Joseph Beuys



Not on display

Joseph Beuys 1921–1986
Leaves, ink and graphite on paper
Support: 590 × 420 mm
frame: 794 × 612 × 39 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


Untitled 1972 comprises three leaves attached to one sheet of paper. The green of the leaves is complemented by patches and splatters of dark ink. Beuys labelled each of the leaves by hand in pencil with a Latin botanical name. The leaf at the top is labelled ‘Ficus Aralia Erecta’, the leaf below it on the right is labelled ‘Citrus Aurantium’ and the third leaf, lower left, is labelled ‘Ficus carica’. He signed the sheet at the bottom ‘Beuys 1972’.

Ficus Aralia Erecta is not a genuine botanical name; Ficus suggests a type of fig, but the leaf is actually a Fatsia Japonica or Japanese Aralia. Citrus Aurantium denotes a tree family that covers a range of edible fruits with differently shaped leaves; this specimen may be a species of bitter orange or bergamot. Ficus carica is the common edible fig. (Botanical details confirmed by Dr Markus Ruhsam at the Royal Botanical Garden, Edinburgh,

Leaf collages are numerous in Beuys’s work. Acer Platanoides 1945 (Tate AR00630), the earliest work by Beuys in the ARTIST ROOMS collection, comprises a single leaf from a Norway Maple tree. The collection also contains the leaf collage Untitled 1955 (Tate AR00696). However, unlike the Norway Maple and the Copper Beech of those two works, the leaves in the present work, Untitled 1972, are not native to northern Europe. It is possible that Beuys collected these leaves on trips to Italy, which he visited in 1971 and at least twice in 1972. Beuys continued to make leaf collages throughout his life; as late as 1985 he produced a series of ten pressed plant and pencil drawings called Cotyledon Umbilicus Veneris (Cotyledon umbilical of Venus), a work that ‘reflects his own cycle of work and life’ (Temkin and Rose 1993, pp.254–5, plate 172).

The leaf mounted on paper resembles a scientific specimen in a museum. As a scientist-turned-artist Beuys was keenly interested in ecology and was to become a co-founder of the German Green Party. While earlier works used leaves from his native Germany, the use of leaves from a Mediterranean climate in Untitled 1972 reflects Beuys’s wider travels and interest in Italy, one of his ‘greatest loves’, which he visited no fewer than thirty-five times from 1971 (Stachelhaus 2002, p.205).

In 1972, the year Beuys made the present work, he was involved in a dispute with the North Rhine Westphalia Ministry of Education that ultimately led to his dismissal as professor of the Düsseldorf Academy of Art after eleven years in that post. A specific connotation of the fig leaf is its use in classical painting and sculpture to cover the genitalia. In this work one might associate the fig leaf (or leaves, as Beuys thought) with the repression of new ideas that Beuys felt the ministry of education was exercising. Furthermore, the German word ‘feige’ means not only ‘fig’ but also ‘cowardly’ or ‘spineless’, possibly a coded reference to the ministry.

Further reading
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, Philadelphia and New York 1993.
Heiner Stachelhaus, Joseph Beuys, Munich 2002.

Andrew W. Symons
University of Edinburgh
January 2016

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

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Online caption

Throughout his life, Beuys was interested in all aspects of the natural world. As a boy he collected and catalogued biological specimens and produced watercolour paintings of his local area. Among the first works Beuys exhibited after the Second World War were drawings from nature. The pressed leaves used here recall those works. Nature and the environment continued to play an important part in the artist's life throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1980 he was a founding member of Germany's Green Party. The following year he launched his ambitious project to plant 7000 trees with accompanying basalt columns in the city of Kassel: '7000 Eichen' (7000 Oaks).

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