Joseph Beuys : fett och filt : en forskningskritisk essä

Ann-Charlotte Weimarck

Research output: Book/ReportBookResearch


Joseph Beuys. Fat and felt. A critical essay.

The extremely singular materials fat and felt for use in art, have an entirely dominating role in a long series of Joseph Beuys’ (1921-1986) most important work. They are found both in single works of art as well as in installations and happenings from the beginning of the 1960s and up to the end of the artist’s life. This essay deals with the artist’s multifaceted use of fat and felt, and moreover aims at problematising – and criticising – the reception and interpretation of this field by art researchers and art critics.

The central point for the discussions in this essay is the Holocaust and the accompanying question of guilt, as well as how and to what extent this is expressed in the artist’s work. The materials that Beuys preferred and constantly returned to – fat and felt – are examined in the study in relation to his and his generation’s varying experiences of the Holocaust; indirect in Beuys’ case, but even so, unavoidable and deeply disturbing.

As an existential and strongly directive sounding board in this study we find Theodor W. Adorno’s unavoidable question (1949) if poetry and art are possible after Auschwitz, or, as he later wrote (1965), if we can at all continue to live after what happened there. In the essay, the main part of Beuys’ artistry is characterised as work produced after Auschwitz and as an expression for ‘the sublime after Auschwitz’ – the latter expressly defined and applied in a very fruitful manner by the American art historian, Gene Ray, in his study of some of Beuys’ work (The Use and Abuse of the Sublime: Joseph Beuys and Art after Auschwitz, 1997). In my essay I have wished to shed light on this and account for some of his theoretically elaborated and interesting interpretations. I have also indicated that Ray’s investigation has not received the attention it deserves from researchers and critics. Instead, it is another American art researcher, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who, for many years, has been a dominating influence with his biased, extremely negative opinions about Beuys’ artistry and who has in fact had an injurious effect on the reception of Beuys’ artistry for several decades. This I have also pointed out in an earlier piece on Beuys (1995). Buchloh’s opinion is critically examined in my essay, now also with strong support from Ray.

A key position in my study is given to Joseph Beuys’ extensive installation at Hessisches Landes Museum in Darmstadt, Block Beuys (1969). It is characterised as a performative composition, where Beuys has handled his individual guilt problem in a comprehensive and utterly dramatic manner. I maintain that with this installation he has extended the limits for what can be said about the Holocaust and interpret it in the light of his individual struggle to survive the catastrophe and his will to start living anew. In the installations we find his experiences and memories in new expressions – by explicitly presenting the motif and purpose, and at the same time concealing it – but basically as evidence and an emphatic confession in artistic form. These are thoughts that can be aroused by the many single works that are included in Block Beuys and we can say that Beuys has created a work as a collective memory of the Holocaust. The courage to confess his guilt, to start striving for a true relationship with the past, doubtless meant the beginning of Beuys’ career as an artist. And he knew that the decisive importance of the need for penitence was not his concern alone: even his fellow men were weighed down by guilt and remorse. In work after work he created or triggered healing processes that he also wanted the public to take part in.

This essay discusses and interprets Beuys’ use of fat in some of the happenings from the period 1964-1968 based on these reasonings. The fat is used here in a more or less solid form, in a larger or smaller amounts: as fat corners, fat strings, lumps of fat; as melting and reeking fat, and as explosions of fat, and is interpreted against the background of the literally unbearable context of the burnt bodies of the Holocaust.

Finally, focus is turned on two installations from 1984 that, according to my interpretation, show the continuity in Beuys’ artistry. One of these is Dernier espace avec introspecteur (Paris), where I argue that Beuys, with this installation, reflected on his own life and moreover called on the public to do this as well. In other respects this work is interpreted with its considerable use of primarily fat but also felt, in analogy with the essay’s point of departure, that direct associations lead from the installation to the victims of the Holocaust.

The essay concludes with an installation that has received less attention, Olivestone (1984). It consists of five large hewn limestone vats, furnished with stone lids and filled to the brim with hundreds of litres of olive oil. These limestone vats can be seen as sarcophagi that with the fat of the Holocaust become a commemoration of all its victims. It is fat, but here quite clearly vegetable fat and it can undeniably induce thoughts of something else, of a highly developed culture, of cultivation and peace, of the negation of the Holocaust.

With Olivestone the theme that Beuys constantly varied over the years is repeated: the guilt, the wounds, the suffering – existentially dealt with in work after work as a source of renewed vitality, or to use Beuys’ own expression, the wound as a ‘plastic process’, where thoughts of incarnation can arise and be realised.
Original languageSwedish
PublisherBrutus Östlings Bokförlag Symposion
Number of pages128
ISBN (Print)978-91-7139-865-9
Publication statusPublished - 2011

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Art History


  • Joseph Beuys
  • fat
  • felt
  • criticism of research
  • Gene Ray
  • The Sublime after Auschwitz
  • Holocaust
  • Block Beuys
  • Theodor W. Adorno
  • Benjamin Buchloh
  • Anselm Kiefer

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