘7,000 Oaks’), where he planted that number of trees around the city, each accompanied be a column of basalt. The drawing is a relic of the action, which must be one of the most prophetic and important public art works of the last century.

His famous blackboards are the most didactic form of his drawing, filled with more or less comprehensible chalked symbols and words. One of them carries the title Is it about a Bicycle III?, which nobody (at least who I asked) can explain — nor whether there are indeed two earlier versions. I wonder whether it is a nod to Marcel Duchamp, whose ‘silence’, or lack of social engagement, Beuys often complained about — ‘The silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated’!

Is it about a Bicycle III is filled with symbols of his performances, including images of the Eurasianstab, or ‘Eurasian Staff’, a Gandalf-like accoutrement somehow epitomising his concept of ‘Eurasia’ as a unified zone — a reconciliation of eastern mysticism and western materialism.

Joseph Beuys, Fat and Felt Sculpture (Fat Battery), 1963. Museum of Modern Art, New York

A number of people have asked me about the famous story of Beuys’s plane crash in Crimea. In March 1944, so the story goes, his Stuka divebomber crashed in the Crimea, and he was saved by Tatars, Turco-Muslim herders living in the area between the German and Russian fronts, who took him from the plane wreckage to their yurt, where they wrapped him in fat and felt, keeping him alive until he was found ten days later by the German search party and taken to a military hospital.

As Claudia Mesch writes in her excellent short book on Beuys, the story has for some time been exposed as a myth – German military records show that Beuys was taken to a German military hospital the day after the crash.

Whatever in truth happened, Beuys certainly founded his career on the story, tracing the magical charge of the fat and felt he used so often in his sculpture back to his wartime experience and the Tatars.

I’ve not read anything in the Beuys literature noting the subsequent history of the Tatars.

Two months after Beuys’s crash came Kara Gun, or ‘Black Day’, 18th May, 1944, when the Soviet Union began a programme of brutal deportation of the Tatars across Eurasia to Uzbekistan, as well as to the Siberian labour camps, as part of their programme of ‘ethnic cleansing’. The deportation was punishment for their alleged collaboration with the German army. Kara Gun is celebrated by the Tatars to this day. It was only a few years after Beuys’s death in 1986, with the fall of the Soviet Union, that the Tatars made their way back to their Crimean homeland, now wholly Slavicised. Since the Russian invasion in 2014 the ethnocide has recommenced.

It is far from clear what this might mean for Beuys’s art — perhaps nothing at all. He was working in the realm of symbolism and myth, and his ‘expanded’ concept of art, spilling over into life, was concerned largely with the political situation surrounding him in West Germany, the struggles over democracy, and growing concerns for the environment.

And yet. Bearing in mind his concept of Eurasia, a grand reunification of east and west across the steppes and plains of central Asia, it is difficult not to think of the exiled and silenced Tatars at its centre, just as his symbolic substances of fat and felt bring to mind the survival and endurance of the Tatar people. Worth mentioning, at least.

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