Joseph Beuys is considered one of the most important and controversial artists of the second half of the 20th century. Always on the cutting edge, Beuys thought artists had a central role to play in society.
A current exhibition provides a photographic record of Beuys' working life
Those who know Joseph Beuys often think of two things when they hear his name: fat and felt. These were two materials that he often used in his works that were unsettling to some, simply incomprehensible to others.
On the 20th anniversary of the artist's death, the Kunst Palast museum in Düsseldorf is holding an exhibition called "Joseph Beuys in Action: the Healing Powers of Art." The exhibit features some 100 from different photographers who shot the artists at different phases of his career. They show Beuys in his different manifestations: teacher, political activist, withdrawn introvert or fighter for environmental causes.
Beuys was also involved in German politics and helped found of Germany's Green Party. His experiences during World War II led him to become a pacifist and he was active in the pace and anti-nuclear movment.
Born in 1921 in the town of Krefeld, Beuys served in the German air force throughout World War Two. In 1943, his plane was shot down over the frozen Crimea. Those who found him tried to restore his body heat by wrapping him in fat and an insulating layer of felt, which is likely the origin of the recurring materials in his sculptural works.
After the war, he studied sculpture at the state art academy in Düsseldorf, where he taught from 1961 to 1972.
During that time, starting in the mid-60s, Beuys worked with the avant-garde art group known as Fluxus. It was during this period that he began to stage "actions," where he would perform works in a ritualistic way. One of the best known of these was How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare from 1965. Beuys covered his head with honey and gold leaf, wore one shoe with felt on its sole, another soled with iron. He walked through an art gallery for two hours, explaining the art hanging there to a dead hare that he carried.
Joseph Beuys in 1980
But it was in the 70s and 80s that Beuys was most active on the international stage and his works were displayed around the world, from Vienna's Biennale to New York's Guggenheim to the Seibu Museum of Art in Tokyo.
Photographer Bernd Jansen accompanied Beuys in 1970 during his "Friday action, First Class Fried Frishbones," which presents the bones of a fish displayed in a wall-mounted box as if they were a saintly relic.
"The fish is a sign for Christ," said Jansen. "Beuys often dealt with Christian themes and this 'Friday action' was also a religious act, if you will."
Beuys' better known works are Felt Suit (1970), a felt suit exhibited on a coat hanger; the performance piece Coyote, "I Like America and America Likes Me" (1974), for which Beuys wrapped himself in felt and stayed in a room with a coyote for five days. In the sculpture Fat Corner, Beuys piled fat into the corner of a space, left to melt and turn rancid over a number of days.
For those who prefer their art to be sofa sized and depict idyllic landscapes or quaint country roads, Beuys' art generally induced a good deal of head shaking.
New definition of art
But for Beuys, every person was an artist; every action a work of art. His expanded definition of art caused both sensation and fierce debate during his life. For him, works of art were as fleeting as life itself. He didn't want to create eternal works, but to start people thinking.
Pictures taken during the art work named 'Action in moor' in August 1971
Beuys not only mounted fish bones on walls and ceilings, he also put them on a pair of his own jeans. That pair is now owned by Hinrich Murken, a medical historian and collector of Beuys' works. Murken admits that his passion for Beuys was not always met with understanding.
"When I bought the Beuys jeans in 1971, it wasn't easy for my immediate circle and my family to get why I brought home a pair of old jeans as art," he said. "And then a pair that had fish bones on it. But the bones were what make the work really mysterious and puzzling and gave it the aura that it now has."
Art, science and healing
The connection between art and the natural sciences, between art and medicine was something that Beuys discovered by looking at Leonardo da Vinci. He conducted research into nature and explored the topic of healing in his works like no other artist. Many of his works, drawings, actions and lectures contained motifs and allusions from the worlds of healing and medicine.
"The Temptation of the 20th Century" by Beuys
In his final creative period, the artist devoted much thought to shamanism, which for him was a natural philosophy which invoked a primordial world where all being lived in harmony.
"No other artist has such a variety of references in his work," said Murken. "Beuys' work continues to lives from this openness, from the fascinating variety of interpretations that are possible."