Joseph Beuys

Sun and Pylon


Not on display

Joseph Beuys 1921–1986
Graphite, watercolour and chloride on paper
Support: 208 × 297 mm
frame: 675 × 540 × 27 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
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


Sun and Pylon is a small work on ordinary drawing paper, approximately A4 in size. It is based on a pencil sketch, with some graphite shading for the dark areas of the underlying landscape, overlaid with blue watercolour and yellow-brown iron chloride. Iron chloride is an industrial chemical used for clarifying water and as an etchant. When mixed with water it gives off heat in a chemical reaction and the resulting substance is the yellowish brown paint seen here. Despite the almost monochromatic use of colour, Beuys uses the shades of yellow and brown, and energetic brushwork, to give an impression of an explosion or a flash of sunlight.

1946 was the year Beuys enrolled at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, not far from his hometown of Kleve, in North Rhine Westphalia, in the British zone of occupation following the Second World War. Beuys had decided to become an artist after returning from military service, during which he served as a dive-bomber navigator and from August 1944 as a foot soldier. Only a year before making this work Beuys had been serving on the Western front, where he would have seen close hand-to-hand fighting in the Battle of the Reichswald, not far from Kleve. The flash of sunlight in this picture is perhaps reminiscent of an exploding shell, which Beuys would have witnessed. Kleve had been largely destroyed by Allied bombing on 7 October 1944, and pummelled again on 7 February 1945 as Allied troops crossed the Rhine to occupy Western Germany. 1946 was consequently a time of great shortages, which provides one reason why Beuys used commonly available materials for his artworks.

Beuys was interested in the inherent properties of the materials he used, in nature and in the idea of energy. Iron chloride has distinct visual properties in its raw crystalline state, which probably appealed to Beuys’s interest in science as well as art: it appears dark green in reflected light and reddish purple in transmitted light. In Sun and Pylon Beuys juxtaposes the ultimate source of energy in our solar system, the sun, with an icon of electricity – man-made ‘energy’. To represent the sun he uses a chemical that itself gives off heat when mixed with water, and a form resembling the explosion of an artillery shell. The electricity pylon can perhaps be regarded as the human presence in the picture, drawing the viewer into the image as a protagonist while exposing him or her to the powerful energy of the sun or exploding shell. The juxtaposition and different readings bring a visual tension into the composition. This is reinforced by the German Hochspannungsmast of the title, which can be translated literally as ‘high tension mast’.

By 1946 the public was becoming aware of the first US tests of atomic bombs on Bikini Atoll; bombs which were detonated in the atmosphere at the top of a pylon. Sun and Pylon is perhaps Beuys’s vision of an atomic future in which the sanitisation of the explosion through its representation as a ‘sun’ makes it all the more poignant. Beuys’s simplified, almost comic-book representation of an explosive flash predates by two decades Roy Lichtenstein’s Explosion 1965–6 (Tate P01796).

In Sun and Pylon Beuys takes traditional German landscape painting in a new direction, transforming the practice of pencil drawing and watercolour. The small patch of blue is a nod towards the watercolour landscape tradition, but Beuys substitutes iron chloride for ordinary watercolour paint to make an expressionistic portrayal of the sunlight. The placement of mankind in the face of the awesome power of nature is reminiscent of the Romantic tradition in German art, while the energetic portrayal of the sun recalls the German expressionist tradition of the early twentieth century. This work is thus an early example of Beuys’s artistic investigation into what it is to be German after the Second World War.

Further reading
Anne Seymour, Joseph Beuys: Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1983.
Heiner Bastian (ed.), Joseph Beuys: Dibujos = Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Sala des Exposiciones, Madrid 1985.
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, New York 1993.

Andrew W. Symons
University of Edinburgh
December 2015

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

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Online caption

At the heart of much of Beuys's artistic output lies an interest in sources of heat and energy. This is demonstrated in his sculptural work and installations through the use of fat and felt as materials. In this painting, the artist depicts the sun and a pylon, two sources of both heat and power. Beuys often incorporated unusual materials alongside watercolour in his paintings. Here he has used iron chloride, a chemical which also represents warmth as it gives off heat during the chemical process of hydrolysis, a reaction caused by water.

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