Skip to main content

Rock artist

What is sculpture? The work of Joseph Beuys questioned our preconceptions, as Helen Charman explains



Joseph Beuys was born into a Catholic family in north-west Germany.

He served in the Second World War as a radio operator and combat pilot in the German airforce before becoming one of the most important artists of the 20th century, campaigning for educational reform, grassroots democracy and the Green Party.

* Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments is at Tate Modern until May 2.

Supported by Tate International Council.

* Tate Modern's new Magnificent Materials resource is now available, with information and activities relating to the exhibition.

* Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments (Tate Publishing Pounds 24.99)

* Tate Modern Teachers' Kit (Tate Publishing pound;12.99)

* "Joseph Beuys: an Introduction to his Life and Work" by Ann Temkin, in Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys by Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose. (Thames Hudson)

* Philadelphia Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art) http:collections.walkerart.orgitemagent366

Sculptor, shaman, showman, teacher, debater: Joseph Beuys was no ordinary artist. Throughout his art practice he tirelessly expanded the concept of what an artist was, and what an artist did, and Tate Modern's current exhibition is no ordinary show.

At first you might feel somewhat confounded as you take in the extraordinary configurations of objects, unconventional choice of materials and processes, and subject matter on display. But give yourself time and your response may well change from perplexity to intense fascination.

Beuys's charismatic presence and his unconventional activist, artistic style crossed traditional understandings - of genre and medium, for example through his use of ritualised movement and sound in his "actions" or performances; and of eclectic materials such as fat, felt, earth, honey, blood and even dead animals.

As this exhibition demonstrates, his innovative influence is particularly relevant in sculpture, whose definition he expanded to encompass performance art, vitrine cases and environments.

"The End of the Twentieth Century" (1983-85), the sculpture shown here, is a powerful example of Beuys's room-scale environments, which developed out of the artist's environmental concerns. Such concerns were particularly demonstrated in his work "7000 Oaks", which he began in 1982 in Kassel, Germany. This urban greening project involved planting 7,000 oak trees to generate an "ecological awakening" for mankind. It was part of Beuys's mission to initiate environmental and social change through art. He stipulated that a basalt stone should be placed alongside each tree. Basalt is a mineral, volcanic in origin, and Beuys associated it with the Earth's ancient energy.

In this piece, blocks of basalt lie scattered like the fallen buildings or tombs of an ancient civilisation. Into each of the slabs, Beuys bored a conical hole to create a metaphorical "wound". He then "treated" this wound by smoothing and lining the hollow with insulating clay and felt, before re-inserting the plug of stone. These plugged cavities imply the potential for healing, suggesting the possibility of renewal and regeneration at the end of a violent and destructive century. It is even possible to see this healing treatment as a form of homeopathy, treating like with like in the use of the mineral clay to treat the basalt, also mineral.

Beuys's room-scale environments present an expanded concept of sculpture, in which material qualities are rich with metaphorical, historical, personal and political associations. Exhibition co-curator Sean Rainbird describes Beuys's environments as mise en sc ne, in which the components are so interrelated and layered that any placing of individual objects automatically creates links to other objects which Beuys may or may not have sanctioned had he been alive to install the pieces himself (throughout his career he was highly involved in installing his work but rarely if ever left display guidelines for anyone to install large groups of works after his death).

Throughout all his work, runs Beuys's belief that art could evoke a spiritual response in the audience, ultimately providing healing. He sometimes compared his role to that of a shaman, and to this end his performances, or "actions", incorporated powerful symbols of birth, death and transformation.

The significance of his choice of materials should not be underestimated; although richly eclectic, he viewed certain substances as having important associations, and through repeated use they attained a personal symbolism.

For example, fat appears in many of his sculptures. He chose it partly to stimulate discussion, as "a material that was very basic to life and not associated with art". More fundamentally, the flexibility with which it changes from solid to liquid, according to changes in temperature, made it a potent symbol of spiritual transcendence.

The use of felt was important to Beuys for its ability to absorb whatever it came into contact with. As an insulator, it became a symbol of warmth.

It also appears as a muffler, as when Beuys wrapped a piano, television or a loudspeaker in the material. Like fat, the use of felt was one of his personal signatures, and his felt hat became a symbol for the artist himself.

Metals used by Beuys included iron, the cold strength and durability of which he associated with masculinity, war and Mars. He placed it in opposition to copper, a conductor of electricity and one of the softest metals, which he associated with Venus and femininity.

Beuys often talked about "warmth" and "energy" in relation to his work.

Many of his sculptures incorporate materials that are associated with generating, storing or conducting energy. He sometimes went as far as exhibiting functioning batteries that would release an electrical charge.

Beuys used these ideas as a metaphor for the creative and spiritual energy that he believed art should foster, both in the individual viewer and in society as a whole.

This exhibition, the first major retrospective since his death, examines three of the distinctive ways in which Beuys worked, particularly during the second half of his career: his "actions" or performances; the vitrines in which he gathered small sculptures and objects into thematic groups; and his sculptural environments. As such it will be of particular interest to teachers wishing to expand their students' understandings of what art can be, and to explore the relationship between an artist and society. Beuys's synthesis of the personal and the political in his art could also provide fertile ground for extending, or challenging, what pupils consider to be art.

A turning point in his life came during the Second World War, when Beuys was serving as a combat pilot. In a story which has since been discredited, Beuys claimed that when he was shot down on the Russian front, nomadic Tartars rescued him and covered his body in fat and felt to regenerate him.

Although a fiction, this story demonstrates how artists can construct identities for themselves which accord with their views of themselves and their relationship to the world. As such, Beuys might be an interesting case-study not just for extending pupils' artwork in terms of media, materials and genres, but also as a way of critically engaging with the very concept of artistic identity and the role of the artist in society.

Helen Charman is curator CPD, Tate Modern



Material qualities: ask pupils to collect examples of materials with opposite qualities, for example texture, weight, smell, man-made, natural, old, new. Arrange the objects on a shelf in any order which pupils find interesting.

For KS2, ask pupils to choose one object and make a Mind Map of the different associations the object has for them. Display these mind-maps as artworks in their own right.


Metaphorical objects: ask pupils to choose an object or substance and make a metaphorical interpretation of it, for example Beuys's use of fat, which can change from solid to liquid according to temperature and which he saw as a metaphor for spiritual transcendence and warmth because of its powers as an insulator. Use this object as the basis for an installation art work.


Activist art: ask pupils to choose and research a political issue which interests them and present it to their peers in an updated, multimedia version of Beuys's blackboard "actions".

Debate the role of the artist in society.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you