Helga de Alvear: Joseph Beuys, a pioneer of art fighting for the environment | Culture

Joseph Beuys (Krefeld, 1921 – Düsseldorf, 1986) is considered one of the most groundbreaking artists of the 20th century and the most genuine avant-garde creator of post-war Germany. A tireless provocateur, he created a personal world of images, always with grays and browns, for which he resorted to previously unusual materials such as felt, grease, earth or tree bark. Professor of art in Düsseldorf, in his speeches his conversations with hares and the dissection of their corpses before the public were famous. In the year in which the centenary of his birth is celebrated, some thirty museums around the world have analyzed different aspects of his innovative legacy. The Helga de Alvear museum in Cáceres joins the celebration with the exhibition Joseph Beuys: Background, coincidences, and influences with 44 pieces donated by the collector. With free access, the exhibition will remain open until May 12.

In the presentation of the exhibition, Helga de Alvear told this Thursday that she never got to know Beuys personally. The first references came to him through a mutual friend, the photographer Werner Krüger, who portrayed the process of creation of many of Beuys’s works and contributed to the dissemination of the artist’s character in dozens of photographs in which, wearing a hat , looked directly at the camera. The collector does not remember which was the first work she acquired from the conceptual master. “For me to buy a work,” he explains during the presentation of the exhibition, “I have to fall in love. If something touches my heart, I take it with me. It does not matter the price. This is how I have always worked, out of hunches ”.

Exhibition 'Joseph Beuys: Antecedents, coincidences and influences' at the Helga de Alvear Museum.
Exhibition ‘Joseph Beuys: Antecedents, coincidences and influences’ at the Helga de Alvear Museum.LORENZO CORDERO

The famous photographic self-portrait We are the revolution (1972) gives way to a journey in which Beuys’s work questions the role of creativity, art and the artist in the era of post-capitalism and post-socialism. José María Viñuela, chief curator of the museum and curator of the exhibition, explains that Beuys was many things: shaman, nomad, leader, spiritualist, politician and, always, a man of action. Sticking to the artistic, Viñuela specifies that Beuys knew how to display “extraordinary plastic qualities that led him to leave some of the most beautiful metaphors of his time to humanity. A person committed to the fight in favor of the environment, a fundamental pillar in the genesis of the German Green Party, he conceived for himself an impressive and dynamic image that perfectly complements a singular highly effective stage presence for the performative activity that he practiced intensely ”.

Viñuela recognizes that it is difficult to organize an exhibition of someone who did not consider himself an artist and who worked with materials such as medicine, philosophy or sociology. The curator recalls that a large part of Beuys’s artistic project had its origin in the happenings, the conferences and the construction of their own image as a figure recognizable by all. Videos, photographs and drawings remain from those great actions. Viñuela points out that the feelings that inspired each of the pieces also remain: Beuys suffered what happened to many Germans: he had to survive what happened in the war. He never hid passages from his biography such as that at the age of 15 he was affiliated with the Hitler Youth and that during the war he was first a radio operator and then a Luftwaffe pilot. To understand the artist and his legacy, the exhibition includes two documentaries: Show your wound, art and spirituality (Rüdiger Sünner, 2015) y Every man is an artist (Werner Krüger, 1979).

Here there are no gigantic sculptures made of fat and felt like those exhibited in German museums and could be seen in Madrid during the exhibition dedicated to him by the Reina Sofía in 1994. In Cáceres you can see the essential work, his footprint and legacy . In showcases or on the floor there are pieces as relevant as felt, copper and paint from Fold (1968), or the stones, ropes and the sulfated electric battery of Untitled (1962).

'Ohne titel', a 1962 work by Joseph Beuys, in the Helga de Alvear museum exhibition.
‘Ohne titel’, a 1962 work by Joseph Beuys, in the Helga de Alvear museum exhibition.LORENZO CORDERO

No less evocative is the video that refers to his famous performance I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), with which Beuys, then well known in Europe, appeared in the United States as a shaman. The play started during a trip from Düsseldorf to New York. Upon landing, Beuys wrapped himself in a felt blanket and moved with the help of a shepherd’s cane. Upon landing in the United States, an ambulance was waiting to take him to the Rene Block gallery. There he shared space for three days with a wild coyote. The audience could observe the performance behind a metal mesh. They watched and listened as Beuys talked to the animal and offered it toys while the coyote urinated on the leaves of the Wall Street Journal, symbol of capitalism. The artist returned to Germany without having touched American soil and satisfied with having represented the history of the persecution of the North American Indians and, more importantly, the reconciliation between man and nature, a constant in all his later work.

Under the heading of CoincidencesIn the museum rooms there are also works by some of the many artists who were in the orbit of the German master, both students and colleagues who shared an approximate idea of ​​art in the second half of the 20th century. This is the case of the Belgian creator Marcel Broodthaers, the South Korean video artist Nam June Paik or his compatriot and also professor Klaus Rinke.

Another view of the exhibition 'Joseph Beuys: Antecedents, coincidences and influences'.
Another view of the exhibition ‘Joseph Beuys: Antecedents, coincidences and influences’.LORENZO CORDERO

The influences that Beuys’ work exerted and continues to exert have much to do with the teachings he gave in Düsseldorf and with the political activism that accompanied him until the end of his life. This section displays the work of Imi Knoebel, Lothar Baumgarten, Gerhard Richter, Katharina Sieverding. The exhibition dedicates a special tribute to one of the artists of this group, Blinky Palermo, born Peter Schwarze and baptized by Beuys with the name of the famous mobster. Due to his premature death in the Maldives, at the age of 35, he stopped executing a project that now sees the light of day in the museum’s lobby. It is a wall painting titled Project for a wall, devised by the artist in 1970.

The Helga de Alvear museum opened to the public in February of this year. Despite the pandemic restrictions, more than 75,000 people have paraded for free through the white building built by the architecture studio of Emilio Tuñón, in which 200 works of the more than 3,000 donated by the gallery owner are exhibited. “The collection allows us to study and publicize the work of my artists. Today Beuys would be happy not because of the exhibition, but because the greens, his people, are part of the Government of Germany, something unimaginable until very recently ”.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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