The pencil drawing Dwarf (Self-Portrait) 1965 is both a self-portrait of the artist and a representation of the dwarf king Alberich, the central character from the opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848–74) by the German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883). This small work was rapidly sketched in pencil on white paper, apparently taken from a sketchbook, given its torn left edge. The figure occupies the right side of the page while the left side is empty, apart from the word ‘ZWERG’ (‘dwarf’ in German), written in capital letters in the top left corner. The drawing is also signed, dated and titled on its verso.
The dwarf figure wears a hat, and balances precariously atop a spade that has dug into the ground (suggested by a wavering pencil line). It is a pose of action and hard work but also one of delicate and perilous balance. His grimacing expression and skull-like features are reminiscent of the artist’s much-photographed visage, while the hat is unmistakably Beuys’s (see for example Avalanche 1970. Kölnischer Kunstverein 1973, Tate AR00953). As the writer Caroline Tisdall explained in 1979: ‘The most constantly provocative of Beuys’ emblems is his hat. He is never seen in public without it, and it has become as well known as his work. No doubt, being of felt as it is, it serves a warm and useful purpose as an insulator, like any hat on any person.’ (Tisdall 1979, pp.24–5.) The artist himself reflected upon the subject of his hat, declaring:
When they describe it flatly as a trademark this is because the meaning is not really clear to them. That’s exactly what I meant when I talked of the shaman: it is impossible to decipher precisely the way it functions. A simple meaning would be that the hat alone can do the work and acts as a vehicle – I personally am not so important anymore.
(Quoted in Tisdall 1979, p.25.)
This final comment indicates an ambivalent stance regarding his mythic artistic persona, and suggests that the way in which this small self-portrait shares its identity with that of Alberich is an intentional ploy to unsettle the singular nature of both selfhood and self-portraiture. Indeed, the manner in which the facial features are definitely suggested, yet distorted and obscured, seems to convey such an intention. The writer and curator Jeannot Simmen has described the qualities of Beuys’s drawing in terms that are particularly apt for Dwarf (Self-Portrait), writing: ‘The fragile, wandering line of his pencil seems almost afraid of injuring the paper … This line of Beuys’ is neither expressionistic nor formalistic, neither automatic nor abstract; he has transcended these contemporary categories simply by refusing to sacrifice his line’s mutability.’ (Simmen 1979, p.87.) This notion of mutability that Simmen ascribes to the artist’s drawing technique echoes the mutable identity embodied by the dwarf character. The curator Anne Seymour has explored the connection between the theories explored through Beuys’s shaman persona and this more modest self-incarnation as dwarf:
The image of the Shaman Beuys has adopted reflects our precise place in the scheme of evolutionary development. We see ourselves and our rulers reflected in primitive societies and see to what extent the Shaman still operates in modern situation. That gives a view of our rung on the ladder. Perhaps the little drawing Dwarf, 1965, sums up Beuys’s view of this position. He regards it as a self-portrait, and it depicts a very unpretentious, primitive, ugly, little creature in a hat (a cave wight, the artist has suggested) digging away very frantically, in one hand a twig or a root, the other protected from the energy generated from his spade with a scrap of felt.
(Seymour 1983, p.19.)
Jeannot Simmen, ‘Shadows of Reality’, in Heiner Bastian and Jeannot Simmen, Joseph Beuys – Zeichnungen, Tekeningen, Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Nationalgalerie, Berlin 1979, pp.85–90.
Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1979.
Anne Seymour, ‘The Drawings of Joseph Beuys’, in Joseph Beuys Drawings, exhibition catalogue, City Art Galleries, Leeds 1983, pp.7–26, reproduced p.105.