The Artist Birthday Series

Joseph Beuys

From an early age, Beuys displayed a keen interest in the natural sciences and had considered a career in medical studies, but in his last years of school–possibly influenced by pictures of Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s sculptures–he had decided to become a sculptor himself. Around 1939 he worked for a circus on the side, hanging posters and taking care of animals for about a year. He graduated from school in the spring of 1941 with his Abitur (the German equivalent of final exams).

kleve beuys 1941 friends
Joseph Beuys and friends before a sleigh ride, 1941 in Kleve, Germany. (Beuys is in the front row, leaning out on the left.)

Shortly after his graduation from secondary school in 1941, Beuys volunteered for the Luftwaffe, and in 1942, he was stationed in the Crimea, a member of various combat bomber units.  It is during this time that he began to seriously consider a career as an artist. Drawings and sketches from that time have been preserved and already show his characteristic style.

Joseph Beuys when he was a pilot in the Luftwaffe
Joseph Beuys when he was a pilot in the Luftwaffe
beuys watercolor
Early watercolor work from Joseph Beuys (n/d)

On 16 March 1944, Beuys’ plane crashed on the Crimean Front close to Znamianka, (then “Freiberg”). From this incident, Beuys fashioned the myth that he was rescued from the crash by nomadic Tatar tribesmen, who had wrapped his broken body in animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health: “Had it not been for the Tartars I would not be alive today. They were the nomads of the Crimea, in what was then no man’s land between the Russian and German fronts, and favoured neither side. I had already struck up a good relationship with them, and often wandered off to sit with them. ‘Du nix njemcky’ they would say, ‘du Tartar,’ and try to persuade me to join their clan. Their nomadic ways attracted me of course, although by that time their movements had been restricted. Yet, it was they who discovered me in the snow after the crash, when the German search parties had given up. I was still unconscious then and only came round completely after twelve days or so, and by then I was back in a German field hospital. So the memories I have of that time are images that penetrated my consciousness. The last thing I remember was that it was too late to jump, too late for the parachutes to open. That must have been a couple of seconds before hitting the ground. Luckily I was not strapped in – I always preferred free movement to safety belts… My friend was strapped in and he was atomized on impact – there was almost nothing to be found of him afterwards. But I must have shot through the windscreen as it flew back at the same speed as the plane hit the ground and that saved me, though I had bad skull and jaw injuries. Then the tail flipped over and I was completely buried in the snow. That’s how the Tartars found me days later. I remember voices saying ‘Voda’ (Water), then the felt of their tents, and the dense pungent smell of cheese, fat and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in.

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1 thought on “Joseph Beuys

  1. […] Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was a German Fluxus artist, one of the first to organize “happenings” through performance art, who also worked as a sculptor, installation artist, graphic artist, art theorist, and pedagogue. The concepts of humanism, social philosophy and anthroposophy were central to his work and life. He developed his own “extended definition of art,” seeing the artist not as a craftsman but instead as fulfilling the role of modern shaman. Though not a common household name, Beuys is considered by many scholars of art history, as one of the most influential artists of the second half of the twentieth century. […]

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