Joseph Beuys, Flower Nymph
Art, Music, Books & Film

Joseph Beuys in Athens

Nikolas and I visited the Beuys exhibition at the Hellenic American Union Joseph Beuys: Hellenic references in his art work and the accompanying Delphi is the place to meet: 12 artists on Joseph Beuys with works by German and Greek artists inspired by Beuys’ work and teaching.

Nikolas said it was a risky venture, by which he meant that it was hard to mount an exhibition of an artist whose teaching and activism, his persona as shaman and showman so dominated his work. I agreed, there’s something monumental to Beuys that could not be accommodated in the galleries of the Hellenic American Union. But then again, the 34 works on exhibit from the Van der Grinten collection in the Museum Schloss Moyland are mostly drawings, which lend themselves to intimate viewing. To give credit to the Hellenic American Union, though, as part of the parallel events to the exhibition the institution showed films of some of Beuys’s performance art, including I like America and America likes me, which unfortunately we missed. I hope there’s a repeat screening.

The drawings all have a reference to or motif from Classical Antiquity—a nymph, women javelin and discus throwers, Leda, Apollo, the bow of the Argo, amphorae, a curious palm-sized lump of bronzed clay named Crete but resembling Cyprus.There is little line in many of these drawings (an exception being a pair of  blackboard drawings, but these deserve a separate post). Most look like studies for a detail of a larger work—but the simplicity of the drawing allows one to focus on the texture of paper.

Some were drawn on a sheet torn from a sketchbook, others on chamois paper or heavy rag paper where the weft of fibers is visible like a ridged grid, yet another, an aquarelle on silk paper whose surface, swelled from the application of the liquid, has taken on the shape of rumpled bed linen. The sense of the materialness of the paper is heightened by its discoloration: the drawings are pockmarked by flecks of brown or deliberately stained by a diluted wash of glue, suggesting the coloring of marble in an ancient statue.

One of the more fascinating drawings on exhibit is Oedipus’s Head and Two Women’s Busts on Pedastals (1960).  Three uneven rectangular pedestals have been drawn  on a piece of chamois cardboard (also marked by discoloration) which has been torn at its bottom, revealing a ragged shore of frayed fiber. The lines seem as if they had been drawn by a child, and indeed the piece itself reads like a riddle. Find Oedipus.  Or at least his head. This is not easy.  There’s a tiny lump of clay resembling a bust that sits atop a pedestal. Another, which looks like a headless torso (two sticks of legs project from the clay) sits (entrapped?) inside the rectangle. On top of the third pedestal is a drawn figure, a bust perhaps. So where is Oedipus’s head? The only heads are on pedestals, but we know from the title that the women’s busts sit there.  A child would match the clay torso with the clay head — Oedipus’s head is the bust of his mother… the two clay pieces are finally and perversely joined.

The Delphi exhibition was held in a separate gallery (masterfully lit as Nikolas noted). We both liked Giorgos Lappas’s little red felt man with the oversized hand (The Water Leveller), another work in which texture and material come to the fore (as it does in Rena Papaspyrou’s wonderful piece on city textures (Samples from an Urban Landscape), but that too in another post).

But I was particularly intrigued by Irmel Dröse’s Da bin ich (Here I am). In an open coffin-like cardboard box affixed to the wall lies an unclothed figure the size and shape of a somewhat flattened ventriloquist’s dummy, whose surface is composed of patches of waxed paper stitched together with yellow thread. The topography of the waxed paper is fascinating: in regions creased, crinkled and cracked in a multitude of tiny triangles like the skin overlying the knuckles of an aged fisherman, elsewhere smooth like the buttocks of a young man. Lacking eyes, nose and mouth, he lies flaccid and dangling at the edge of a side of the cardboard box, half in, half out, as if at any moment he would fall out. The poverty of his internment and his precarious position at the edge of the box give the figure a poignant vulnerability darkened by a sense of abandonment. A child’s doll left forgotten in the clearing of a woods after a summer picnic, perhaps, but even more so it calls to mind episodes in our life when we were abandoned and helpless. A silent cry of a broken figure held together by yellow thread: I am here.

Or maybe it evokes not our need to be cradled and caressed but instead our desire to comfort and protect the other, and the pain we feel when we fail to do so. In her performance piece Königstuhl, an improvisation of voice and gesture (not part of the exhibition but a video is available on the artist’s website), Dröse sits down facing a seated puppet and begins to entertain and cajole and stroke the puppet, flapping her arms about like a frantic chicken and uttering a chain of animal-like yelps and chirps and screeches—much as a desperately harried mother might do to soothe a cranky child that simply will not stop crying—but of course here she is trying not to placate but to animate. In vain.


Image: Joseph Beuys, Flower Nymph


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