In May of this year - a journalist writing for the German magazine DER SPIEGEL - mentioned a recent biography by Hans Peter Riegel about Joseph Beuys and his “close ties to Nazis.” Who could ask for a better headline? The well-known avant-garde artist a Nazi sympathizer?
Three days later Hyperallergic picked up the story and then on July 12th Ulrike Knöfel revealed another discovery: a letter written by Beuys to the mother of Hans Laurinck in 1944. While Laurinck was a pilot, Beuys had been the plane’s radio operator and gunner on their joint missions in Russia. A couple of decades after the war, Beuys started telling interviewers that his interest in felt and fat (two central materials in his objects and performances) had originated in an experience during the war. According to this myth, Beuys’ plane had been shot down during a reconnaissance mission over the Crimea. He survived the crash and was found by Tartars who nourished him back to life by covering his body with fat and wrapping it in felt.
Joseph Beuys as member of the German Airforce in the 1940s
The newly found Beuys letter casts this war episode in a very different light. In it, the 22-year old Beuys describes the moments before the crash and when he and his co-pilot Laurinck were found by Russian workers - no mention of Tartars, fat or felt. Hans Laurinck did not survive the crash and as was the custom in those days, Beuys saw it as his duty to contact his comrade’s mother. It is a letter written by a young Beuys and addressed to a mourning mother. Beuys portrays his friend and fallen comrade in a positive light, occasionally using some flowery language. It does not take much to understand that a mother’s loss - even if her son was a German soldier in WW2 - deserves compassion. Beuys offers comfort by letting her know that her son’s death was not violent (it was an accident) and relatively sudden. Knöfel’s analysis of Beuys’ letter suggests that she would have preferred if Beuys had reflected on the realities of war. Maybe Beuys, Knöfel implies, could have expressed some doubts about the war or his role in it. At the end of her article Knöfel over-analyses and dismisses Beuys’ personality: “Yet this early letter shows a Joseph Beuys who was smaller, more assimilated and more average than he later wanted to see himself.” This is journalism at a low point. Reading Ulrike Knöfel’s article, I wonder why she believes that the Beuys myth has finally been debunked and why she fails to look past the sensationalist and lurid content of the new Beuys biography.
Joseph Beuys, Felt Suit, 1970
In 1980, Benjamin Buchloh - an ardent critic of Beuys - published an article in Artforum in response to Joseph Beuys’ 1979 Guggenheim retrospective. Titled "Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol, Preliminary Notes for a Critique." (in reference to Friedrich Nietzsches’s cultural critique Twilight of the Idols) Buchloh caricatures Joesph Beuys and his aesthetics as semi-religious, esoteric and potentially fascist. More importantly, Buchloh refers to an essay in the retrospective’s catalog that tries to produce evidence surrounding Beuys’ mythic plane crash in the Crimea during the war. Because of the contradictory nature of the evidence, Buchloh concludes that this personal genesis story of the artist Beuys must be a sham (and he is right about that). But Buchloh’s biggest problem is his inability to handle irony. Instead of wondering why Beuys created a fable and how this manipulation of facts informed his work, Buchloh believed that he had identified the characteristics of a shamanistic if not dangerous artist who wanted to be elevated to the status of an idol. Buchloh’s and Riegel’s tireless insistence that Beuys himself or at least his work should be labelled quasi-fascist comes as an even bigger surprise. To appropriate the symbols, rituals and aesthetics of the Nazis has been and continues to be a common practice among German post-WW2 artists. One example would be a series of photographs and paintings by Anselm Kiefer from the late 1960s and early 1970s which received fierce criticism from the German media and public. For this project, Kiefer traveled through Europe while posing in various landscapes with the Nazi salut. By doing so, Kiefer did not demonstrate his nostalgia or support for Germany’s Nazi past. Instead, he brought attention to the Nazi’s romanticized view of foreign territories and their wish to occupy, mold and dominate these territories.
Anselm Kiefer, Hitlergruss in Landschaft (Nazi salut in landscape), c. 1969
In 1996, the German Beuys biography Flieger, Filz und Vaterland (Pilot, Felt and Fatherland) was published. It presented some hard evidence regarding Beuys’ origins myth in form of WW2 medical records. These records proved that Beuys had not been cared for by Tartars for almost two weeks (as claimed by Beuys), but that he had been found by German forces the day after the crash who then transferred him to a field hospital.
To hear the same tired “discoveries” and accusations more than 30 years after they had been discussed for the first time, is bad enough. But to have yet another biographer - namely Hans Peter Riegel - reiterate outlandish conclusions about Joseph Beuys’ character and motivation is a sad affair. In particular the belief that Beuys had close ties to former Nazis is a good example of the simple-minded scope of Riegel’s biography.
First of all, post-war Germany was a mess. Since many German citizens had been members of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (generally known as the Nazi Party) before and during the war, the question after the war became: how to ensure a peaceful transition to a democratically elected German government and a new foundation for the German society? The answer was to sentence only high-ranking Nazi functionaries and integrate everybody else. Germans with a Nazi past were the rule, not the exception.
Günter Grass (on the right) in 1944
Heinz Sielmann had been a Wehrmacht instructor for radio-operators during the war. He was stationed in Poland in 1939 and one of his recruits was Joseph Beuys. After the war, Sielmann worked as wildlife photographer and became known in Germany and England (and later the United States) with his nature documentaries. Sielmann and Beuys maintained their friendship after the war. Then there is the German writer and Nobel Prize winner in literature Günter Grass. In a 2006 interview Grass revealed his enlistment with the Waffen-SS in 1944. His late concession became part of a nation-wide debate about individual guilt. Since the publication of his 1959 novel Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), Grass has been mainly writing about the conditions that lead to the rise of Nazism in Germany, its devastating effects on the individual and how the war continues to affect our present. In that regard, Grass was usually referred to as a moral authority that reminded old and young Germans alike what it means to live with the consequences of an entire nation’s downfall. Or take former German chancellor Helmut Kohl who played a crucial role in the unification of West- and East-Germany in 1989. A member of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), he received preparatory military training in 1945 with the goal to be sent off to war. The end of the war prevented him from having to serve in the German military.
Beuys - a product of his time with a very similar set of experiences - was very well aware of his role as artist in post-war Germany. Whenever his biographer Hans Peter Riegel points to Beuys’ ties to former Nazis you really start wondering about Riegel’s understanding of recent German history. One of these supposedly old Nazis is Erich Marx. Marx started collecting contemporary art in the 1950s. His collection includes Beuys, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer - all in the possession of a Nazi if you believe Riegel. Erich Marx has also been a long-time member of cultural organisations that support Berlin’s National Gallery and the Academy of Arts. Interestingly enough, Marx currently serves as the co-chair of a Berlin society which promotes the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
An interview with the director Klaus Staeck of the Berlin Academy of Arts illuminates some aspects of Beuys’ personality that are cast in a negative light in Hans Peter Riegel’s biography. Klaus Staeck worked with Beuys for 18 years (partly as his official publisher). According to Staeck, “Beuys has never engaged in any kind of reactionary Nazism. […] No, he was somebody who had the expectation that everybody can still be saved somehow. That explains why he spoke to hundreds if not thousands at the documenta always with the expectation to reach people. [Staeck is probably referring to documenta 6 in 1977 when Beuys set up a discussion forum to talk about art, social sculpture and direct democracy with visitors.]
"He imagined a different world, an ecological world, but it was not a right-wing world. I am not going to deny that he occasionally relied on the wrong people in his belief to change our societal conditions. I was wondering at times with people like Hasleitner of the AUD what had motivated Beuys [AUD was initially a right-wing party that increasingly started addressing ecological issues. Over time, with more left-wing politicians joining the party, conservative and nationalist members started leaving AUD. In the end, AUD was dissolved in favor of the newly found Green Party. Beuys was a member of AUD and then the Green Party.]"
"But at the same time, he [Beuys] would always make fun of these people including the Steiner-ideas [Rudolph Steiner, founder of the esoteric movement known as antroposphy] which was highly interesting as he would caricature these ideas at least whenever I would talk to him.”
And then toward the end of the interview, Klaus Staeck concludes: “In a very odd way, Beuys had been open-minded to everything.”
Meeting of Artists’ Placement Group led by John Latham (centre) and Joseph Beuys (with hat) at documenta VI, Kassel 1977
In case of Beuys, one can never quite state that his art works speak for themselves. Beuys liked to speak for them and often about them. His works are never as successful when installed on walls or presented in museum spaces. They are just one part of a larger project - the Beuys project. And part of the Beuys project was to remain open to all walks of life, to make art that was not only about art, to provoke the leftists with rightist thoughts, to provoke rightist with leftist ideas, to confront centrists with ideologies and to never identify completely with any of these positions. Joseph Beuys - more than any other post-war artist - taught Germans how to be comfortable with the unknown and antagonistic while allowing art to exist beyond any predetermined categories.
It is particularly frustrating to come across arguments and analysis of Beuys which suppress the historical contexts of his work in favor of a faulty psychological profile of his persona. Even though the man Joseph Beuys is inseparable from the artist Beuys, it is important to keep in mind that seeking out his ideological tendencies will never result in satisfactory insights about him. Since the interchangeability and relativity of ideologies was at the core of his practice, Beuys was an artist for whom everything was up for debate.