Illustrated companion

During the Second World War Joseph Beuys served as a fighter pilot in the German air force. He was injured five times. One of these occasions was in 1943 when his Junkers JU-87 was shot down by Russian gunfire in the Crimea. He somehow survived the crash and after several days in the snow was found by nomadic Tartars who, Beuys recalled, 'covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep the warmth in.' The art historian Caroline Tisdall, who was very close to Beuys for some years, has written that the experience of the war 'lies at the root of Beuys's passionate conviction that faith in state, government and political parties can only lead to disaster.' Beuys developed what might be described as a healing vision of mankind and an art intended as, in Tisdall's words, 'a vehicle of his own understanding of the energies that give meaning and direction to life.' To express his vision Beuys, not unlike William Blake, created a personal mythology that related to universal human concerns. Central to this mythology is the imagery of the fat and felt which enabled him to survive in 1943 but which have general symbolic significance as, respectively, a source of energy and its protector and conserver. As well as making sculpture from fat and other unusual materials, Beuys became known particularly through his 'actions' in which the artist's own body and thought processes became the sculptural medium. Some of these were powerfully allegorical or symbolic but others took the form of prolonged discussions with spectators in which Beuys set out, with the aid of chalk and blackboards, his concept of a political system of total participatory democracy. One of these took place in 1972 at the Tate Gallery. Its title was 'Fat Transformation Piece' [see full catalogue entry for Tate Gallery T03594].

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.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.269