Beuys was Professor of Monumental Sculpture at Dusseldorf Academy from 1961 to 1972, when he was sacked. He founded the German Student Party in 1967, the Organisation for Direct Democracy in 1970 and the Free University in 1977.
This work is one of three similar 'Vitrines' by Beuys in the Tate Gallery collection. They contain objects made by the artist between 1949 and 1983. The contents of each was selected and arranged by Beuys himself. They have contrasting characters: in this one the objects are all made of or contain fat and are light in colour. Another contains mostly dark, hard-edged metal objects [Tate Gallery T03826]. The third also contains dark-coloured objects, one of which is made of fat [Tate Gallery T03919]; the others are cast bronze sculptures which all refer to the female figure [Tate Gallery T03920, T03921 and T01542].
Beuys has explained that his choice of fat as a sculptural material was as a metaphor for the physical and mental processes of life and to stimulate discussion. Its 'flexibility ... appealed to me. particularly in its reactions to temperature changes. This flexibility is psychologically effective - people instinctively feel it relates to inner processes and feelings. The discussion I wanted was what language is about, what human production and creativity are about. So I took an extreme position in sculpture, and a material that was very basic to life and not associated with art'.
The first object on the left of the 'Vitrine' is made of a mixture of butter and beeswax and has an emblematic moulding on the front face which might suggest the female anatomy. It has been described by Axel Murken as 'a cult object associated with the fertility rites of primitive societies.' Next to it is a different shaped object of the same material. Its upper surface has been roughly cut into and a metal cutter is laid on it. A small piece of copper wire stuck into the block forms the outline of two bees copulating tail to tail and relates to a photograph of copulating bees published by Beuys in 1977. For Beuys bees relate to the general theme of warmth in his work and their wax and honey are substances which have what he called the 'warmth character' which formed an important part of what Beuys formally referred to as his 'Theory of Sculpture': 'This warmth character is to be found in honey, in wax, and even in the pollen and nectar gathered from plants. In mythology honey was regarded as a spiritual substance and bees were godly.' Next is another object expressing the same theme - a glass jar filled with pork fat and with a thermometer placed across the top. Next is a zinc box filled with tallow from sheep and finally the right-hand corner of the vitrine is filled with pork fat.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.269