Celebrating Joseph Beuys's centenary and artistic legacy

The German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) would have been 100 years old on 12 May this year. To those who knew him or know his work and the continuing impact it has on contemporary art, it seems as if he is still with us. 

With the recent resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement and global efforts to tackle the climate emergency, his legacy is highly relevant today.

Joseph Beuys Untitled 1972 © DACS 2018.

Beuys was one of the founding members of the German Green Party, who used his art to promote an awareness of the fragility of our environment. He marked his participation in 1982 at documenta, Germany's flagship quinquennial exhibition, by getting the citizens of Kassel to plant 7,000 Oak Trees in their city. 

He spent three days in a cage in a New York gallery with a coyote, an act of solidarity with an animal which was at the time widely looked down upon in America, though revered by indigenous tribes for its wisdom.

These strands of his activism and the central part that they played in his art are highlighted in a film, commissioned by the National Galleries of Scotland in 2016, to accompany an exhibition of Beuys drawings in the ARTIST ROOMS Collection which belongs to the Galleries and Tate.

The film also shows Beuys in August 1970 visiting the Scottish Highlands and making his first Scottish Action on Rannoch Moor. Beuys was invited to Scotland by the art impresario, Richard Demarco, to take part in the ground-breaking exhibition, Strategy Get Arts, at Edinburgh College of Art. 

Beuys was drawn to Scotland because of its Celtic culture, which meshed with his belief in a less rationalistic, less materialistic approach to life. As well as showing his iconic sculpture, The Pack – an old VW Bus with a line of sleds, complete with life-supports of felt, fat and torch, surging out the back of the bus -Beuys performed one of his most mesmeric Actions in the Edinburgh show, Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Scottish Symphony. Beuys visited Scotland eight times, working closely with Demarco, making important Actions and sculptures while he was here. 

Beuys wanted to break down the artificial boundaries between art and life. He believed that everyone was an artist, that they had their own inborn creative talents, if they could but believe in them and harness them to help make a better world.  As a famous poster declared, announcing Beuys’s return to Edinburgh in 1980, BEUYS IS HERE. He never left.

Who is Joseph Beuys?

Want to learn more? Check out this introduction to Beuys using archive footage from some of his iconic performances such as 'How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare', 1963, as well as audio of the artist discussing some of his influences, beliefs and motivations.

By Keith Hartley Deputy Director & Chief Curator Modern & Contemporary Art, 12 May 2021