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.