"The Word That Produces All Images" Reading the Drawings of Joseph Beuys: Cornelia Lauf

Joseph Beuys, Therapeuticum, 1964

Joseph Beuys, Therapeuticum, 1964

I should like youths who first come to painting to do as those who are taught how to write. We teach the latter by first separating all the forms of the letters which the ancients called elements. Then we teach the syllables, next we teach how to put together all the words. Our pupils ought to follow this rule in painting.
—Leon Battista Alberti,
On Painting, 1435, Book III

Writing is the most important tool of the young painter
—Albert Durex
Unterweysung der Messung, 1525

Since the Renaissance, writing has been a tool fused with the theory and practice of the fine arts. Although our definitions of both have changed greatly over the centuries, the symbiosis between word and image remains. Indeed, current developments in the psychology of written language have only served to underscore the similarity of art and writing; both bear a temporal and material dimension whereby the developing graphic record of what has been said and written necessarily contributes to future representations[1]. As noted by Foucault, this relationship is one of special interest for the art historian since "writing has its place of origin in the same space that representation opens up because it is consecrated to time, to memory, to reflection, to continuity.”[2] Even in the eighteenth century, when language was no longer allied so closely to artistic practice, and art in turn became the overriding subject of philosophical or literary debate, early critics such as Diderot emphasised language as an index of culture:

The language of a people gives us its vocabulary, and its vocabulary is a sufficiently faithful and authoritative record of all the knowledge of that people; simply by comparing the different states of a nation's vocabulary at different times one could form an idea of its progress[3].

The union of word and image takes on special meaning in the context of German art after the Second World War. If we are to search for examples in the annals of the late '40s and '50s, we find only the mute generation of Informel, ZEN 49, and ZERO. Turning to the '60s and '70s, however, we see a sudden explosion of visual language finally in synch with international tendencies (although still harnessed to the wagon of painting): the Ursprachen of Penck, Kiefer's invocations, Walther's instructions, the Pop phrases of Polke, and, most recently, the linguistic games of Buttner, Herald, and Kippenberger. Breaking the postwar silence most conspicuously, however, was the art of Joseph Beuys.

Happening-style events, such as How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare (1965)—in which Beuys, head covered in gold leaf and honey, explained the principles of his work to a dead rabbit cradled in his arms—are the artist's most well-known analyses of the problems of communication. They are rich with references to art history and the role of the artist as pedagogue, alchemist, and anthropologist. Implicit in Beuys's conception of language is the notion of evolutionary progress, an idea grounded in a rather imaginative concoction of political and social theories ranging from Marx to Rudolf Steiner. Beuys articulated the role of language in his work as follows:

For me it is the word that produces all images. It is the key sign for all processes of molding and organization. When I use language, I try to induce the impulses of this power... the power of evolution. But language is not to be understood simply in terms of speech and words. Beyond language as verbalization lies a world of sound and form impulses: a language of primary sound without semantic content but laden with completely different levels of information[4].

Beuys's dramatic post-Fluxus conflations of rhetoric and performance were not the only avenues for this understanding of language. If we turn to an analysis of a few select drawings, an equally paradigmatic illustration of the post-1960 interest in word and image reveals itself: "My drawings make a kind of reservoir that I can get important impulses from. In other words, they're a kind of basic source material that I can draw from again and again.”[5]

In his drawings, Beuys explored the metamorphosis of language in its graphic aspect. Writing surfaces in an infinite number of guises: thick brown oil-paint letters, spidery Sutterlin handwriting, signature-stamps, and verbal messages that are painted, scrawled, printed, typed, and smeared in languages ranging from Gaelic to Hebrew. Viewed as a whole, script emerges as an encyclopaedic presence in Beuys's work; it is catalogued from its most ancient origins to present-day cybernetic manifestations. One might say that it is used as a means of picturing the linguistic basis of culture. We shall see that this usage has its roots in Beuys's earliest artistic formation.

Is it not true that all herbs, plants, trees and other things issuing from the bowels of the earth are so many magic signs?
—Abbe Crollius,
Traite des Signatures, 1624

Beuys's familiarity with the conventions of scientific classification was not accidental; he was trained as a biologist and studied botany and zoology intensively until deciding to become an artist in the 1940s:

It's that certain questions—about art, about science—interest me, and I feel I can go farthest towards answering them by trying to develop a language on paper, a language to stimulate more searching discussion—more than just what our present civilization represents in terms of scientific method, artistic method or thought in general[6].

An early drawing, Herb Robert (1941), is an excellent example of Beuys's use of the conventions of scientific notation. Three columns of medicinal herb names written in pencil line a yellowed notebook page. As if to suggest an alternate form of notation, delicate, pressed flowers are glued onto the list, rendering some of the words illegible. Although Beuys probably made this illustration for scientific purposes (the dating of his work remains a problematic issue that has yet to be treated in the scholarly literature), the floral pattern imbues the work with poetic meaning.

In Therapeuticum (1964), a list of substances including gold, sulphur, lemon, and thyme evokes the laboratory of the medieval scientist. Once again, the writing is obscured by an added graphic element—in this case, long smears of brown oil paint and grease that form a gestural movement similar to the motion of the words across the page. Therapeuticum expresses Beuys's dissatisfaction with the polarization between art and science: "I felt that art was at its richest when the laboratory spirit of research, scientific results and a clear theoretical structure were there to extend it through understanding.”[7] Beuys was familiar with the ability of language to present the world in microcosm through his readings of Novalis, whose intentions around 1800 seem hauntingly similar: "Now I want to go through nature and gather all materials into an Encyclopedia ... all of the sciences ... and include physics, mineralogy, astronomy, ... but also language, music, poetry.”[8] By making an image of the process of classification pictorially, Therapeuticum also conjures up a Renaissance episteme in which herbs are listed "by their positive mark (sometimes hidden, often visible) ... not by the differences that existed between them.”[9] Thus Beuys lists the herbs by their function rather than by their Linnean family grouping, the latter derived of course from its Renaissance forebear. Both systems, however, like any theory of natural history, depend on the ordering faculties of language.

A third example, Sediment (1959), evinces a related structure while narrating a different tale: the shoe polish, sausage skins, blood, felt, manure, rotten fruits, and coffee grounds that constitute the detritus of daily life. In this drawing, the materials listed create a quotidian archeology that gives substance to that which is non-aesthetic and usually ignored. Under close scrutiny, Sediment reveals itself to be a linguistic still life of twentieth-century spoils. It, too, inveighs against the traditional parameters of drawing by using words in a meaningful and non-decorative manner.

Large grease stains permeate Clan (1964), a drawing done in pencil, pen, ink—and grease. In this work, Beuys turns his attention to genealogy, listing in strict hierarchy the evolving names of his ancestors. The family tree "Beuys" wanders through its various peregrinations, from a medieval-sounding "Hulsermann," and "Swaak" to the words "Beuysse," and "Boie." Each word is drawn in precise Roman capitals, over which the name is repeated in Sutterlin, the archaic script that Hitler tried to reimpose on Germany. The final five versions of the name Beuys are linked in the staff of the letter "B," forming one scalloped border that operates as design as well as letter. Since the sheet is torn, one has the feeling that the ghostly scribe has only momentarily paused in his geneological musings. There is surely no one meaning to this drawing, but a general melancholic sense of the passing of life, culture, and of a family pervades. The nexus between biological and linguistic development is further enhanced by the tension between the three-dimensional quality of materials used to create the drawing and the abstract nature of the words inscribed upon it. For Beuys, this tension is embodied in an Adamic understanding of language:

One could ask how did the world originate . . . there are certain signs, at the moment I'd like to call them threshold signs . . . in St. John's gospels, it is said "In the beginning there was the word," the word was Logos. What does Logos do? It starts the process of evolution. How does it become a real live person?”[10]

His belief in the unity of artistic and scientific processes led him to claim further:

It is important that we do not have too abstract an idea of human evolution or an understanding that is restricted to positivistic and materialist science. Evolution is a dynamic anthropological and morphological biography—biology that needs dynamic images to express it.”[11]

Beuys did not view his dual interests in art and science as two separate, at best loosely related, subjects, but thought of them as fields involving the same basic considerations.

Partitur zu 24 Stunden ... (1965-62), a list of the names and key theorems of Western science, reflects Beuys's familiarity with the language of physics—from mechanics and thermodynamics to particle physics. Once again, the rigor of the scientific text is ruptured by the addition of scribbled head and footnotes alluding to Pan, Fluxus, and Beuys's alter ego, the Stag Leader. In the rather simple juxtaposition of Apollonian and Dionysian that Beuys often affected, this drawing struggles to unite "the two terms art and science . . . [that are] diametrically opposed in the thought of the Occident, and because of this fact, a dissolution of this polarity of perception had to be looked for, and extended conceptions had to be worked out.”[12]

In the print ironically entitled Zeichnungen (1974-75), writing is catalogued from its least "acquired" state, the handwritten signature, to all forms of stamps and marks that serve to compose a portrait of the artist. Each copy (it is an edition of 80) bears an elk drawn in red ink in the upper left corner, the elk being another personal icon for Beuys. Added to this are six variations of the artist's name, ranging from an expressionist "Beuys + " in brown oil paint to the Sutterlin signature and the modern handwriting he usually used. The script is juxtaposed with a series of rubber-stamp prints that identify Beuys through his activities and organizations. The motif " + " was most probably invented by Beuys in the '60s but was used to stamp drawings dating back to the late '40s. Other stamps, such as Ich kenne kein Weekend and Dusseldorf Kunstakademie refer to more specific events in Beuys's life: an event, a classroom. In addition, the print bears two ORGANIZATION FOR DIRECT DEMOCRACY stamps, a large, faded DRUCK in reverse, and the letterhead of Beuys's paper to complete this autobiographical narrative.

Zeichnungen demonstrates Beuys's apparent pleasure in the variety of shapes and materials that compose the evolution of his signature. It also serves as a parable for the function and development of writing itself. Whether standing for the external activities of the artist or his personal signature, each mark crystallizes a moment in time. Beuys shifts the function of the signature from a way of reading artistic development to atemporal marks that can be played with at will. This contrast of style and meaning renders the seemingly innocuous Zeichnungen an important work in Beuys's oeuvre—and makes it a hallmark of the postmodern. Its very multiplicity forces the viewer to make the kind of distinctions that Barthes felt led to an "ethic of writing."

The meaning of the Beuysian list—whether it enumerates herbs, ancestors, or physicists—lies in the conflict between the physicality of the words and their capacity to refer. This tension is central to our understanding of language itself. These questions were raised early in the twentieth century by linguists such as Saussure and Pierce, whose theories of language as a system of relations continue to influence our perspective today. It was above all Saussure who placed language on a cultural axis: "The pronunciation of a word is determined, not by its spelling but by its history. The form of a word at a particular moment stands for a moment in its history." Although Beuys understood language within social and scientific terms, he implemented it himself in a highly formal and material fashion. In drawings such as Sediment, Clan, and Herb Robert, script is artistically manipulated so as to assume an almost non-linguistic status. This is achieved by the motivated quality of the artistic materials that cause the writing to function mnemonically and with a certain arbitrariness from the ideas that are expressed[13]. It is well known that assumptions about memory and consciousness lie behind any theory of graphic composition. In developing written language, the child uses the positions and relationships of the marks on a page as mnemonic aids, helping to recall phrases. It has been shown that children do not distinguish between words and pictures at early ages; studies by Piaget have led to the conclusion that the principle issue of language awareness is the transition from content to form. Furthermore, Chomsky has found that children first understand the meaning of a given word before they correctly reproduce its orthographic image, i.e., visual images are only gradually superseded by motor images[14]. Beuys repeatedly demonstrated an almost uncanny awareness of these findings in his drawings.

Beuys formulated the union of art and science in terms of a dialogue between word and image. In doing so, he evoked a sense of historical passage in style as well as actual substance, a central principle of his work:

Where does creativity come from? It begins in thought, in the formation of ideas. One must regard them literally as sculptures. We may then more consciously approach the materialization of form in speech or in writing.”[15]

In as much as postwar German art has yet to grapple authoritatively with its country's history, Beuys's early turn to the graphic and organic nature of writing presents one persuasive alternative in the arena of cultural analysis.


1. Margaret Marblew, The Psychology of Written Language Developmental and Educational Perspectives (Bath. 1983), 8.

2. Michel Foucault. The Order of Things (New York, 1970), 158.

3. Diderot. article on 'Encyclopedie” in the Encyclopedie, t. V. (Paris. 1751-65), 637.

4. Caroline Tisdall. Joseph Beuys (London, 1979), 101.

5. Joseph Beuys Drawings, City Art Gallery. Leeds; Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge; Victoria and Albert Museum. (London, 1983), 8.

6. Ibid., 8.

7. Tisdall. Joseph Beuys. 138

8. Theodora Vischer, Beuvs und die Romantik (Cologne. 1983). 41.

9. Foucault, The Order of Things, 144.

10. Jorg Schellman and Bernd Kluser. eds., Joseph Beuys: Multiples (Munich, 1980) n.p.

11. Tisdall. Joseph Beuys. 1979. 34.

12. Axel Hinrich Murken. Joseph Beuys und die Medizen (Munster. 1979). 127 [translation mine].

13. Gregory Ulmer, Applied Grammatology. Post(e)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys (Baltimore, 1985), 221.

14. Marblew, Psychology of Written Language. 1983. 221.

15. Clara Bodenmann-Ritter, ed., Joseph Beuys: Jeder Mensch ein Kunstler. Gesprach auf der Dokumenta V 1972, (Frankfurt, 1975), 94.