Joseph Beuys (1921 - 1986) is among the most influential and revolutionary artists of the XXth Century. With his art and his artistic practice, Beuys anticipated today's issues and debates: the relationship between man and nature, ecology, peace, art as social commitment and spiritual research. Atypical character compared to the artistic movements, his practice can hardly be categorized - he has been linked to Minimalism, Arte Povera, Performance Art and Conceptual Art. Beuys used himself as a medium for his own art, highlighting the anthropological power of all art. His urgency to speak, to communicate, to express himself with any means is fully transposed in the work of his whole life as well as in his performances, also known as Aktionen, as himself called them, in which he used innovative expressive devices and peculiar materials: his predilection for fat and felt is well-known, two elements that are connected to his intricate autobiographical narration and which recur throughout his artistic production. For Beuys being an artist meant living a life together with other people, seeking in a relationship of fraternal collaboration that "elementary and profound understanding for what happens on earth", because what happens in our world also happens within us.
Born in a small town on the Dutch border of Germany, Beuys grew up in the oppressive climate of the Nazi period. As a child he showed an interest and a calling for the natural sciences, but growing up he felt a strong fascination for the arts and especially for sculpture. However, when the war broke out, he decided to enroll in the Faculty of Medicine, abandoning his inclinations. In 1941 he enlisted in the Luftwaffe and was trained as an airborne radio operator. In 1943 the event that most significantly marked his personal story took place: while he was on a military mission, the airplane he was flying on crashed in the Crimea territory. The impact resulted in the death of the pilot and left Beuys severely injured to the head. He was semi-conscious for twelve days. Then, he woke up in a German military hospital. Over the years he would recount having been rescued after the crash by some Tartar nomads, then being welcomed into one of their tents and medicated for eight days with compresses of animal fat and felt - poor materials - but useful for soothing the severe wounds to his head. The episode seeped through Beuys' subconscious, becoming an unstoppable generative force that would manifest in all of his subsequent production. Today many question the truthfulness of this event, but the so-called "Tartar Myth" is indeed a crucial point in the narration and structure of Beuys' artistic personality.
At the end of the war, after spending a few weeks in an Allied prison camp, Beuys decided to enroll in the Düsseldorf Fine Arts Academy and began studying sculpture with Ewald Matarè as his professor. In these years he broadened his intellectual training, leaning towards romantic authors such as Schiller and Novalis, as well as Joyce; he was also deeply influenced by the anthroposophical theories of Rudolf Steiner. He continued to cultivate his love for nature by assisting Heinz Sielmann, who had been his instructor in the army, in the making of nature documentaries.
In 1961 he became professor of sculpture at Düsseldorf Academy; the following year he began a fruitful collaboration with Fluxus, a group of neo-Dada artists from various fields who proposed extremely innovative forms of art. Rather than focusing specifically on the artwork, the creative process was the centre of their research. From this important encounter on, Beuys began his first Aktionen, his first performances. How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, which took place in Düsseldorf in 1965, is certainly one of the most famous of that period. It is emblematic for its symbolic density and the ceremonial rituality of the gestures. The following year he created Homogeneous Infiltration for Grand Piano (now in the collection of the Center Pompidou in Paris). In both performances Beuys used felt, which became the absolute protagonist of his works, such as Felt Suit (1970, in the collection of the Tate in London) and The Sled (1969), in which fat is also used. In Fat Chair (1964), this unusual material for art was prominently featured.
The collaboration with Fluxus didn't last long, but Beuys kept using the Aktion as a medium. It became a highly effective tool in the affirmation of political and social demands. In fact, a large part of Beuys' artistic production is inextricably linked to a certain political militancy. Founding The Green Party in 1980 was the highest point of his political engagement. Environmental awareness was a crucial theme for the artist (it became evident with the artwork 7000 oaks, made in Kassel for Documenta 7 and ended after Beuys' death) as well as the problem of the right to education. In 1967 he was the founder of The Students German Party, meeting some of his students's demand to be heard and represented. Five years later he went directly to Düsseldorf Academy director and was able to have 142 students who had failed the admission test enrolled. In the same year, though, due to his radical position, he was dismissed as a professor. He then founded the Free International School for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research, with temporary locations all across Europe. Broadly speaking, Beuys' major goal was making art accessible and enjoyable by eveyone: «Every human being is an artist» is one of the his most iconic statements, meaning that every human being has an intrinsic and innate creativity that must be celebrated. Everyone can take part in a creative process that, in Beuys' vision, has the power to subvert and revolutionize the established order, with all its limitations and shortcomings, especially evident in the devastated and torn post-war Germany. Every human being has the chance to modify the structure of society relations using all the creative and expressive means at his disposal. This is what Beuys meant when talking about Soziale Plastik, "social sculpture".
It is therefore very much understandable his choice to make editioned works. They boosted his activist businesses, becoming vehicles facilitating the diffusion of political messages. At the same time, they also embodied the ideology of a "democratic" art, available and usable to as many people as possible. The artwork 2 Shafskopfe (2 sheep's heads) has been made in 90 single originals dated 1961-1975. One of them is in Galleria d'Arte Maggiore g.a.m.'s collection. The oil on paper has a hole in the centre; in backlight on the oil two shapes are noticeable and their outlines suggest two sheep's heads, traced on the black painting with animal fat. The presence of the sheep is not surprising, considering the substantial amount of works by Beuys in which animals appear. For example, the already mentioned How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, but also the Aktion - I like America and America likes me (1974, New York), where Beuys locked himself in a cage with a coyote: he wrapped himself in a large piece of felt to protect himself; only having a few tools, he spent three days close to the animal, trying to earn his trust. Choosing the sheep is linked to its imagery: it refers to a partnership between man and animal, a mutually beneficial coexistence, but also to biblical and evangelical symbols, in which the faithful are often metaphorically called by the name of the animal. The hole stands exactly on one of the two sheep's heads - like a wound surrounded by the same fat that had healed the artist in his dramatic plane crash - and it is healed in its double standing next to it. Joseph Beuys stood out also for another detail: he always wore a felt hat on his head. It was an active memory of a highly therapeutic material, along with fat, in contact with the skin.
Jospeph Beuys was invited to La Biennale di Venezia in 1976 and 1980. In 1979 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York held a retrospective exhibition. Over the years many institutions across the world organized exhibitions about him, such as the Seibu Museum of Art in Tokyo, the Tate Liverpool, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Modern in London, just to mention a few. Nowadays his works are in the most important museums permanent collections, as the Tate (that owns a 2 Shafskopfe single original), the MoMA in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.