Joseph Beuys

Lightning with Stag in its Glare


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Joseph Beuys 1921–1986
Bronze, iron, aluminium, compass (39 elements)
Display dimensions variable
Lent from a private collection 2009
On long term loan


Lightning with Stag in its Glare is a large-scale installation that occupies an entire room, created by the German artist Joseph Beuys. The work comprises five different sets of sculptures based on objects and elements that have been cast in bronze and aluminium. The individual sculptures are: ‘Lightning’, ‘Boothia Felix’, ‘Goat’, ‘Stag’, and ‘Primordial Animals’. The largest element of the installation is ‘Lightning’, a tall triangular form cast in bronze. The sculpture, which represents a powerful lightning bolt, is suspended from an iron bar that hangs from a metal girder attached across two adjacent walls, situated close to the ceiling of the room. The sculptures for Lightning with Stag in its Glare are based on objects from the installation Workshop that Beuys created for the exhibition Zeitgeist: International Art Exhibition, Berlin 1982 (October 1982–January 1983) in the inner courtyard of the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.

Work on Lightning with Stag in its Glare started in February 1983 in the Hermann Noack Foundry in Berlin, and the first complete environment was finished in 1985. All of the individual casts were produced in an edition of five. The long period spanned by the work’s date is due to the fact that ‘Stag’, the first sculpture produced for Workshop, had existed since 1958, and had been modelled from the remaining parts of an earlier sculpture entitled Langhaus (Vitrine) 1953–62 (Tate AR00087) (see Bastian 1986, p.7).

‘Lightning’ originated in a large heap of clay amassed in the inner courtyard of Martin-Gropius-Bau as part of Workshop. After the end of the exhibition, the artist moulded part of the clay hill in plaster and then cast it in bronze. For Beuys, clay had a symbolic significance. Referring to possible ecological catastrophes, he suggested: ‘clay is a substance of the earth, the substratum on which we stand and from which we will awaken the planet to life after the dreadful slayings’ (quoted in Bastian 1986, p.14). ‘Lightning’ was cast in several parts, as the gallerist Heiner Bastian recorded:

When the first casting was completed, Beuys had the object erected to a vertical position under a crane in the foundry; the slightly concave, lower edge of the sculpture then touched the ground only at a single point … The bronze, more than six meters high, resembled a huge dark shadow, a vision of the materialisation of lightning frozen in space, immediately above the ground.
(Bastian 1986, p.14.)

The second sculpture in the installation, ‘Boothia Felix’, is a bronze cast of a wooden plant box mounted on top of a pedestal that is also cast in bronze. The solidified soil from the plant box that served as a model was interspersed with plant roots and shards of pottery, while the cast pedestal was made from an old-fashioned iron modelling base from a sculptor’s workshop. On the top of the box Beuys placed a small magnetic compass. According to Beuys, ‘Boothia Felix’ is a ‘small, self-contained cosmos’ (quoted in Bastian 1986, p.18). The earth from the plant box which Beuys had ‘saved’ contained the roots of a plant which he had dug out in 1964 in a Spanish village called Manresa; a place that resonated with the symbolic, spiritual and mystical elements in Beuys’s work and where Ignatius of Loyola, the religious leader who founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), lived in meditation for eleven months before writing Spiritual Exercises, his book of prayers, in 1522–24. The name ‘Boothia Felix’, however, has a different origin, referring to the peninsula in northern Canada that contains the most northern point of the American continent. When it was discovered, the northern magnetic pole of the earth was situated on the western coast of Boothia Felix. Beuys further establishes a relationship to the North Pole by placing a small compass at the top of the sculpture (see Bastian 1986, p.18). Both the magnetic pole reference and the lightning flash allude to the natural energies of the earth (Beuys, no date, accessed 17 June 2016).

For the sculpture ‘Goat’, Beuys cast two everyday tools – an iron cart and an axle – in bronze. The cart, with a flat top surface and three wheels, was most likely produced in a foundry after the First World War. Placed at the top of the cart was an axle with a cockpit between its front shafts, and a hoe with the remains of clay attached to it. As its title indicates, this sculpture represents a goat whose form is suggested by the silhouette of this assemblage of objects. Unlike the other objects in this installation, which are cast in bronze, ‘Stag’ is cast in aluminium. The relative brightness of the material creates the impression that this element is illuminated by a sudden stroke of lightning. The stag, along with the hare, the elk and the swan, is a recurrent motif in Beuys’s work. It is the animal of the gods in Germanic mythology and, according to the artist, is one of the ‘guiding and protective signs’ that appears ‘in times of distress and danger’, bringing ‘the warm positive element of life’ as it is ‘endowed with spiritual powers and insight’ (Beuys, no date, accessed 17 June 2016).

Finally, ‘Primordial Animals’ comprises fifty-five individual elements cast in bronze. During Workshop at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Beuys modelled these small-scale worm-like forms in clay and, while the clay was still wet, inserted old tools (such as chisels, pliers, wrenches, punches, wire-cutters and screwdrivers) into the body of the sculptures to represent the animals’ heads. As the artist had intended, when the clay dried out the material cracked, creating imperfect final forms representing amorphous creatures. The half-formed sculptures were gathered around the ‘Stag’, which was initially situated in the inner courtyard of the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Towards the end of the exhibition, the cracked forms of the clay models were preserved through solidification for the casting process and were subsequently cast in bronze (see Bastian 1986, p.30).

According to Bastian, Lightning with Stag in its Glare conveys ‘images of anticipated mortality, of decay, decomposition and ruin … as traces of all transitory life make way in this environment for the projection of an opaquely shining world of coldness, of irreversible fate’ (Bastian 1986, p.11). Bastian explains that for Beuys, this work represented the potential ‘doom’ of humankind, which could only be reversed ‘through the awareness of its spiritual powers’ (Bastian 1986, pp.11, 13).

Further reading
‘Transcript of Audio Tracks Relating to Beuys’ Sculpture Lightning with Stag in its Glare’, Tate, no date,, accessed 17 June 2016.
Christos M. Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal (eds.), Zeitgeist: International Art Exhibition, Berlin 1982, exhibition catalogue, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin 1982.
Heiner Bastian, Joseph Beuys: Lightning with Stag in its Glare 1958–1985, Zurich 1986.

Natasha Adamou
June 2016

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Display caption

In the massive installation Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958-85), the suspended, bronze triangle embodies the energy of a powerful flash of lightning, which illuminates a group of half-formed creatures. The ‘stag’ of the title was originally made from an ironing board and then cast in bright aluminium to suggest the glare of the lightning. The cart represents a goat, and the clods of bronze on the floor are primordial creatures. A small compass, mounted on top of a box, is another reference, with the lightning flash itself, to the natural energies of the earth.

Gallery label, November 2005

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