Joseph Beuys


Joseph Beuys (/bɔɪs/ BOYSS, German: [ˈjoːzɛf ˈbɔʏs]; 12 May 1921 – 23 January 1986) was a German Fluxus, happening, and performance artist as well as a painter, sculptor, medallist, installation artist, graphic artist, art theorist, and pedagogue.

His extensive work is grounded in concepts of humanism, social philosophy and anthroposophy; it culminates in his "extended definition of art" and the idea of social sculpture as a gesamtkunstwerk, for which he claimed a creative, participatory role in shaping society and politics. His career was characterized by open public debates on a very wide range of subjects including political, environmental, social and long term cultural trends. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century.


The performance was the high point of Beuys' development of a broadened definition of art, which had already begun in his drawings of the 1950s. He celebrated the ritual of "explaining art" with an action that was, for his viewers, effectively silent.

The relationship between thought, speech, and form in this performance was also characteristic of Beuys. In his last speech Speaking about Germany (German: Sprechen über Deutschland, 1985) he emphasized that he was essentially a man of words. In another instance he is quoted as saying: "When I speak, I try to guide that power's impulse so that it flows into a more fully descriptive language, which is the spiritual perception of growth."[nb 1][3] The integration of speech and conversation into his visual works plays a meaningful role in How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.

The hare is an animal with broad, centuries-old symbolic meaning in many religions. In Greek mythology it was associated with the love goddess Aphrodite, to the Romans and Germanic tribes it was a symbol of fertility, and in Christianity it came to be connected with the Resurrection. This interpretation is also supported by the "mask" that Beuys wore during his performance: gold as a symbol for the power of the sun, wisdom, and purity, and honey as a Germanic symbol for rebirth.


Beuys explained:

Such materials and actions had specific symbolic value for Beuys. For example, honey was the product of bees who, for Beuys (following Rudolf Steiner), represented an ideal society of warmth and brotherhood. Gold had its importance within alchemy, and iron, the metal of Mars, stood for the masculine principles of strength and connection to the earth. A photograph from the performance, in which Beuys is sitting with the hare, has been described "by some critics as a new Mona Lisa of the 20th century," though Beuys did not agree with that. [5]

The performance is considered a key work, and was re-created by Marina Abramović in 2005 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York as part of her series Seven Easy Pieces.