Last year was the centenary of the birth of Joseph Beuys. Centenary exhibitions included ‘The Inventor of Electricity – Joseph Beuys and the Christian Impulse’ in St. Matthew’s Church, Berlin, which explored how deeply many of the artist’s works are rooted in his beliefs, which were influenced by Rudolf Steiner. In a recent article for ArtWay, Wessel Stoker builds on this proposal to argue that Beuys was a “spiritual artist who was inspired by the person of Christ, thanks especially to Rudolf Steiner” and that “Beuys’ spirituality is what drives his diverse work.”
Eric Michaud and Rosalind Krauss made a similar claim much earlier when they suggested, in 1988, that “Beuys wanted to make art the instrument of resurrection, for the unification of man” and, “The desire to spread Christianity’s faith in the possibility of each human being’s rebirth excited this apostle of “the expanded concept of art” just as it had once stirred the master of the German Renaissance [Durer].”
From 1947 to 1953 Beuys worked with German sculptor Ewald Mataré on a number of commissions, including churches, in the post-war rebuilding of Germany. Matthew Biro notes that many of “the early sculptures are religious in nature, reflecting the Catholic context in which Beuys was raised, as well as the religious interests of his first patrons.” Many of his first works were crucifixes. Biro continues, writing that: “In 1958, when he emerged from his spiritual crisis, Beuys’s art had subtly changed. Although he continued to struggle with the question of resurrection and rebirth, a new historical specificity began to pervade his work, linking his ambiguous mythical themes to the postwar German context. The cross, for example, which initially appeared in his work with purely Christian significations, re-emerged as a red cross in many sculptures and drawings; a transformation which linked the Christian theme of resurrection to the actions of the war-time medical units.”
Jim Watkins writes that “Beuys believed that Western society, and particularly Germany, had become spiritually bankrupt” and wounded. “The wound is a potent and pervasive theme” in his work with, for example his environment Show Your Wound (1974) speaking “of death and the possibility of regeneration,” and exhorting Germans to “show your wound.” Pierre-Emmanuel Perrier de la Bâthie suggests that Beuys “then set out to heal the wounds of society by returning to the primordial myth of a freely creative humanity.” In this approach, he: “took up a large number of collective references, including the figure of Christ. He then drew on the symbolic effectiveness of the Christian rite, whether formally – the Cross, for example, became a regular motif in many of his performances, sculpture or drawings – or conceptually – as in the Celtic +∿∿∿∿ action (1971), which he began by washing the feet of seven spectators and ended with his own ‘baptism’. The “spiritual dimension of his acts/actions,” de la Bâthie argues, “should then lead the spectator to take part in the transformation of the modern world.”
Stoker reminds us when asked what he thought of Rev. Friedhelm Mennekes placing his work in the Christian tradition exhibition through the 1984 exhibition Menschenbild-Christusbild in St. Mark’s Church, Nied, Frankfurt am Main, Beuys’ answer was that: “The idea of the individual is inseparably fused with that of Christ. In that respect, you cannot think of people without Christ.” Watkins reminds us that Beuys also claimed that Christ is “not a symbol for something” but “is the substance in itself.” Christ “means life”, “means power, the power of life.” Stoker concludes that, “with his Christ impulse in his own way” Beuys “developed a theology of the Holy Spirit in the spirit of Steiner.”
Stoker has also written insightfully on the spiritual in the art of Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, and Anselm Kiefer in his book ‘Where Heaven and Earth Meet’. Just as Stoker’s essay led me to other similar work on the spirituality of Beuys, so the writing of polymath David Miller – poet, artist and musician – has led me to the art of Mathias Goeritz and Wallace Berman. In the Notes to his ‘Spiritual Letters’, Miller writes that Goeritz “was a wonderful sculptor, experimental architect and visual poet.” Miller “exchanged letters with him over a long period of time, and [Goeritz] was a great encouragement” to him, especially when he was still a young poet. Goeritz “made a series of works called ‘Messages’ – a powerful series of abstract images, which he developed in response to specific Biblical passages, beginning around 1959 and extending through to at least 1975.” This series was quite strongly in Miller’s mind when he began writing ‘Spiritual Letters’.
Julieta González writes that with Messages: “Goeritz embarked on a series of paintings that returned to his interest in religious art, which he had made manifest in earlier works dealing with the theme of the cross and the divine hand. However, these later works pursued a different brand of mysticism, expressed by the artist in his manifesto ‘L’Art prière contre l’art merde’, which was published on the occasion of his exhibition at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris in 1960. In it, he protests against individualism, materialism, intellectual egocentrism, rationalism, trends and the art world in general, proposing ‘l’art prière’ (prayer art) as the antidote to vanity and ambition. Goeritz defined ‘prayer art’ as an art of the ideal and the mystic, of love and belief, of form and colour as expression of adoration, and of metaphysical and emotional experience.”
Writing of Berman, Miller notes: “Berman was a Californian artist whose major works were created between 1964 and his death in 1976. In particular, he produced a long series of collages using a forerunner of the photocopier called a Verifax machine. These were in part inspired by his interest in Kabbalism, and combined a regular – yet variable – visual framework with a wide range of imagery (using images from popular culture and images derived from spiritual traditions, amongst other things).” Miller “was intrigued by the way Berman juxtaposed highly diverse images, as well as by the visual clarity of his work, however complex, and … also very intrigued by his acknowledged inspiration from Jewish mysticism.” Berman’s significance in relation to Miller’s ‘Spiritual Letters’ “was in the way that he provided a powerful example of a thoroughly contemporary art, which took inspiration from a religious or spiritual tradition.”
David Miller paints abstract images with brush and ink which often provide the covers to his poetry collections. In his own visual art and poetry, he explores visual poetics, the title of a group exhibition he co-curated in 2013 which focused on ways in which poetry has moved into a visual dimension. His own book ‘Black, Grey and White: A Book of Visual Sonnets’ provides visual translations of the sonnet form through abstract art; his “shimmering lines of grey-black space gather and release intensity, swell and withdraw to elicit song from a reader’s white stare.”
Poets like Miller who are inspired by and who write about art offer a different response to artworks from that of the curator, critic or historian, a perspective that is insufficiently referenced by curators. Fellow artist-poet Rupert Loydell published on edition of Miller’s ‘Spiritual Letters’ and has also written several collections exploring the theme of the Annunciation using as inspiration works by Gertraud Platschek, Fra Angelico, Andy Warhol, Francis Picabia, Paul Delvaux and René Magritte.
Turning to current exhibitions in Australia, we find other examples of creative exchanges and influence in shows by Idris Murphy and Yvette Coppersmith. Idris Murphy: Backblocks shows us Murphy’s idiom as being landscape painting and painterly abstraction all at once which arises from an improvisatory incantation, the most vivid metaphors of land, space, light, mood and feeling seeming to coalesce spontaneously and unbidden. John McDonald writes that, for Murphy, “looking at the natural world also becomes a looking within the self, or the search for a relationship with the Creator of both self and world.”
Juliana O’Dean writing on an earlier survey show, states that, “Viewing the exhibition ’Colin McCahon A Question of Faith’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2003 was a powerful experience for Murphy, an affirmation that exploration of the nature of spiritual belief through the medium of contemporary painting could produce profound works of art in an age of superficiality, irony and boredom.” She continues: “Many of McCahon’s works, including his paintings of landscape, contain overtly Christian images, symbols and quotations from the Bible. William McCahon, speaking of his father’s Waterfalls series, states, ‘Colin saw the waterfall as the earth bleeding – a sacrament of light issuing from the land recalling the blood shed by Christ in his passion; Christ becoming the earth.’ This symbolic and transformative view of landscape is related to Murphy’s spiritual belief that God exists in everything. This belief becomes evident in his paintings by virtue of their powerful immediacy, transcendent shimmerings and the sense of a quivering, dynamic force within.”
As Tiarney Miekus explains, to talk about Yvette Coppersmith’s latest paintings “is to talk about another Australian painter who became enthralled with avant-garde ballet: the spiritual modernist Roger Kemp.” In 1939, Kemp saw Leonide Massine’s ballet, Les Présages “and it radicalised Kemp’s paintings, introducing circular forms that, although based on dancers, exist more like colour in movement.” “Compelled by the spiritual in art, Kemp would begin representing the spiritual heights of existence, alongside the physicality of the body.” Coppersmith: “witnessed these images in 2019, at the National Gallery of Victoria’s retrospective of Kemp’s work. It was a perfectly timed gift, particularly Kemp’s Figures in Rhythm (Composition in line world), 1936–39.” Well-known for her figurative work, she “had been experimenting in recent years with abstraction—and there was something deeply resounding within the highly energetic, nourishing marks of Kemp.”
Miekus writes that: “The meaning of presage is centred on foreboding, warning and prediction, and while Les Présages was a presage to World War II, Yvette’s presage isn’t one of negativity. She’s devoted to the concerns of climate change, but also the necessity of collective momentum beyond materialist culture. In questioning the role of the artist in a time of crisis, Yvette’s answer is to support the climate movement through art of restoration and joy. She’s recapturing the beautiful as a political space.” Her abstract paintings are “bursting with colour and energy.” Across multiple works are “densely layered, circular radiances of light”, the canvas no longer able to contain her expression; the excess being joyful.
Shira Telushkin, in writing on Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle, notes that: “Kandinsky believed a crisis was imminent, and artists could either help or do more harm. ‘Our epoch is a time of tragic collision between matter and spirit and of the downfall of the purely material world,’ he declared in his 1912 treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” In the early 1910s while still in the early stages of his artistic pursuits, “Kandinsky began exploring images of apocalypse, destruction, and social collapse, drawing mostly from the biblical Book of Revelation.” Between 1909 and 1914, he “produced dozens of studies with clearly eschatological titles, including Deluge, All Saints, Resurrection, and The Last Judgement, in addition to the series of numbered Compositions.” In these works, he “experimented with various levels of abstraction and materiality” and these “scenes of destruction were balanced with an equal interest in Revelation’s promise of a new era.”
Telushkin explains that this “line of artistic exploration was cut short by a conflict so destructive it might well have seemed apocalyptic”, “as Europe descended into the Great War.” Kandinsky eventually “ended his years in Paris, never abandoning his urgent spiritual desire to create art that draws the human spirit upward, but never again returning to the themes of apocalypse and cosmic redemption that had gripped him before World War I.”
In recent decades, Telushkin writes, “there has been a trend to subsume Kandinsky’s interest in apocalyptic motifs wholly within the broader interests in theosophy and spiritualism present in early twentieth-century Europe.” “Such influences likely did shape the artist” as he “was known to express his admiration for Helena Blavatsky, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society in 1875, and even more for Rudolf Steiner, a leader of Christian theosophy who was teaching the Book of Revelation in Munich at the same time Kandinsky lived there.” However, “such theories too easily overlook the influence of Kandinsky’s pious Russian Orthodox upbringing and the long tradition of iconography that goes with it.”
She concludes by sharing a portion of a letter written by Kandinsky in 1913 where he “mused about the similar avenues of rupture and rebirth that religion and art offer”:
“Art in many respects resembles religion. Its development consists not of new discoveries that obliterate old truths and stamp them as false (as is apparently the case in science). Its development consists in moments of sudden illumination, resembling a flash of lightning, of explosions that burst in the sky like fireworks, scattering a whole ‘bouquet’ of different colored stars around them. This illumination reveals with blinding clarity new perspectives … the continuing growth of earlier wisdom, which is not canceled out by the latter, but remains living and productive as truth and as wisdom. Christ, in his own words, came not to overthrow the old law, [but] he transformed the old material law into his own spiritual law. In this way, I have since come to conceive of nonobjective painting not as a negation of all previous art. I have always been put out by assertions that I intended to overthrow the old tradition of such painting.”
Top Photo: Joseph Beuys Photo © Artlyst 2022
Kandinsky’s argument regarding the synergies between developments in religion and those in art might just be a thread connecting all those artists and movements that have been considered in this piece.
Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 8 October 2021 – 5 September 2022.
Idris Murphy: Backblocks, Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra, 19 August – 16 October 2022.
Yvette Coppersmith: Presage, sullivan+strumpf, Sydney, 25 August – 17 September 2022.
Joseph Beuys: A Spiritual German Artist – An Impression by Wessel Stoker – https://www.artway.eu/artway.php?id=1260&lang=en&action=show&type=current
Spiritual Letters by David Miller, Spuyten Duyvil Publishing (29 June 2022)