The Legacy of Joseph Beuys


Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare, Nov. 26, 1965

The 1965 photograph of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) cradling, almost mothering, a dead hare today seems iconic. It’s certainly more accessible and far-reaching than his drawings and installations. What was he explaining to the dead hare in 1965? The failure of the modernist revolution? The end of old German culture? Why does he always look like a hunter without a rifle? Or is this part of the performance art?

The dead hare figures as a motif in numerous Dutch still-lifes, and the living hare is the subject for one of the greatest portraits achieved by Albrecht Dürer. When we appropriate or employ nature in art, we create new creatures of design and appetite. The hare of Dürer has the fine lines and detail of the artist’s own self-portraits. Strangely, Beuys’ performance with the dead hare creates a similar mirror effect, conveying the artist’s charity and warmth through dialogue with it . . .

The pose, with Beuys’s face covered in honey and gold leaf, conjures several associations, beginning with the classical pose of the Madonna and child (Christ). This religious association is not far off the mark, since Beuys was a spiritual man, influenced by the teachings of the anthroposophist, Rudolf Steiner, and throughout his career as an artist, Beuys was keen on the redemptive and regenerative aspects of creation.

In his autobiography, he identified with the Tatars of the Crimea who he claimed rescued him after he was shot down during the Second World War. They kept him alive in furs and animal fat–hence his almost fetishistic interest in fat. The mythic rescue evidently brought him closer to nature and metaphysical forces.

The dead hare is then emblematic of nature and also death, in which the “shaman” Beuys attempts to raise the animal back to life. The hare figures throughout his oeuvre, but no image is more fascinating than the photograph of Beuys as he sits zombie-like, explaining art to a dead hare.

Yet this picture we have of him is outside the context of the original performance of the dialogue with the hare, and the still wider context of the international Fluxus movement emanating from the experimental music of the American composer John Cage. To some, Beuys’s antics were a vaudeville act, and his performances visual gags, not to be taken seriously–akin to the fun of the Dadaists.

We would see on the Flux “bill” many such visual gags, and all of them testing and provocative. However, there is something different going on with Beuys, and perhaps we should consider what exactly that might be. The hare, apart from its symbolic value, is game. It has been hunted and eaten for centuries. Also consider: Joseph Beuys, like Andy Warhol, wore easily-identifiable clothes. For Beuys, it was a hat that covered his war wound (the “wound badge” he received from the Nazis), a fur coat that made him look like a Berlin pimp, or a hunter’s jacket.


I like America and America likes me, 1974
Action piece. Photo credit Caroline Tisdall.

He frequently draws on canidae (carnivorous mammals), including the wolf and coyote. His affinity and obsession with fur and animal fat is suggestive of the carnivore. Here an identification with wolf-like animals, and a love of the holistic and the regenerative, have their parallels in Nazi culture, whose leader saw himself as a Wolf. That dangerous line of thought should be qualified, however, since Beuys himself was against Nazism, and his art was heavily influenced by the so-called “degenerate art,” destroyed or censored in the cultural purges of the 1930’s.

Moreover, he first came to the public eye after being assaulted during a cultural performance that commemorated the anniversary of the failed assassination attempt of Hitler. But like the novelist Günter Grass, who had problems connected with his Nazi past, Beuys was plagued by doubts. This is the very rub of the German artist living at this time. German culture after 1945 had been effectively orphaned. It lay in ruins. The projects of Beuys served several functions, one was to bridge the period prior to 1933, the well spring of German culture, and another was to create a new, regenerated culture from the subject matter of Germany’s ruins, hence the vitrines and the lectures.


Schlitten mit Filter (Sled with Filter), 1983
Vitrine. Mixed Media. 205.7 x 219.7 x 49.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

We can see Beuys having a curatorial role in re-writing or re-inventing German culture. There was a need for a new language after the War. Beuys’s performance art, or “actions,” were linguistic experiments. There was also a sense of rebirth. Part of this rebirth involved the appropriation of foreign cultures. In the era of German Expressionism, the sources of exoticism were from other continents, and they coloured the lens that saw the landscape at home. In the case of Beuys, his interest lay in cultures that enjoyed a contiguity with the Teutonic, for example, the Turkic-Slavic and Celtic. There he could draw on imagery and mythology that was similar to the German culture. Despite the assertions that Beuys and other German artists of his generation were poking fun at the academy, Beuys’s artistic mentor was Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919) whose sculpture while not formally academic, subscribed to the same values.

Importantly, Lehmbruck’s naturalist nudes were inspired by Gothicism. Throughout his career, Beuys would draw the nude and had the figurative in mind. One could argue that his approach to art was similar to the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) who raged against the scientific method, although he needed it to situate his own anarchic philosophy. I argue that both were conservative in this respect.


Returning to the 1965 performance, if we compare it with the Expressionist and Dada schools and the early work of the American Jim Dine, we will realize that there are significant differences. When the German artists of the WWI period performed or executed their installations, they had a specific target, namely the German middle class and military. Much of the art, though provocative in a fun way, was political. Satire in its traditional form asserts an alternative to the ideology or status quo that it attacks. The shitification of art by Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) is a case in point. Jim Dine’s installations, like those of the Flux movement, were an attack on consumer culture and the values of the American Dream. Of course later, as Raymond Duchamp complained, these artists became avaricious themselves. But in Jim Dine’s performance art we see, aside from references to 1950’s B movies, a centre of humanity. This does not seem to be the case in Beuys. The object of satire is not transparent, the hare is the victim and Beuys is the hunter. The hare recalls the leitmotif of High German art going back to Albrecht Dürer’s hare.

We might, momentarily, see in the original photograph (at the beginning of this essay) a sense of tenderness and aspects of the comic. After all, the artist has much in common with the silent movie star Buster Keaton. The tell-tale clothes, the “stone-face,” the installations, the gags. Yet Keaton’s father forced him to perform from an early age, and even constructed his son’s alter-ego. Whatever there was of the real Keaton, not much was left in adulthood. He had become the “stone-face”.

The identity Beuys created for himself similarly took over. In the case of Beuys it was brought about not by an abusive father, but by the Second World War. If Germany had won the war, he would have been a hero of sorts. Instead, he became the hated enemy. The physical and psychological trauma of his wounds, especially the wound to the head, must have exacted a dreadful toll. He could not express or expect comfort. Artists of the WWI period who sustained similar injuries, could vent their anger against the Third Reich. Unfortunately, Beuys fought on behalf of the Nazis. His performance as Joseph Beuys, like Andy Warhol’s dark glasses and Buster Keaton’s “stone face,” hid the real Joseph. He had wanted to be a zoologist or work with animals before the war. He had valued German culture and history. Both of these strands of his development were reintegrated into his art to provide a conservative foundation.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview, he articulated his feelings about German art and culture. His word choice revealed his deep affinity with the “spirit” of German culture–such language was typical of the Third Reich, though of course Beuys did not mean it in the same way Hitler did. Nevertheless, German culture was seen by Beuys as a transcendental force.

When we look at photographs of Buster Keaton (1895-1966), we see some notable differences. Though Keaton’s stone-face appears to lack empathy, he exudes a sensitivity to the presence of others. He has a humanity. His pathos invites the Other.


Buster Keaton in Go West (1925).

In the above picture, Keaton is staring into the remote distance. His body language and general posture, however, keenly acknowledge the presence of the cow.  He is standing with the cow, and their togetherness almost seems immutable. Ironically, the cow’s demeanor is more suggestive of a mood than Keaton’s, whose face is characteristically deadpan. This look was stylized and learnt through a brutal regime in vaudeville moves overseen by his father. It was a costly look.

Beuys on the other hand is enigmatic. What do the honey and gold leaf achieve? A de-facement? Are we to look at Beuys as the persona and not the person? Are we to take him as art?

The hare is dead. It does not respond. Its cousin was used to perform magic tricks. A rabbit once had its entrails pulled into a work of art. There is no compassion here: we are looking at the hare from the wolf’s point of view.

The twentieth century literary critic Paul de Man (1919-1983) spent years creating deconstructionist theory. His principal stance was against the romantic notion of the self. But in a sad twist of fate, he had hidden his real self in a drawer. The revelations of his past as a journalist of anti-Semitic articles were used to de-construct his own life . . .

Could it be possible that Beuys, like de Man, was disguising himself? Was the construction of Joseph Beuys a disguise?

Either way, Joseph Beuys has left us a great legacy to ponder.

Stephen PainI was born in London in 1956. I studied art at Herefordshire College, later went to UEA and studied literature. I worked abroad then came back to do a law degree. I have had poetry published in New Poetry, Snakeskin, Dada, Pif etc. I am a researcher in zoosemiotics based in Denmark.

9 responses to “The Legacy of Joseph Beuys”

  1. Nicolette says:

    Hello there – I'm a fiction writer and art writer from Hong Kong. Was looking up Beuys online and ran into this post of yours. Very nice read.

  2. ellis says:

    an enigma within a conundrum

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Oblomovs:

  4. ellis says:

    an enigma within a conundrum

  5. Moleskiners says:

    […] a discussion on the three artist types by poetry editor Mark Kerstetter, a feature on German artist Joseph Beuys, and selected sonnets from Kate Sherrod. The Noguchi Museum, Garden […]

  6. Anders Göransson says:

    Feyerabend's critique were aimed at the various attempts by philosophers of science to explain and normalize a “scientific method”. By detailed studies in the history of science he showed that there was no such “scientific method” which is something else than to critise such a postulated “scientific method”.
    Feyerabend was a brilliant intellectual, Beuys was not, in fact philosophically Beuys was naive to say the least. This does not detract from to great force of his art.

  7. panda says:

    One-way links

    Webpages of curiosity we now have a url to

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