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Joseph Beuys

Books: Caroline Tisdall's new book is the way to go on anything Beuys

This substantial volume, predominantly photographic, is the comprehensive account of Joseph Beuys’s life and work

Like a declaration, this book’s title suggests purposeful movement in the same direction. Ordered by chronology and place, the journey is divided into twenty-five chapters. 'We go this way' celebrates a profound and productive association, with the artist almost ever present in front of the lens and Caroline Tisdall the diligent and curious chronicler.

For much of the 1970s Ms Tisdall accompanied Joseph Beuys on trips to Europe and America, where he lectured and made exhibitions and work. The regularity of these travels gave Ms Tisdall, then art correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, an unparalleled insight into Beuys’s activities and ideas. This continuity and her own acute observation of the power of his art resulted in several books. Two are on single themes: Beuys’s Coyote action in 1974 and his “Dernier espace avec introspecteur”, installed in Paris and London in 1982. An amended selection of photographs from both appear in We go this way.

Most notable of Ms Tisdall’s earlier books on Beuys was the one published in 1979, which served as the catalogue for his seminal survey exhibition at the Guggenheim, New York. Subdivided into “stations”, suggestive both of a journey and of the Stations of the Cross, the texts in the Guggenheim book are heavily indebted to extensive conversations between Ms Tisdall and Beuys. It is now long out of print and the obstacles preventing its republication finally prompted Ms Tisdall to explore her own extensive photographic archive, most of it previously unpublished. Film types and the camera she used are noted at the end of the book. It is clear that she was motivated by a fascination for the subject rather than a desire for technical perfection. With We go this way Ms Tisdall has produced a substantial volume, this time predominantly photographic, using short new texts and excerpts from earlier writings. The poetic succinctness of Ms Tisdall’s writing, old and new, manages to convey an atmosphere beyond simple location, and to suggest possible meanings beyond bare description. She homes in on salient features about sites and materials, actions and intentions, in a concise, occasionally wry or elliptical, but always perceptive and informative manner.

At his stiffest when posing self-consciously in front of buildings, Beuys is more frequently captured in her photographs at his most engaging, as he shapes materials, converses, or is caught in moments of contemplation invariably dressed in jeans, white shirt (clean every day, Ms Tisdall notes), angler’s waistcoat and felt hat. A flowing, fur-trimmed overcoat completes his wardrobe. On one or two occasions, truly surprising considering the consistency with which Beuys cultivated his public persona—but also reflecting the need to keep his head warm, following surgery that left him with metal plates in his skull—the camera documents him bareheaded. Such rare moments convey a physical vulnerability, never more so than in the chapter on Beuys’s heart attack and convalescence in 1976, an event seldom mentioned in the numerous publications on him.

Ms Tisdall became a filmmaker in the 1980s and photographs in the book dating from 1987 which form a prologue and epilogue were taken while she was gathering material for a film on the artist. The opening chapter locates Beuys’s origins to a specific place—Cleves—and includes features of the town which later found their way into his art. Many of these recall the accomplishments of an enlightened ruler, Moritz of Nassau, whose cultural and botanical legacy survives in the waterways, parks and monuments of the town. Aside from the well known statue next to Beuys’s childhood tram stop, upon which he modelled his contribution to the 1976 Venice Biennale, Ms Tisdall also photographs less documented sources. These include pitched roofs which inspired the two wedge elements in “Dernier espace avec introspecteur” and the relief urns and stone garden vases. Echoes of these later reappear as symbolic vessels in actions such as the Three Pots Action in Edinburgh in 1975.

In 1987 Ms Tisdall photographed in detail the artist’s permanent installation in the Haus der Kunst, Munich, of crystalline basalt blocks which form the sculpture “The end of the twentieth century” (1983).

The last chapter moves to Kassel, where wintry photographs record the progress of “7,000 oaks”, Beuys’s largest social sculpture in which basalt blocks are also a primary material. “7,000 oaks” involved planting trees around the city and beside each embedding a basalt stele removed from a vast pile in front of the Fridericianum Museum. Begun in 1982 at Documenta 7, this monumental work was completed after Beuys’s death.

People often plant trees to celebrate a life. From the sunlit woods in Cleves with which the book opens, to the single young oak silhouetted against the landscape at the end, Ms Tisdall sets her own photographic memorial. We go this way commemorates a shared love of knowledge about all things that link and bind humans to the natural world, a subject to which Ms Tisdall continues to devote much attention.

o Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys: we go this way (Violette Editions, London, 1998), 416 pp, 410 b/w ills, £29.95, $45 (pb) ISBN 190082812X

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The way to go'