Joseph Beuys’ works on paper are an often neglected part of his oeuvre, now a new collection of his drawings aims to put this straight and demonstrate his extraordinary skill as a draughtsman as well as visionary artist.

Having flown fighter planes for the Luftwaffe and only narrowly surviving a plane crash in World War II—he only survived through the help of Nomadic Tartar tribesmen—Joseph Beuys’ threw aside his planned career in medicine to enrol on a course at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. His extreme difficulty in coming to terms with his involvement in the barbaric acts of the Nazis had huge repercussions on the rest of his life and shaped the direction of his art career.

After graduating in 1952 he became fixated on drawing, producing thousands during that decade alone. These and the subsequent works on paper he made throughout his life are the focus of a major exhibition on now at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. For Beuys drawing was a kind of thinking, regularly using the phrase “thinking is form”. He drew constantly and whereas some drawings captured fleeting ideas, others were carefully considered, composed and detailed. These thousands of works provide an astounding insight into the mind of this extraordinary artist and give crucial clues as to how he viewed the world.

Left: Joseph Beuys, Witches Spitting Fire, 1959, Graphite and oil paint. Right: Joseph Beuys, Night in the Rafters, 1974, Drawing
The Artist Rooms Collection has one of the finest collections of Beuys’ so-called Braunkreuz drawings—an invented name that literally translates into “Brown Cross”. These drawings are loaded with references to German militarism, Nazism, Christianity, and the occult. He made this material with ordinary house paint that he sometimes mixed with thickener and the blood of a hare. Reminiscent of the bloody rust colored paint that is used throughout Germany to protect floors, to Beuys it did not register as a color, but rather as a generic medium for sculptural expression, evoking images of dirt, blood, and excrement. Almost all of these Braunkreuz works possess a sculptural element and their boldness and simplicity makes them stand out from the other works on display. 

What comes across in the exhibition is how the young Beuys was working through his approach to art in his early Symbolist strewn drawings, that would eventually coalesce together and form his unique view of the world and his theory of sculpture. This was manifested in a constant and palpable movement between chaos and order, intuition and cold hard reason.

Left: Andy Warhol, Portrait of Joseph Beuys, 1980, Acrylic paint and silkscreen. Right: Joseph Beuys, Brightly-Lit Stag Chair, 1957-1971, Oil paint, graphite

In Joseph Beuys’ works on paper women were always equated with strength and were more aware of earthy processes, whereas men were more rigid and dogmatic. Having become well-versed in European folklore that endowed creatures with mystical powers, animals such as hares, swans, stags, and bees had the greatest symbolism for him. The stag was deeply significant to Beuys as the guardian of the forest. Its annual shedding and regrowth of antlers was a powerful symbol of rebirth and renewal, it was also the creature that was most connected to male principles, and accompanied the human soul to the afterlife.

In many of these works on paper Joseph Beuys began using fat in his work, a highly-charged material for the German artist having claimed that the nomadic Tartar tribe that nursed him back to health after his plane crash rubbed him with it and wrapped him in felt to heal his body. Although it is unclear how much truth resides in this story, its poetic origins have made it into an enduring aspect of his mythic biography. 

As Beuys’ got older and became more politically aware he became more focused on his “Actions”, his social sculpture that used lectures and debates to push forward democratic change as opposed to objects and anything material based. Such advances were revealed in the social and political ideas laid out in his famous series of blackboard drawings which are such a worthy feature of this compelling exhibition. This is the first time there has been a major exhibition in the United Kingdom devoted to Joseph Beuys’ works on paper since 1983.

Joseph Beuys A Language of Drawing” runs through to the 30th of October 2016. 


By Duncan Ballantyne-Way — Senior Editor