Artist Rooms: Joseph Beuys
This exhibition of work by postwar German artist Joseph Beuys features a selection from the ‘Braunkreuz’ series: drawings, the legendary fat chair, and his objects in vitrines. Beuys’ signatory mediums of felt, fat and copper, chosen for their insulating, transmitting and transformative properties, can be seen in these cases as artefacts intended to actively trespass environments reserved for precious objects. The works have a powerful effect at the Hunterian where they are not cubed in by pristine white walls.
The man himself, identified by his iconic self-made image of felt hat and fur-lined jacket, was fascinated by Celtic traditions and the profound social and political changes in Scotland in the 1970s. After his first staged ‘action’ in Edinburgh, ‘Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony’ – performed daily for eight hours over a period of six consecutive days – he returned many times until his death in 1986.
His legacy of Social Sculpture, perhaps now a bit overplayed, stems from a deeply personal conviction: while flying for the Luftwaffe in WWII, his plane was shot down on the Crimean Front and crashed. Beuys’ disputed account of the event claimed he was rescued by nomadic Tartar tribesmen, who wrapped his body in animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health.
Here a decent cross-section of his work reminds us of his deep understanding of drawing: the painterly mark-making in juxtaposition with representational imagery, the confident graphic angles of collage, but above all with concept as key. Hidden in among a series of drawings hangs a piece with the scribble: ‘Walk only if you feel: your walk starts revolution’.
Braunkreuz (‘brown cross’) is the name given to a muddy red brown, mixed by Beuys to achieve a unique hue. The colour in itself suggests dried blood, earth and excrement, evoking a visceral power in addition to the imagery it conveys. He fills the area around a pencil drawing of two women with this colour. Entitled ‘Witches spitting fire’, their hands are tied behind their backs as they spit fire with an unstoppable force of nature.
His use of colour as sculpture and objects as drawing medium, creates metaphors but also enables the mythologising of a ritual and, no doubt, of the artist’s persona.
Hunterian Gallery, Glasgow, until Mon 27 Sep