City Stories: Happy Birthday Joseph Beuys

It is a particular type of creative who can tuck a dead hare under their arm, take it on a tour of a gallery and call it art. Such was the persona of Joseph Beuys that his 1965 performance piece – How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare – became a seminal work that has been recreated several times over.

In his original performance, Beuys locked himself in the Schmela Gallery in Düsseldorf and, with the dead hare cradled in his arms, wandered around the gallery, whispering to the creature. Beuys’ head was covered in honey and augmented with gold flakes. The final moments of the piece saw Beuys cradling the hare in such a way as to be reminiscent of the Madonna and Christ Child.

This, Beuy’s first solo performance piece, was indicative of his commitment to challenging the perceptions of what constituted art, combined with his somewhat bleak views on the state of modern society. As he noted at the time, “even a dead animal preserves more powers of intuition than some human beings with their stubborn rationality.”

Art was Beuys’ second career path; his first being that of a radio operator for the Luftwaffe from 1941-1945. After being shot down over Crimea during the second World War, Beuys shifted his focus towards art. He enrolled at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in 1946, studying with sculptor Ewald Matare who brought a transcendental focus to Beuys’ work. While Beuys was to move beyond Matare’s approach, his art was deeply rooted in a spiritualism that combined metaphor and symbolism; an aesthetic that would also come to draw heavily on the works of philosopher, Rudolf Steiner.

Over the course of his subsequent career, Beuys went on to create a complex and complicated public persona that blurred fact and fiction and drew as many detractors as it did fans. His work became highly political and sought to challenge convention wherever possible. This led to the emergence of what he termed ‘social sculpture’; a perception of society as an artistic work in progress where, ‘everything is art’.

While Beuys’ eclectic body of art remains on show in galleries around the world, including at the K20 in Düsseldorf, perhaps his more powerful legacy is as a creator who sought to push his audience beyond the boundaries of rational thought and into a world of mystery and questioning.

*The portrait of Joseph Beuys at the top of this post is a street art installation by two Italian artists who create under the moniker, orticanoodles. Their focus is on creating pieces that highlight ‘famous leaders, celebrities and provocative artists’. The portrait is along Erkrather Straße opposite the Portuguese restaurant!