“Kunst ist wenn man trotzdem lacht,” reads a black chalkboard stationed in the ground-floor hallway of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London, one of several that flank the walls as an entryway into the gallery proper. Dating from 1979, the eponymous work also includes the same phrase written out in its original Italian, a quote taken from Dante, which can be translated as, “Art is when you laugh despite everything.” Placed as it is, as an introduction to the first major solo exhibition of Joseph Beuys’ work in the UK since a 2005 show at Tate Modern, it injects a dose of humor and dispels, at least momentarily, the sacrosanct aura that as a rule accompanies any display of the artist’s work.
For an artist whose work reaches esoteric levels that can prove a challenge to decipher even to the most erudite of publics, this nod to a more light-hearted sensibility is a welcome one. It can also be detected in “Brustwarze (Nipple)”, 1963, a small plaster panel with crushed and glued plant matter that slyly suggests this sensual bit of anatomy. Or in “Braunkreuz,” 1964, a perfect circle of brown oil paint and fat that sits on a piece of card. So when we get to the self-avowed centerpiece of the show, “Stag Monuments,” which was first shown in the atrium of the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin in 1982 as part of the “Zeitgeist” exhibition, where metal, felt and fat — the materials so emblematic of Beuys and his self-mythology — make themselves known, we are poised to be more receptive to the occasional comedic touch. Take “Hirsch (Stag),” 1958/1982, two sets of teak wood across which is balanced a wooden ironing board that once belonged to the artist’s mother. It is signature Beuys, the prosaic object that has been instilled with an alchemical power of potentiality, creativity and change. Yet this sense of gravitas doesn’t stop the work from eliciting a small laugh, imagining the artist coaxing this most functional of household items from his mother’s stern look.
“Hirsch (Stag)” sits in the middle of the Library Gallery at Ely House, surrounded by sculptural elements and works on paper, all exuding animalistic symbolism and virility. When first shown in Berlin, where the exhibition was curated, as is the current iteration, by Sir Norman Rosenthal, Beuys constructed a mountain of clay around which the contents of his Dusseldorf studio, including his workbench and tools, were arranged. Here too, 38 clay sculptures, each one containing a work tool, are dispersed around the gallery. “Urtiere (Primordial Animals),” 1958/1982, like the rest of the “Stag Monuments” environment, is an amalgamation of the fundamental concerns that Beuys practiced and preached throughout his career, bringing together his belief in the power of Social Sculpture with the transformative potential inherent in base materials and elements. If this may not necessarily spell out anything new to anyone vaguely familiar with Beuys’ practice, one of the smallest galleries at Thaddaeus Ropac is devoted to some fascinating early works from the 1940s and 1950s that offer a hint of the artist’s future trajectory. A series of small crosses dating from 1949 are a mixture of Christian and Teutonic traditions, rendered in a crude, almost primitive aesthetic that Beuys would go on to make his own, while “Bleifrau (Lead Woman),” 1949, could be a somewhat elongated Venus of Willendorf. It is moments and gestures like these, scattered as they are throughout the galleries, that offer some unexpected surprises among the better-known and to-be-expected exponents.
Click on the slideshow for a sneak peek at the exhibition.
Founder: Louise Blouin