Joseph Beuys

Untitled

1955

Artist
Joseph Beuys 1921–1986
Medium
Leaf and lime on cardboard
Dimensions
Support: 302 x 244 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
AR00696

Not on display

Summary

Untitled 1955 is a collage by the German artist Joseph Beuys. It comprises a single leaf, coloured red-brown, with the back of the leaf (the veins) showing. It is mounted next to a slightly larger regular oval shape coated in off-white lime-wash paint. The leaf is from the Copper Beech tree (or Purple Beech; Fagus Sylvatica ‘Purpurea’), which is commonplace throughout Europe, particularly in the north, including the forests of North Rhine Westphalia, where Beuys lived at the time he made this work. The beech is an ancient species, known in the modern variant in Germany since 1488. Placing the leaf next to the shape coated in lime-wash contrasts the organic with the mineral, the soft leaf with the hard lime-wash, and the natural shape of the leaf with the man-made geometric shape of the card.

Throughout his life Beuys was interested in all aspects of the natural world. As a boy he collected and catalogued biological specimens and produced watercolour paintings of his local area. Among the first works Beuys exhibited after the Second World War were drawings from nature. Beuys was keenly interested in ecology, and considered studying science before becoming an artist; he was to become a co-founder of the German Green Party in 1980. The period 1954–8, during which Beuys made this work, was one of personal crisis. He had graduated from the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1951, but had yet to gain success as an artist. He lived during most of this period with his friends Hans and Franz Joseph van der Grinten on their farm at Kranenburg, near the Reichswald forest, making various drawings and collages as well as working on the farm.

The tree and forest have played a key role in the formation of German identity since the legend of Arminius the Cheruscan, ‘Hermann’, who formed an alliance of Germanic tribes to defeat the Romans in the Battle of the Teutowald forest in the tenth century. Therefore Beuys’s allusion to the forest, through the leaf, tapped into a deep-rooted icon of German identity and is representative of Beuys’s search for his own identity as an artist in post-war Germany (see Weikop 2014, pp.30–47). With the simple act of attaching a leaf and a shape covered in lime-wash to a piece of paper, he captured the importance of nature to the German imagination, as well as the importance of the natural world in shaping human existence more broadly. These elements would inform his work in the decades ahead, resulting in Beuys’s ambitious plan to plant an artwork comprising several thousand trees – titled 7,000 Oaks – in the German city of Kassel in 1981.

The leaf collage was not a new practice for Beuys. Acer Platanoides 1945 (Tate AR00630), comprising a single Norway Maple leaf on paper, is the oldest work by Beuys in the ARTIST ROOMS collection and one of the earliest works of his that survives. Beuys maintained his interest in leaf collages throughout his lifetime, producing many works in this vein. Another such work in the ARTIST ROOMS collection is Untitled 1972 (Tate AR00682). As late as 1985 Beuys produced a series of ten pressed plant and pencil drawings called Cotyledon Umbilicus Veneris (four of which are reproduced in Temkin and Rose 1993). Beuys’s return to the botanical collage of his youth in his older age reflects the artist’s own life cycle.

Further reading
Heiner Bastian (ed.), Joseph Beuys: Dibujos = Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Sala des Exposiciones, Madrid 1985, p.53, plate 5, and p.177.
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, Philadelphia and New York 1993.
Christian Weikop, ‘Forests of Myth, Forests of Memory’ in Christian Weikop and Richard Davey (eds.), Anselm Kiefer, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 2014, pp.30–47.

Andrew W. Symons
University of Edinburgh
January 2015

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

Online caption

In this collage, the artist has combined a leaf with lime, putting a mineral element together with an object from the natural world. Beuys occasionally used leaves and pressed flowers in his early works of the 1940s and 1950s, and drawings of natural forms were included in his first exhibitions after the Second World War. This reflects an interest in the natural sciences which was lifelong. In later years, Beuys referred to the 1950s as a period of preparation, which he spent reading and making hundreds of drawings which influenced his later sculpture and 'actions'.

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