Joseph Beuys

The Centrifugal Forces of the Mountains


Not on display

Joseph Beuys 1921–1986
Graphite on paper, 3 parts
Image, each: 286 × 210 mm
frame: 820 × 630 mm
Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2010
On long term loan


The Centrifugal Forces of the Mountains 1953 comprises three drawings in one frame, the first arranged centrally above the other two. They are all executed in graphite on paper. The first drawing, in the upper part of the frame, has several lines that allude to a mountainous landscape overlaid with other, more geometric motifs, such as a diagram on the top left that appears to be an exercise in three-dimensional perspective drawing. In the centre there are some crystalline structures and to the lower left and right there are two hexagons, with several lines curving downwards. The second drawing, in the lower left part of the frame, appears to depict a mountainous landscape. A motif to the lower left resembles a plumbing joint; a man-made object in otherwise natural surroundings. The third drawing, in the lower right, is a more traditional depiction of a mountain landscape with a sense of depth: a large mountain with a path around it in the foreground and further peaks in the distance.

In 1953, when he executed this work, Beuys was a master student of Ewald Mataré in Düsseldorf, having graduated from the Art Academy in 1951. While working with Mataré he was developing his own philosophy of art, and he used drawings as a means of developing these ideas. Mountains and crystals became a lifelong interest. One of Beuys’s earliest mountain works is Kadmon 1948–9, which, according to Swiss art historian and curator Dieter Koepplin, relates to ‘the macrocosmic Adam Kadmon, the first Adam or Golem, or giant Ymir, from which the microcosmic human being was formed’ (Dieter Koepplin, ‘Kadmon: An Early Drawing by Joseph Beuys’, in Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose (eds.), Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys, New York 1993, pp.119–24).

Beuys made a direct connection between mountains and the individual’s freedom for self-determination, as he told the German Catholic theologian and art expert, Friedhelm Mennekes, in 1986:

The most important thing for me … [in the biblical story of the Sermon on the Mount] is that a crucial indication is given of the possibility open to man … That element of discussion at the summit is important for me. The summit is always the highest in man, in his inwardness. It is the absolute peak, the top.
(Quoted in ‘Joseph Beuys in Conversation with Friedhelm Mennekes’, in Mennekes 1986, p.32.)

In Romantic visual art, mountains are particularly associated with the notion of the sublime, typically invoked by a contrast of scale between the human body and natural surroundings. But in this work it is crystals rather than human figures that draw our attention to scale. Crystals had their own symbolic meaning for Romantics; German art historian Regine Prange notes the ‘anti-Enlightenment potential’ of the crystal, using Caspar David Friedrich’s Sea of Ice 1823–4 (Hamburger Kunsthalle) as an example that ‘transforms motionless nature into a monument of art’ (Hartley and others 1994, p.157).

The addition of ‘force lines’ to the crystals are a direct manifestation of Beuys’s desire to deal with the invisible forces within. As he explained to his former secretary and art collector Heiner Bastian, and to author and publisher Jeannot Simmen, in 1979:

The invisible world includes what is below the threshold of perception – forces and how they interrelate, forms and how they interrelate, and energy and its effects … [The forms and lines in the drawings] attempt to visualise how forces hang together, give shape to invisible configurations.
(Quoted in ‘If Nothing Says Anything I don’t Draw: A Conversation Between Joseph Beuys, Heiner Bastian and Jeannot Simmen’, in Bastian and Simmen 1979, p.191.)

Thus in The Centrifugal Forces of the Mountains Beuys has reworked the German Romantic tradition of landscape painting with an approach that portrays not only the visible outside but also the interior substance and the ‘invisible world’, giving a penetrating insight into the physical and spiritual nature of mountains.

Further reading
Heiner Bastian and Jeannot Simmen, Joseph Beuys: Zeichnungen = Tekeningen = Drawings, Berlin 1979.
Friedhelm Mennekes, In Memoriam, Joseph Beuys: Obituaries, Essays, Speeches, Bonn 1986.
Keith Hartley, Henry Meyric Hughes, Peter-Klaus Schuster and William Vaughan, (eds.), The Romantic Spirit in German Art 1790–1990, London 1994.

Andrew W. Symons
University of Edinburgh
January 2016

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

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like