this issue contains
>> Immaculate White: Art and Winter
>> True North: Isaac Julien
>> Frozen Sculptures: Marc Quinn
>> Felt and Fat: Joseph Beuys

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Nourishing Energy, Protective Warmth:
The Metaphors Felt an Fat in Joseph Beuys' Work



Artists love legends, especially when they make their biography seem a little more interesting. Joseph Beuys was no exception, on the contrary. The draftsman, performance artist, party founder, and professor, who was revered by his students like no other, had a pronounced weakness for all manner of stylization. The hat and photographer’s vest he always wore, the myth of felt and fat as an original experience bestowing life and warmth, these were things that Beuys cultivated with idealistic zeal – without losing sight of his own personal gain. A portrait by Ulrich Clewing.



Wie man einem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt, Fluxus Performance, Düsseldorf, November, 26, 1965


If the story isn’t true, and there is a lot of evidence attesting to this, then at least it was a good invention. When Joseph Beuys, crewmember of a Stuka JU 87 during the Second World War, was shot down and severely wounded in the Crimea, legend has it that nomadic Tartars found and nursed him back to health in the weeks that followed. According to Beuys’ later testimony, they achieved this by rubbing their patient in fat and wrapping him up in warm felt fabric.

Today we know from reliable sources that no more than 24 hours could have passed between his machine having been shot down and his admittance to the military hospital, and thus his sojourn with the Tartars, if at all, had to have been much shorter in duration than Beuys has claimed. On the other hand, the legend fits so well into the image of the world and work of the artist, who died in 1986, for this biographical "inaccuracy" to be simply filed away as such. For one, Beuys had a clear weakness for a symbolic way of expressing himself; "warmth" in particular played a central and crucial role for him, not only in a physical sense.



Stuhl mit Fett, 1963, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt


On the occasion of the 1964 Festival of New Art in Aachen, Joseph Beuys composed a so-called "Lebenslauf/Werklauf" or biography of life and work, which he then expanded five years later for an exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel. In it, the first "warm exhibition" is recorded for the year 1964; the first "Exhibition of Coldness", by the way, already took place in 1945.

The fact that he was referring to his reassignment as a soldier to Northern Holland shortly before the end of the war as well as his return to his parents in Kleve following his release from war imprisonment a year later is secondary. What’s more important is that the artist seems to have found his specific nomenclature at this time, in 1964.



Iphigenie/Titus,
glas objekt in a steel frame, 1985

For Beuys, "warmth" was first of all a metaphor, in keeping with the fact that he generally accorded his objects, collages, and graphic notations a highly symbolic meaning. This propensity for symbolism also extended to his public activities, his actions and performances, but also to his political involvement, which intensified following the student protests of the late sixties. From that point on, the cognitive and emotional category of "warmth" also began taking on social dimensions. The metaphor of warmth is most present in the fat and felt works that Joseph Beuys made throughout his life from the early fifties to his death in 1986 and which count among his most well-known works.


Filzplastik -Bronzeplastik, 1964 Infiltration Homogen für Konzertflügel, 1966, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre George Pompidou, Paris


The nutritive energy of fat and the protective, warmth-retaining property of felt were two symbols with which he was able to express his ideas in a particularly direct way. Filzplastik - Bronzeplastik (Felt Sculpture – Bronze Sculpture) is the title of a drawing Joseph Beuys made in 1964, today part of the Deutsche Bank Collection. The stylized contours of a grand piano can be clearly recognized – similar to the one that Beuys actually wrapped completely in felt two years later, whereby he not only "protected" it, but also robbed it of its function in that it could no longer make a sound from within its covering.

For Beuys, as he once stated, drawing was the "extension of thinking". At the beginning of his artistic development, as a student of the Art Academy in Düsseldorf, he concentrated almost exclusively on this medium. His works on paper are valued highly to this day. The intuitive, the search for harmony with the subconscious, the fundamentally human at the core of a soul alienated from itself by civilization and convention, the recovery of a lost naturalness, in short: the warmth of human existence – according to Beuys, who held the anthroposophic teachings of Rudolf Steiner in high esteem, all of this became revealed in his idea of an "extended concept of art". Beuys felt a great proximity to Steiner and his philosophy, and seems to quote him word for word in some of his own statements: "I wanted to introduce the light of the world of ideas into the warmth of inner experience", Steiner wrote in 1890. "To me, the mystic seemed to be a person who couldn’t see the spiritual in the idea, and for this reason, the idea made him grow cold within. The coldness that he experienced from the idea forced him to search for the warmth that his soul needed through a liberation from ideas."



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