Beuys Biography Book Accuses Artist of Close Ties to Nazis
For decades, Joseph Beuys has been exalted as a heroic icon of postwar avant-garde German art. But a new biography accuses him of having been a serial liar who never completely emancipated himself from the views of Nazism and a bizarre cult.
Joseph Beuys spent his entire life dying, his widow once said. In January 1986, his heart did in fact stop beating. Urns with his ashes were committed to the depths of the North Sea. Since then, he has been regularly resurrected -- as a myth, a heroic figure, a saint of contemporary art history and an innovator, even on the political scene. During the nearly 30 years since his death, he has become larger than life and, ultimately, sacrosanct: a German icon.
Beuys, born in 1921 in the western German town of Krefeld, is viewed by many as the only genuine avant-gardist of the postwar era because he was a provocateur, someone who irreversibly shattered the limits of what was customary. He created a new type of art with honey pumps and wedges of fat, made works out of rust, tree bark and clumps of earth, and created a world of images in brown and gray. What's more, he staged performances in which he conversed with hares or dissected their corpses with knives, events in which he smashed a piano to bits or rolled himself up in felt to become a living mummy. Beuys was the Düsseldorf professor of art who, in the wake of his many protests and subsequent summary dismissal, had to be escorted by police from the academy.
Everyone had an opinion on Beuys. It was thanks to him that people started talking about art in the 1970s -- although they were usually simply outraged. He planted 7,000 oak trees in the western German town of Kassel, which was one of several controversial art projects that divided the entire country, and he made use of every opportunity to intensify rejection of himself and his work. For example, Beuys maintained that the Berlin Wall was too low, writing that it would have better proportions with an extra five centimeters (two inches) in height. Today, that sounds funny.
At the time, people ridiculed him and his work, but the sound of their laughter inevitably also echoed their fears of nonconformity. Those who like him admired him for precisely this reason.
Uncovering the Man Behind the Myth
The author of a new Beuys biography, Hans Peter Riegel, has set out to uncover the man behind the myth. In Riegel's view, Beuys was neither a deranged artist nor an innocent genius, but rather a fairly reactionary and dangerous figure. There is no doubt that Beuys was a devotee of the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, who died in 1925 and was the founder of anthroposophy, which forms the basis for Waldorf education. According to Riegel, Beuys even saw himself as the new Steiner, as a chosen one, and he was obsessed with Steiner's occultism and his racial theories -- and with the abstruse ideas of a Germanic soul, a German spirit and a special mission for the German people. He says that Beuys allowed Steiner's worldview to infiltrate his highly symbolic art and, in fact, permeate each and every one of his works.
The author also contends that Beuys surrounded himself with former and long-time Nazis, who were his artistic patrons and his political comrades-in-arms. Beuys was one of the first members of Germany's environmentalist Green Party, and he spoke a great deal about democracy. Ultimately, however, the artist strove for a totalitarian society, at least according to Riegel, who maintains that here again Beuys was following in the footsteps of Steiner and his bizarre ideas.
Riegel met with SPIEGEL in a Zurich villa, in an office paneled with dark wood that serves as his PR agent's conference room. He was wearing a suit and had brought along binders and a laptop. He spoke a great deal, perhaps out of habit, or perhaps because he was tense. His book is likely to be construed as quite a provocation in its own right.
Riegel is a Swiss citizen now, although he originally hails from Germany. During his studies in Düsseldorf, he served as an assistant to the painter Jörg Immendorff. Later, he worked as a consultant and organizer for diverse exhibition tours of the painter's work. At the time, Riegel had already started pursuing a career in the advertising industry, and he later became a business consultant.
Three years ago, Riegel published a book about the late Immendorff with the same publisher, the Aufbau Verlag in Berlin, and he didn't tread lightly with his old friend. During the final years of his life, which were marred by serious illness, Immendorff had unleashed his own big scandals, in which cocaine and prostitution played a role. But Riegel described the painter as a man without talent -- and that was doubtlessly an even greater disgrace.
Now, the author has turned his attention to Beuys, who was Immendorff's teacher. Riegel, who was born in 1959, knew him personally at an early age, and he experienced the love-hate relationship between Beuys and Immendorff. In fact, for a long time, he acted as a sort of courier between the two artists. Riegel has studied several things during his life, including art theory. But his book is less a description of Beuys the artist as it is a portrayal of the man behind the artwork, whom, in Riegel's opinion, the experts have treated with too much reverence and naivety.
Some of what he reveals is already relatively well known, while other things appear forgivable. For instance, according to Riegel's research, Beuys never received his high school diploma, although after the war he apparently maintained that he had. Otherwise it would have been infinitely more difficult for him to gain entry into the Düsseldorf's legendary Arts Academy.
Riegel aims to show that the artist was a habitual liar. There is, for example, Beuys' wartime legend of how he was rescued by Tartar tribesmen. As the story goes, after the aircraft radio operator's Stuka bomber crashed over the Crimea in 1944, he was saved by nomadic Tartars, who treated his wounds with animal fat and wrapped him in felt to keep him warm. This account, which he often repeated, was rarely questioned during his lifetime and wasn't exposed as pure fiction until years after his death. Certain details have even been transmitted to posterity: Until recently, many art historians believed that Beuys had a metal plate in his skull as a result of his wartime injuries.