Joseph Beuys and Photography: Eugen Blume

Eva and Joseph Beuys at their home on Drakeplatz in Düsseldorf–Oberkassel, 1972.

Eva and Joseph Beuys at their home on Drakeplatz in Düsseldorf–Oberkassel, 1972

It is not clear whether Joseph Beuys ever took photographs. Nonetheless, in his work not only do photographs have an undeniable documentary significance, but also their particular aesthetic immediately and unmistakably catches the eye.The cursory observer could for all intents and purposes rightly speak of a photographic oeuvre. On closer inspection, however, this proves to be the work of different photographers, namely of three women among whom Ute Klophaus, even on a purely quantitative level, is the most prominent. The other two are Caroline Tisdall and Eva Beuys. In addition, numerous photographers have created photographic images "after" Beuys, or better, after his oeuvre's conception. All in all, one must assume a good six to ten thousand photographs. The examination of the quality, or that is to say, the inner connection between photography and oeuvre, is to be undertaken here in relation to just two works: first, the 1978/79 catalog designed and conceived by Joseph Beuys in tandem with Caroline Tisdall for the retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York[1]: and second, the work, essentially concerning photographs, Joseph Beuy, Arena — where would I have got if l had been intelligent![2]

Let us turn initially to the book that accompanied the first international breakthrough and first summary overview of Joseph Beuys' work.This undertaking—an acknowledgment of Olympian proportions—filled the entire spiral of the famous Frank Lloyd Wright building on the Upper East Side and was based on the extremely contentious, singular emergence of Joseph Beuys within the art scene of the Federal Republic of Germany. The catalog, conceptually following the 24 Stations of the exhibition, remains to this day the most successful and simultaneously comprehensive publication on the work of Joseph Beuys to 1979.[3] The book was published by Thames and Hudson in London, no doubt due to the English background of Caroline Tisdall. With the exception of the dust jacket, which includes one color, everything is printed in black-and-white. Black-and-white is one of the most fundamental and significant aesthetic choices within the photographic work on Joseph Beuys. While shots in color definitely exist, "Beuys photographs" are not really conceivable in color. Or at least, the use of color diminishes any efforts to approach as closely as possible the inner spirit of his works. In an objective sense, guided naturally by Beuys' own practice, the impression one has of an adequate representation is weakened with color photographs. Exempted are catalogs with straightforward reproductions of the works, such as those for drawing exhibitions. Only in later, posthumous publications did color reproductions come more strongly into play.[4]

From the fact that the film I like America and America likes Me, shot in color in 1974, was only approved by Buys during the editing phase in black-and-white, it becomes clear that at stake is a conscious conceptual decision, and not simply an aesthetically conceived one.[5] Black-and-white had a strong sculptural power for Beuys. In fact, the objects reproduced in the two-tone photographs appear more three-dimensional; they seem less detracted from in a spatial sense. Colors often draw the eye away from the actual intention and occasionally open up an aesthetic side-attraction, something Beuys clearly wished to avoid. It is not a question here of reconfirming cliched resentments—that the works of Beuys are only grey and colorless, a point easily refuted when faced with the works and their rich colorfulness. For reasons that are unclear, we sense that black-and-white photographs more than color images have something to do with the mysterious, perhaps one of the main grounds for Beuys limiting himself to the former. Perhaps this is related to the history of photography, which initially and over decades became known only through black-and-white photographs, even if hand-tinting vis-a-vis painting and watercolors was already in use. The black-and-white copy—starkly reduced in relation to its original in nature; understood due to its mechanical, chemical process as a depletion of nature—works like an essence, like the capturing of inner nature.This working is reflected in many ethnic groups’ or so-called primitive peoples' shyness at letting themselves be photographed, possessed by the fear that the image would steal their souls. This magical relationship, growing out of ignorance of the necessary technical process for image production, continued to unconsciously affect even enlightened western peoples.The assumption that other processes might be at work in photography encouraged attempts to provide evidence for the transfer of thought-images onto photographic plates, such as the 1923 California Psychical Research experiment, a quasi photography-without-photographic-apparatus.[6]

Occultism and photography aside, telepathic and other spiritual transfers rendered their objects visible mainly by the aid of tricks. Nevertheless, the particular aesthetic of this psychic photography has a special significance for our investigation. The artist Bernhard Johanna Blume—close to Beuys—ironically sparred with these image phenomena in his photographic work, or more so with the image-evidence of esoteric, theosophical, and occult societies. In addition, Blume characterized the Beuys photographs as a kind of photo-mysticism. Even the German painter Sigmar Police experimented with the methods of spiritualist photography in the context of his alchemical themes, albeit likewise from an ironic distance. This ironic distance remains completely alien to Beuys, given the photographic formulation of images that deal with his work. Still, he not only makes use of the aesthetic applied to these photographs by Ute Klophaus, but similarly to Polke also manipulates photographs through fat and color application, sulfurization, drawing, and layering of paint. All in all, we have gathered important indicators here that point to a definite, namely spiritual role for photography in the work of Beuys.

Even the opening photo from Ute Klophaus on the frontispiece of the hard-bound Guggenheim catalog, which Beuys had already used for the poster of his 1973 action presented in New York, I like America and America likes Me, demonstrates programmatically how and why photographs were deployed in this book. The photo consists of a portrait of the artist, developed in negative, taken from the 1970 action Celtic (Kinloch Rannoch) Schottische Symphonie that Ute Klophaus photographed in Edinburgh. It shows Beuys during the 45-minute long so-called spear sequence, in which he used shamanic trance techniques. In its manipulated developing process that entails not only the decision to invert the positive, but also to allow the stains spread over the face, eyes, and forehead to remain, the portrait conveys something of the actual, meditative event. For Beuys it was not about a sharp and coldly documentary reproduction of his works in which he personally appeared; rather, it was about what might be most closely paraphrased through his concept of the fourth dimension or of the third element related to human existence.

With this "Self-Portrait" Beuys wanted to underscore his spiritual, magic-mythical relationship to the world in the USA—in the land of developed materialism and the stronghold of capitalism. The ascetic or the shaman, in whose guise he habitually appeared in the western world, is tied to that magic-mythical, lost world of the Indian that he addressed in his action I like America and America likes Me. Not incidentally this portrait stands in the soft-cover catalog edition (in contrast to the hardbound version) next to his Werklauf/Lebenslauf [Work Course/Life Course]. In this radical, semi-biographical formulation of the stations of his life, he posed his biography as identical to the course of his work in terms of his Erweiterten Kunstbegriffs [Advanced Concept of Art]. Negative exposures, blurrings, unretouched stains, hairs, and grease spots become signs of another world materializing in and around this specific human, Beuys, and more generally for his utopic formulation of the future human. Moreover, in the process, they acquire evidentiary power through photography. To that extent, it is not a question of aesthetic formulae or purely formal, decorative addenda. These are inventions—and this must be emphasized—with thanks owed to the Klophaus and her feel for a form of imagery adequate to the anthropological-spiritual utopia of Beuys.

Certainly Beuys encouraged Klophaus in this direction in fundamental ways, particularly through his selection for the catalogs of the 1960's and 70's, always touching again on her photographs.This particular photographic constellation also seduced other photographers to capture Beuys in a specific, "spiritual" iconography Yet, no one succeeded as convincingly as Ute Klophaus. The 1979 catalog wrapper—a detachable protective wrapper in the hardbound edition, which encompasses the front and back of the soft-cover edition—shows a Klophaus photo from the 1966 action Eurasia, 34. Satz der Sibirischen Symphonie. Within the mysterious, two-tone image, the name "Joseph Beuys" stands alone, strangely hovering over an undefined field that only on inspection of the back-cover reveals itself to be a floor on which a rabbit lies fastened to poles. The poles lead out of the image, above and below the name, like rays. For this information confined in a cryptic field around the name, the aforementioned portrait is added as the first internal image like some decomposition, resembling a radiograph exposure. Scrolling through the catalog, which features a multitude of photographs by diverse authors, one has the impression that all the reproductions stem from one hand that is trying to do justice to the artist's idea, to understand the entire Werklauf as Action. The photographs have a performative character that materializes through their seemng casualness and the "premonitory quality" of their "dilettantism" They are as though themselves in movement, everything blurred and fuzzy becoming especially evocative for the eyes. In this connection, the photographs of Ute Klophaus are the decisive, driving motor. Not only her particular perspective on the person Joseph Beuys, but also her manipulations of the chemical developing processes and her torn edges testify to the special quality of the events that she observed as photographer. One could almost understand her as a medium, a person with clairvoyant abilities. Indeed, as she herself often reported, she had such abilities since childhood. In this sense, she is for Beuys virtually an ideal figure, who was able to bestow something—which his works appear to emanate—onto the photographic exposure. Just as spiritualist photography wanted to render visible the invisible side of people, their telepathic abilities, for instance, or ghost-sightings, so the photographs of Ute Klophaus make clear the epiphanic quality of the works of Joseph Beuys. Like James Joyce, Beuys sought epiphanies, the "sudden revelation of the wisdom of a thing," the moment in which "the soul of the everyday object ... appears to radiate" before us.[7] It is integral to Beuys' entire work concept—which regards nothing as marginal but rather everything that happens as part of a work within the biographical equation Lebenslaufgleich Werklauf [Life Course equals Work Course]—that even the "documentation of work" itself thus assumes the character of artwork.

On no account should the authorship of Ute Klophaus be transformed into some work-on-contract telepathically guided by Joseph Beuys. Instead, the intuitively grasped, congenial intimacy of her photographs led to a symbiosis of two artists that is unique in art history. Ute Klophaus' artistic ideal-object was Joseph Beuys, which one can see clearly from her photographs addressed to other themes. For instance, her works on Goethe in Weimar are noteworthy works, but well away from the special intensity of her photographic relationship to Beuys.[8]

It is significant that Beuys defined his biography, in the work of the same name, as an "arena," a public ring for fighting, and one that he mounted with hundreds of photographs. The 1970-72 publication Arena, a work encompassing 264 photographs, is introduced with a reproduction that shows Beuys during the mounting of a photograph by Abisag Tullman from the 1969 action Iphigenie / Titus Andronicus, as well as the care Beuys exercises in the hanging. Pamela Kort characterizes the whole work tellingly as a "path to within.’’[9] In terms of his Christian relation to the world, Arena is the documentation of the spiritual path of an initiated person. A few photographs excepted, the over two hundred images remain completely closed worlds for the non-initiated observer. They consist of painted-over, hand-tinted, blurry photos, like remnants from some forsaken collection of miscellany, or indeed like refuse, all of which appears hardly suitable to compose, as Kort suggests, a hagiographic self-portrait after the fashion of the Renaissance.[10] At stake in the Renaissance, first time in history, was the claim of the subject as a reality, assessing its own sufficient measure in God's image and in fact producing a measurable representational image-reality derived from mathematics. Beuys, however, goes the opposite direction in his self-portrait. He constitutes the measureless in a rational era bound to number and measure; the irrational and unreal in humanity; the mediaeval internal image, so to speak, that the Renaissance had "scientifically" vanquished through central perspective. Naturally, not regressively in the sense of a romantic reference to the middle ages, but as an additional force set alongside the materialism of his century, a force conceived as leading thought towards a holism in the spirit of Rudolph Steiner. In Arena the connection between personality and infinity is established, which in the twentieth century was in jeopardy of being lost. It is in this sense that the "lost," fragmentary photographic images from Arena are to be understood. Although mounted in steel frames, the external image of materialistic imprisonment—as Beuys had found most vividly in the looming head made from a cannon barrel in the 1976 Straßenbahnhaltestelle —they are no armor plating for self-assertion, but fragile figures of a futile existence in time. Photographs can most closely mirror this aspect of the past, because they manifestly capture reality in terms of an eternity unimaginable to us. They conserve the moment of an actual happening, such as that of a gesture or of a work in space. They seemingly banish death and at the same time are transitory like any other thing.The photographs in the work of Beuys are an essential element; far from any sort of simply conceived reproduction, they are testimonies of risks, one's own life understood as exemplary vis-a-vis a utopia, which signifies nothing other than a sacrifice in the Christian sense. Or as Rudolf Kassner formulated:

Nein, das Wagnis liegt in einer tieferen Schicht und ist der Einmaligkeit eingebildet und weiter der Einsinnigkeit der Zeit und endlich der imaginativen Beziehung des Menschen zu seinem Selbst, von welcher der Narziß handelt. Sie müssen beides zusammendenken: die Einheit der Dauer mit dem Imaginären (als Geleise), wie es im Narziß heißt, einerseits und dann die Einheit des Seienden mit dem Bauenden, oder, wie wir eben gesagt haben, der Umstand, dass das Bauen nur die andere Seite des Seins sei und es kein anderes Sein gäbe oder jedes andere Sein ein leerer Begriff sei. [No, the risk lies at a deeper layer and is surmised in the uniqueness and furthermore in the unidirectionality of time and finally in the imaginative relationship of the person to self, which Narcissus deals with. Both must be considered conjoined: the unity of the durational with the imaginary (as tracks, routes), as indicated in Narcissus, on the one hand, and then the unity of the being with the being-constructed, or, as we just said, the circumstance that the being-constructed is simply the other aspect of existence and that there is no other existence or that any other existence is an empty concept].[11]

Photographs most closely render a testimony thereof when in the midst of the ruling materialism, they grasp onto the risk of wanting to deal with the mythic, as Joseph Beuys took up with his photographic self-portrait in Arena.


1   Joseph Beuys, ed. Caroline Tisdall, New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979.

2   Joseph Beuys. Joseph Beuys: Arena — where would I have got if I had been intelligent! Ed. Lynne Cooke & Karen Kelly. New York, Stuttgart: Dia Center For the Arts, 1994. The title, originally in Italian. was chosen for the exhibition at the Modern Art Agency by Lucio Aurelio in Naples 1972: Arena — Dove sarei arrivato se fossi stato intelligente!

3   In the copyright notes on the second page, only Ute Klophaus is named, for whom approximately 235 photographs are listed. The remaining photographs appear under the photo credits at the end of the book.

4   Even here, the books printed in color pose an exception, such as the large-format volumes edited by Heiner Bastian for the Propylaen and Prestel publishing houses: Franz Joseph van der GrInten, Hans van der GrInten, Joseph Beuys, Wasserfarben / Watercolors 1936-1963, Frankfurt am Main Berlin, Vienna 1975; and Franz Joseph van der Grinten, Hans van der Grinten, Joseph Beuys, Olfarben / Oilcolors 1936-1965, Munich 1981.

5   Helmut Wietz, the author and cameraman for this film, reports that due to cost considerations, he only ever showed Beuys black-and-white copies of the color material. During the editing process, Beuys was completely surprised to suddenly see color images.

6   Jean Gebser, Abendlandische Wandlung, Constance / Zurich / Vienna 1943: p. 86

7   Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, Zurich 1959: p. 99.

8   Weimar — ein Mythos. Photografien von Ute Klophaus, Stuttgart 1999.

9   Pamela Kort, "Joseph Beuys: Arena — Der Weg nach innen," in Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly, ed. Joseph Beuys’s: Arena —wo ware ich hingekommen, wenn ich intelligent gewesen ware! Stuttgart 1994: p. 18.

10   Pamela Kort sees Arena in this tradition, which she illustrates through the example of Albrecht Dürer's "Self-Portrait" from 1500. Pamela Kort, "Joseph Beuys: Arena — Der Weg nach innen" in Beuys, Stuttgart 1994: p. 27.

11   Rudolf Kassner, Das physiognomische Weltbild, Munich 1930: p. 197.