Joseph Beuys

Acer platanoides

1945

Medium
Leaf on paper
Dimensions
Support: 474 x 317 mm
Acquisition
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Reference
AR00630

Summary

Acer Platanoides consists of a single Norway Maple leaf, in autumnal colour, stuck onto a piece of drawing paper with the back of the leaf (the veins) showing. Beuys signed it at the bottom ‘J Beuys 45’, but there is no further artistic intervention. The title, Acer Platanoides, refers to the Latin botanical name for the Norway Maple, which is indigenous to northern Europe. It was commonplace in Beuys’s hometown of Kleve in the lower Rhine region of North Rhine Westphalia, Germany, close to the Dutch border.

In autumn 1945, when this work was made, the twenty-four year old Beuys had just returned home after five years at war, first as a dive bomber navigator and from August 1944 as a foot soldier. Earlier that year he had served on the Western front, which had seen close hand-to-hand fighting in the Battle of the Reichswald, a forest not far from Kleve. In the battle for the Rhineland losses were high on both sides, but Beuys survived with only a minor leg wound (in addition to the head injury he had sustained in a plane crash in March 1944). Beuys’s unit surrendered to the British on 25 April 1945 at Edewecht, near Bremen, and Beuys was held captive as a prisoner of war until 5 August 1945, mostly in the former Sandbostel concentration camp, also near Bremen. After his release he returned to his parents’ house in war-torn Kleve, a town which had held a strategic position on the Western front during the war. It had been largely destroyed by Allied bombing on 7 October 1944, and pummelled again on 7 February 1945 as Allied troops crossed the Rhine to occupy Western Germany. By August 1945 only 3,000 of the original 22,000 inhabitants of the town remained. It was in these conditions that Beuys decided to become an artist.

Acer Platanoides is the oldest work by Beuys in the ARTIST ROOMS collection and one of the earliest works he ever made. As a child, Beuys had not shown much interest in art, and it was only in 1945 that he considered art his vocation, despite the lack of job opportunities for artists in post-war Germany. On 15 April 1946 he enrolled at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, one of only two art academies in Germany still open after the war. He was to become a master student and eventually professor at the same Academy. Acer Platanoides was therefore made at a turning point in Beuys’s life. As he later recalled:

When the war ended in 1945, I came out of the prison camp; then I studied natural science, mathematics, physics and biology; and looking at the behaviour in the rude world of science I decided to change my practice and, more theoretically, I went to art.
(Quoted in Harriet Cooke, ‘Joseph Beuys: The German Artist Who has been Showing at the Municipal Gallery in Dublin’, Irish Times, 25 October 1974, p.10.)

The work can be interpreted in many ways. The leaf mounted on paper resembles a scientific specimen in a museum. As a scientist-turned-artist Beuys was keenly interested in ecology and was to become a co-founder of the German Green Party; this leaf may be prescient of that future. Sticking a leaf to a piece of white paper and declaring it ‘art’ also recalls Marcel Duchamp’s idea of the ‘readymade’, exemplified most famously in his Fountain 1917, replica 1964 (Tate T07573). It could also be taken as a gesture of reverence to nature only months after Beuys had been engaged in vicious hand-to-hand fighting in the nearby Reichswald forest; a poignant gesture by a man re-engaging with the simplicity of nature after the horrors of the war years.

Beuys maintained his interest in leaf collages throughout his lifetime, producing many examples. Such works in the ARTIST ROOMS collection include Untitled 1955 (Tate AR00696), which has a single lime leaf mounted next to a similar-sized shape coated in lime, thus contrasting the organic with the mineral; and Untitled 1972 (Tate AR00682), which has three pressed leaves of different types on one sheet, each annotated with its Latin name (for many more examples see Bastian 1985). As late as 1985 Beuys produced a series of ten pressed plant and pencil drawings entitled Cotyledon Umbilicus Veneris (see Temkin and Rose 1993, pp.254–5, plate 172).

Further reading
Anne Seymour, Joseph Beuys: Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1983.
Heiner Bastian (ed.), Joseph Beuys: Dibujos = Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Sala des Exposiciones, Madrid 1985.
Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose (eds.), Thinking is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, New York 1993.

Andrew W. Symons
University of Edinburgh
December 2015

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

Online caption

The natural sciences were one of Beuys's great interests from an early age. As a child he collected and catalogued biological specimens and made a small laboratory in his house. His study was aided by a copy of Carl Linnaeus's book of classification for the natural world, 'Systema Naturae', which Beuys was able to save from a Nazi book burning at his school library. This is the earliest work by Beuys in the ARTIST ROOMS collection, made when the artist was twenty-four years old. The leaf is from a Norway maple tree, a species native to central and eastern Europe.