Robert Gauldie

Four for Joseph Beuys


I couldn't say his name right.
Until I mentioned fat and felt they thought that
I was talking about some nut.

I never did ask how it felt
To be so confident.
But I remembered the beautiful girl,
Queenly consort to some handsome King.
Was that how they saw him?
The centre of discovery.

Or were these just the also-soldiers,
Who found it easier not to understand
What none was ever meant to know.
To accept,
Like themselves,
So handsome,
So beautiful,
So confident,
The centre of discovery.
Singing like birds, with never a line to learn,
One endless, careless, enraptured song.


Joseph's father loved him,
But his brothers (creeps) made him join the Luftwaffe.
Jealousy it was, or revenge, whatever.
But he went far, into Russian Egypt,
Coming down into a red sea of fire
That all his faith could never part.
But the pharaohs' children clothed him.
Fat, felt, fur, fat,
Casing himself upon himself,
Healing, warming,
Wrapped in strange eastern stuffs,
A stranger, foreign-tongued,
In distant Alexandria,
Fallen like a burning star upon those wind-swept plains.

At home upon the Alexander-Platz, he flew again,
Bombing the high uplands of academic Egypt.
With his fishing coat of monocolour
And fedora fitted, peasant fashion,
Leading his army, terrorist professor.
Handsome Hansel, beautiful Gretel,
Throwing flowers at police,
Making sex a safe substitute
For economics, and scattering logic
Like breadcrumbs in the dead leaves.


Anselm knew her long before the war,
With braided hair and sensible dark shoes,
Playing Beethoven with fire
In triple-knitted woolen underwear;
Bringing order, culture, reason,
To a world of rats and scuttling vermin.

Margarethe with platform shoes
Clatters after Joseph.
Her unencumbered breasts sway liquid fire,
That fat and felt cannot protect against,
Burning Joseph,
Breeding desire out of his ashes,
Bringing disorder, change, vision,
Breaking the iron-bound bunkers of pillared wisdom.


Mimi smiles and tolerates.
The weather is warm, and the breeze
Redolent with flowery perfumes
That fill the languid air with messages and sighs.

Joseph plays the carpenter,
Struggling against the grain,
Until with wobbling legs a table rises.
A place in the doorway for coffee and a tin spoon.

The plane trembles in the turbulent air.
"That was Eden," Joseph said; and Mimi
Takes the coffee, unwraps his spoon,
And smiles, like Eve, and tolerates.


Joseph Beuys is a protean figure in the intellectual development of the children of the post-war generation. Gripped by pre-war German militarism, he transforms himself into an anti-militarist post-war German. Gripped by the university academic system, he transforms himself into an anti-academic intellectual leader; but held on to long enough, then he shows his original form. It is in this sense that Beuys had his greatest impact. Unlike the youthful anti-military, anti-establishment protesters of the 60's and 70's, Beuys has been military and has been establishment. He carries on his body all of his history, his message for all to read. Even when he is at his most radical in art, he still has the conservative German militarist about him; instead of great-coat and spiked helmet, his fedora and fishing jacket give away his rank and number. While he attacks academia, he wears the insignia of the German peasant promoted to the middle class: the iron cross bourgeois. Just as Germany rises more powerful than ever from the ashes of the Third Reich, so Beuys rises phoenix-like from the blazing wreckage of the crashed bomber that he piloted into Russia. Just as Germany must call on its oldest, deepest strengths to regenerate itself, so Beuys survives and lives by being treated by a shaman: a healer whose healing evokes the body's oldest, deepest strengths to regenerate itself.
           Beuys is also an intellectual anti-academic. This is a common German theme from Luther, through the volksmarchen, to Kurt Weill and Nico. It is Germany's special strength that allows new intellectual movements the luxury of calling on all of the intellectual history of the past. It is in this sense that Beuys assumes a special importance to those of us outside Germany because he is the key to the translation of post-war German art. Post-war German art maintains the pre-war tendency of reducing complex artistic issues into a spare, and often tension-ridden, symbolism. Klee, Schwitters, Wols were producing a tense and anti-establishment symbolist art before and during the war that appears metamorphosed into an enlarged form in the works of Keifer, Baselitz and other post-war German artists. It is as if the pre-war symbolists stepped outside and saw an immense vista of destruction and chaos that simply could neither fit within their small canvases, nor be translated their slender repertoire of symbols. Out of this shock and dismay, out of these smoking ruins of German intellectual life comes Beuys like a modern Moses with messages, not from God written on a gold tablet, but from the ancient teuton shamans written on his own burned body.
           However, in the German tradition, Beuys builds and explains, lectures in an anti-university preaching an intellectual anti-thesis. Beuys compels us to look backwards as well as forwards, to use the deep well-springs of the body to cultivate the mind. At the same time, Beuys leads a rag-tag army of young people whose vision of the past is blocked by the horrors of the second world war, yet without that vision, they cannot construct a future. They are the most difficult pieces of the puzzle. They cannot be Joseph Beuys. That cannot believe what he believes, because they have not lived his life. But he can show them how it feels to be Joseph Beuys. Beuys is the prophet of the covenant; the preacher of the leap of faith that connects time to past across the long-smouldering ruins of the war.

Bob Gauldie is a scientist who is reasonably well-known in the little pond of fish science (http://robert.gauldie.com). Bob has also paid his dues in the tribal world of University Administration; always an environment that encourages one to be philosophical.

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