The self-made legend of Joseph Beuys

The self-made legend of Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys and his crash on the Crimean Peninsula in 1944 — or, more accurately, Beuys’ version of it — became a founding episode of a new avant-garde and had an enormous impact on contemporary art. But maybe the story of Joseph Beuys has to be rewritten here and there.

Beuys is an international icon immortalized by Andy Warhol. As a political activist he supported the Green Party in Germany early on and critized Ronald Reagan in a truly terrible pop song, but now some authors started to have a closer look at the biography of Joseph Beuys and they found out some interesting things.

Beuys was a big fan of Rudolf Steiner and his mystical racist mumpitz agenda. Steiner was one of the many authors dabbling in the occult which influenced Germany’s mindscape in a way that it would believe in the Führer as a high priest and the Germans as “the chosen ones” a little later.

The belief in the irrational is often overlooked in the context of the rise and fall of the Third Reich and Beuys was a passionate esotericist who seemed to have believed that you could separate the crimes of the Hitler regime from it’s pseudo-mystical origins.

The author of a new Beuys biography, Hans Peter Riegel, contends that “Beuys surrounded himself with former and long-time Nazis, who were his artistic patrons and his political comrades-in-arms.” This is no surprise since Germany was obviously still full of Nazis after 1945, but Riegel has listed more nazi friends in Beuys entourage than one would have expected.

According to Riegel Beuys still supported a totalitarian society and considered himself a “chosen one”. He was still obsessed with Steiner’s occultism and his racial theories. At the same time he started to come up with a legend for himself, the wartimes tale of a young man being rescued in 1944 by Tartar tribesmen who treated his wounds with animal fat and wrapped him in felt. The felt and the animal fat is all over Beuys’ work, but the story was a work of fantasy. In reality he was fighting as an ordinary soldier near a concentration camp during the final weeks of the war. Beuys also suggested that he was a pilot, not just a radio operator. Beuys also made people believe that he had a metal plate in his skull due to wartime injuries and was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class. His ego was bigger than the ordinary story of a man who had survived the war and learned his lesson.

He fixed his biography and made it fit his needs. Some would have called him a compulsive liar, but Beuys must have seen his lies as part of an artistic lifetime project in which his wartime memories played a big role.

Now Spiegel Online has discovered a letter that the young Beuys wrote which provides more proof that his mystical wartime stories were fiction.

Since Joseph Beuys was seen as a moral authority for such a long time and many art historians saw his war experience on the Crimean Peninsula as a founding episode of a new avant-garde, the truth might be a little painful.

Even though a lot of people were questioning the self-made legend early on, nobody dared to question the artist himself when he was still alive. He was Joseph Beuys after all and when the legend becomes fact, you print the legend.

Joseph Beuys – A Portrait (1979)

You find parts 1-3 and a lot more Beuys videos at BeuysTV.

Photo by AFP