Today’s painting; mountains of Rum from Laig Bay. A deep blue/green base of acrylic was overlayed with gesso and white paint, into which mountain shapes were scraped with a palette knife. The foreground includes sand (from Laig Bay!) and subtle blue/green ink stain
Yesterday I mentioned that I’d explore Joseph Beuys and his work in today’s blog. In the process of writing this I’ve realised how influential Beuy’s work has been on my life as an artist and curator, so I’ll make this a two-part blog, to be continued tomorrow.
While at art college, we didn’t focus on Beuys particularly, though he was there in the background – described as an important artist who’d influenced or pioneered creative approaches such as installations, interventions and ‘happenings’ (such a 60s sounding term now!)
My time at art college was post-80s; Jeff Koons, Saatchi and Young British artists dominated our artistic horizons. The artistic mood was sensationalist, at times flippant and somewhat cynical. One tutor, advising on ways of getting noticed in the art world, stated ‘if all else fails, get your kit off’ (and I’m afraid to say most of us did at some point in our three year degree course, as part of cringe-worthy video installations!).
We’d discuss how life might be post-art college, and for some of the art students I spoke to, the pinnacle of artistic endeavour would be to have your work included in the Royal Bank of Scotland’s art collection, or similar.
It would have been utterly uncool to align oneself with anything resembling an arts manifesto, or statement of intent, and needless to say this was an atmosphere entirely unrelated to Beuy’s involvement in, for example, ecology (he was a founder member of the Green Party) his post-war concern with art as a means of communication and healing, or his role as a pedagogue and (self appointed) shaman.
What seemed to remain from his artistic legacy was the art installation; an interesting creative approach in itself which allowed work to be seen in context, relating to its environment and removing art from a conventional gallery setting. But in some ways it had perhaps become a marker of ‘contemporary’, therefore cool, indicating awareness of the current art milieu.
My proper introduction to Beuys was through mysterious anecdotes, and in a sense it was exactly that – a proper introduction – since Beuy’s work was never meant to be experienced in a dry intellectual context.
I’d graduated from art college, and felt instinctively unmoved by the usual arts career ladder. Pre-art college I’d attended various arts and theatre events at the Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh which had been an inspiration, so I decided to work with the Demarco European Art Foundation. (The D.E.A.F.’s purpose was to promote artistic dialogue between European countries. Its director, Richard Demarco, had fostered numerous fruitful connections with European artists over the decades, and creative connections with war-torn countries.)
Beuys had been central to the development of Richard Demarco’s approach as gallery director and arts impressario. Sifting through the arts archives one day in 1999, I came across the anecdote of how the two met, which went something like this:
Richard Demarco, an Italo/Scot gallery director decidedly at odds with the parochial Edinburgh arts scene, traveled to Kassel, Germany in 1968 where he met, among others, Joseph Beuys (an artist whose reputation was already becoming fairly stellar though pretty much unheard of in Edinburgh). Observing that Beuys was surrounded by a small throng of acolytes in the gallery, Demarco approached him and simply handed him several postcards. They showed Scottish highland scenery; a stag, mountains, desolate moorland…
Beuys examined the postcards then said to Demarco; ‘You show me the land of Macbeth, when shall we two meet again, in thunder, lightning or in rain? When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s fought and won’.
Demarco knew that Beuy’s work centered around the concept of healing in the post WW2 climate. Beuys was also interested in Celtic mythology as a means of a shared European identity. This echoed the role that Demarco had played (and still does at the age of 83) in developing the Edinburgh Festival, which had been set up post WW2 as a means of promoting peaceful cultural dialogue across Europe. (Demarco was a co-founder of the original Traverse Theatre).
Demarco invited Beuys to Edinburgh and the resulting exhibition ‘Strategy Get Arts’ – a celebration of art from Dusseldorf – took place at Edinburgh Art College. Demarco said at the time;
‘I’d always wanted an exhibition which would restore my faith in the activity of the visual artist in 20th century society, and which would help redefine the role of the gallery director. I had looked for an exhibition which would emphasise the artist’s role as a powerful defender of the truth inherent in fairy tales and as a magician able to revive our sense of wonder. I wanted an exhibition which would free the artist if he wished from the responsibility of making master works, revealing more clearly his act of creating and his acceptance of his role as a performer involving every new means of communication with the so-called layman. I wanted an exhibition which would weaken the spirit of materialism, from which more than ever the artist must rescue us’.
Strong, inspiring words (aside perhaps from the repetition of ‘he’!) But this was the 70s after all and Demarco’s fostering of the arts included collaborations with talented influential female artists such as Marina Abramovic and Barbara Hepworth.
There was much literature in the archives pertaining to Beuys, lots of flyers, related letters and other miscellaneous items, but one rainy afternoon I came across a print by Beuys. It depicted a perfectly drawn clover leaf in the middle of a large piece of paper against a simple brush-sweep of clay coloured paint (it might have actually been watered down clay). I was moved by the simplicity of the image; the sense of the importance of this tiny weed as well as the humility of the artist’s approach.
Beuys’s drawings were wonderful – precise, expressive and minimal, with the sense of total presence or immersion in the work. His first interests while growing up in Krefeld, Germany were botany and science, and he had deep respect for the natural world, so this reflected in many of his earlier drawings. Beuys went on to become a founder member of the Green Party and one of his later projects (in 1982) included the 7000 Oaks Project, for which he planted 7000 oaks in the city of Kassel, Germany, each oak accompanied by a basalt stone.
‘I believe that planting these oaks is necessary not only in biospheric terms, that is to say, in the context of matter and ecology, but in that it will raise ecological consciousness – raise it increasingly, in the course of the years to come, because we shall never stop planting.
So now we have six- and seven-year-old oaks, and the stone dominates them. In a few years’ time, stone and tree will be in balance, and in twenty to thirty years’ time we may see that gradually, the stone has become an adjunct at the foot of the oak or whatever tree it may be’. Joseph Beuys
The above statement is characteristic of Beuys; slightly obscure, not spelling out the precise meaning of the basalt stones. In a way it’s a pity he explained it at all; because it’s the presence of the stones; at first dominant then gradually becoming a footnote to the trees, that would allow passers-by to feel the message of the work in a visceral sense.
This visceral quality was an important element to Beuy’s artworks. The story, or myth, goes that Beuys, as a fighter pilot in the Lufwaffe, was shot down, landing in the Crimea where he was taken in by a Tartar tribe who rescued him by wrapping him in felt and fat – two natural elements which appeared again and again in his work.
Tomorrow I’ll explore the ways that Beuys incorporated these ideas into his work, including a healing ‘intervention’ on Scotland’s Rannoch Moor, and his unique views on the way that our society values art