Joseph Beuys: Utopia at the Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac
An artist of rare scale and ambition

Mark Hudson, The Telegraph, 17 April 2018, Visit external site

Joseph Beuys’s reputation isn’t quite in the doldrums, but it’s certainly becalmed. The German conceptual artist with the trademark porkpie hat is one of the key cultural figures of the late 20th century, but 32 years since his death in 1986, his fat-and-felt sculptures have become such ubiquitous icons of modern art, you’d imagine it’s very unlikely there would be anything new to discover.

This exhibition, however, Beuys’s largest in Britain since Tate’s 2005 retrospective, promises a Beuys newly relevant to our difficult times. It reunites the main elements of one of his most important installations, Stag Monuments, for the first time in the UK since its creation in 1982. According to the show’s curator, Norman Rosenthal, the former Royal Academy artistic director, who originally commissioned the work for Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau, it presents a vision of “societal rebirth” that still speaks to a world that is “now more than ever searching for new solutions for basic social and economic problems”.

That’s quite a claim, but then Beuys rarely thought on a small scale.

The first rooms, however, offer few surprises, more a scene-setting collection of greatest hits. Beuys is seen striding towards us in the role of heroic teacher and ecological activist (he co-founded Germany’s Green Party) in the full-length photographic self-portrait “We Are The Revolution”. Then comes a suit in thick felt hanging from the wall, and two cardboard boxes full of fat (actually rancid orange margarine) – materials with which he was obsessed, having been wrapped in felt and fat, he claimed, by Tartar nomads, who saved his life when he was shot down over Russia as a Luftwaffe pilot in 1944.


Far less well-known are a collection of small early works from the late Forties, drawing on seminal Germanic art forms, from Gothic sculpture (in expressionistic crucifixes) to the prehistoric art of the Eurasian steppes (in images of stags etched on bronze). If you can sense the influence of such potent, primal imagery on his later work, it’s satisfying to have the connection spelt out, even if these early pieces at times look like rather clunky museum replicas museum replicas. Even Beuys, though, had to start somewhere.

The image of the stag, as symbol of virility and “signifier of Christ”, dominates the central installation, though not in a form you’ll immediately recognise. Unsure what to put in the 1982 exhibition, Beuys moved the entire contents of his Düsseldorf studio into the gallery and turned them into an eccentric, but undeniably resonant, collection of sculptures. 

Various random bits of wood with his mother’s ironing board balanced on the top become the stag, a sculptor’s stand a man with an earth- encrusted plant pot for a head. A table with telephone wires spooling out towards some testicle-like spheres embodies Beuys’s preoccupation with the transmission of energy – though as with all such works there is no practical application. There is also a collection of turd-like forms created from Beuys’s work tools encased in brown clay.


Given Beuys’s well-known insistence on the artist’s responsibility to respond politically to his or her time, you’ll be justifiably befuddled as to how these gnomic and apparently unconnected elements relate to the Thatcher-Reagan “Big Money” era when the work was created, let alone to the explosive realities of our own time.

The work isn’t, of course, intended to be taken literally, even if you could even start to work out its literal meaning. Beuys saw himself as a kind of latter-day shaman operating in a capitalist art world, creating primordial images for a public beset by mass consumerism and a then very present nuclear threat, who might not understand the entire message, but might get the general drift of his essentially mystical, personal imagery.

Standing in the presence of Beuys’s suggestively elemental forms you can’t help but get something of that drift in the form of a shiver under the skin. The political, cultural and spiritual resonances are secondary to that immediate physical sensation. This exhibition may not tell us anything definitively new about Joseph Beuys, but it’s a reminder that today's art world today is painfully lacking in artists of his level of scale and ambition.