research paper

Insight into Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and Justin Mortimer artistic perspective and how they have dealt with change in society in their artistic practice.




This research gives insight into the artists Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and Justin Mortimer in how they have dealt with the changes to society in their art practice. All three artist have lived in different times over the last century, it is to give insight how they have creatively drawn on the changes in society to be reflected in their artistic practice. How creativity has been used to change the outlook on society to create a new perspective. How technology has been used in their artistic practice to change their approach to creativity. To look at the different political obstacles that each artist has had to overcome individually in there art practice. The purpose of this research is to explore that creativity and artist are needed for society to continue to change and its decisions to create a more balanced society.




Artist, perception, dimension, society, creativity




In the last century in particular, the Second World War experiences and how it caused a dramatic human loss of life. Artists have responded to their own personal experiences and the impact this has had on society in their art practice. These three artists, Beuys, Kiefer and Mortimer have lived in different times, Second World War, post-war Germany and in the Cold War. It is with the imagination and creative ideas that they can question the past and look into the future. It is developing a different perspective from the real that questions the past, present and future. The questions are needed. Currently at this time, technology makes a lot of the decisions. Artists are able to question the real and interpret an original perspective, and ensure there is still a space for imagination and creativity. Joanna Bourke describes ‘global history of war art explores some of the ways artist have blended colours, textures and patterns to depict wartime ideologies, practices, values and symbols’ (Bourke, 2017, p. 7). Artist use varies techniques to develop a language that express a moment in time or create a new moment with imagination to understand the past or future more clearly.


Joseph Beuys (1921-1986)


Joseph Beuys lived through the horror of the Second World War and the aftermath of Germany. This shaped his ideas within society. Beuys thought that ‘Every human being is an artist’ Beuys, J (Utopia at the Stag Monuments, 2018). He believed in art started from word and thought. He wanted a conversation to occur for people to speak and listen to ideas, Beuys was more concerned about the possibilities to communicate with the people, ‘People need language to communicate, they use gestures, or writing, or leave a sign on a wall, or write letters with a typewriter. In short, they use some kind of method. What methods are to be used for political action? I have chosen art. Making art is thus a means to work in the field of thought…this is the most important part of my work. The rest, objects, drawings, actions, come later. I don’t have much to do with art. I am interested in art only in that it gives me the possibility to communicate with people’ (D’Avossa, 2013, p. 15).Beuys was a Flux artist where the process is more important than the finished outcome.


Posters were a way that Beuys could communicate his thought and relate to the individual by the nature of their physicality. As an artist he wanted to communicate social change. Beuys’ photograph was taken for the posters, they were then distributed to raise awareness of change and give hope that different thought is possible. This was a way to communicate to the masses. It wasn’t an advertisement and the viewer wasn’t being sold a commodity. It was about an individual, not consumerism, but an idea for the people. It was to trigger a conversation and raise awareness to the people about the possibilities of change. Beuy was to spread his ideas with the posters they were social sculptures that were understood in relation to his ideas. The posters had information of ideas, ‘Free International University. Discussion with Beuys’ (Figure 1) and ‘We Are The Revolution’ (Figure 2). This was a way to be physically available to a larger audience and the posters became a ‘social sculpture’. This was the way Beuys could communicate in his art practice about ideas and future meetings that could change the perspective of the individual and change society to think differently in its structure. It was the hope that was needed in a country that had suppressed feelings after the war.

Currently in London, Beuys has an exhibition on at Tate Modern in the Artist Rooms to the 4thNovember 2018. The collection of work includes posters, black boards (Figure 3) that are pivotal in his performance between him and the audience and a film that documents him and the relationship with the audience. The black boards explored his theories that it is up to all human beings to shape our world. The authority doesn’t sit with one person it is up to everyone to be able to make changes.

Beuys had challenged the ideas of how many students could be in his class at Academy of Art in Dusseldorf. He questioned the establishment and their control over the limitations to learn. Beuys challenged this idea of authority with ‘Free International University’ (Figure 1),anddisturbed posters and wrote a manifesto with Heinrich Boll in 1973. That knowledge could be accessible to others with the help of the advancement of technology with posters and radios. That information should be shared and not decided by the authority, that it should be with the people. In the Document 6, 1977, a public address via satellite, Beuys continued to speak about a new world where he believes in a world that is available to everyone, that socially helps the community. He describes, ‘cultural life not only art but the schools, the universities, the press, radio, television, the information that will also be part of the life of state’ Beuys, J. (1977) The Shock of the New (2018). To create a place where the state can be replaced with a society that is self governed. The structure of society can be changed, by sharing knowledge and to think creatively about a different structure. However their needs to be openness to change, where Beuys thought it was possible with artists, and as he thought everyone was an artist, it would be every individual’s decision.


In the installation ‘The Pack’ (Figure 4) Beuys explored his own personal mythology and story. There is a VW with the back open and sledges lined up on the floor with felt rolled up as mat, a lump of fat and flash lights sit on each individual sledge. Beuys installation was made from his own personal story from the war when he crashed a plane and was saved from no-mads, the tar tar tribe’s men. This story was unclear if the rescue took place but it became a great mystery of Beuys’ life and how he had his own mythological stories. This installation had significance socially where there were possibilities of a nuclear holocaust at this time. Beuys expressed the need to look after each other. This is represented by many sledges available to help.


The project that can be seen to reflect his ideas of communication and conversation in action is with is the Oak Tree Project. In Kassel, Germany, Beuys wanted to grow 7,000 oak trees with a stone next to each. This would not be possible without the help of the community. This project was successful and still the trees grow today long after his death. There are committees that ensure there are always 7,00 oak trees. It was thought that Beuys chose this location due to 85% was flattened by the war. Each oak tree has the stone next to the oak to represent civilisation. That this relationship of nature and civilisation needs to be work together and as humans we need to constantly nurture the environment to not cause destruction.

Anselm Kiefer (1945 – )

Kiefer early work of the Hitler Salute (Figure 5) raised a lot of controversy with the public not knowing if he was a Neo-Nazi. Kiefer intention was to not let people forget, it was a protest not to forget. After the Second World War there was a lot of suppression and feelings of guilt that were not spoken about in Germany. Although, the salute if seen in an instant may cause a reaction to think he was pro Nazi on the surface, however, it was the opposite. This also dealt with Kiefer’s feelings from being born at the end of the Second World War, this guilt of not being involved but to question what would his role be if he were alive during time of the war. Kiefer didn’t identify with Hitler however he wanted to understand.

Kiefer was able to visually give insight into poetry that was written during the war. His imagination of being able to create a physical space with nature and reflect on the poetry. In Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fague’, please see selection below, is about evil suffering and racism. Kiefer has made a series of work, ‘Margarethe’(Figure 6) and ‘Sülamith’ (Figure 7)


Paul Celan ‘Death Fague’                           

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink
and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in
the air
He plays with the serpents and daydreams death is
a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith

Kiefer did not paint Margarethe’(Figure 6) and ‘Sülamith’ (Figure 7) in a flat texture, he added ash, earth and straw to give more physicality to the painting. It becomes more physical it has a presence of parts of the earth. This strong physicality of texture and material is needed to represent the horrors of the past and the destruction. It has been constructed by Kiefer to make sense of the poem and reflect on the past. In an interview Kiefer makes this comment, ‘You can be seduced to think that art can redeem the world, it can not’ (The German painter and sculptor – New Documentary, 2016).


Theodor W.Ardno supposed statement that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. This could be challenged by Paul Celan’s poem by being an inspiration for other artists. This would be challenged by Kiefer’s artwork because he wanted people to feel and not to forget. Kiefer was able to create a physical representation from this poem in an abstract context. It has been give meaning in a physical sense with space and time. Poems however written after the First World War, ‘Anthem for Doom’ by Wilfred Owen emotionally describes human existence and suffering of war. There was not a lot learnt from the First World War with the loss of life to then the repeat the pattern in the Second World War. This may relate to Kiefer statement, that art cannot redeem the world.


Anthem for Doomed Youth


What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.


What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


The Culture Industry written by Adorno’s around the time of the Second World War while on exile wanted to resist the cultural trends of a capitalist society. He believed the importance of art that was not made for pleasure but for the opposite. This then would allow for critical thinking of the culture and influence change.


Kiefer combines German history and mythological themes. ‘Walhalla’ (November 2016 – February 2017) at white cube gallery in London was a solo exhibition of Kiefer’s large-scale paintings, sculptures and installations. ‘Wallhalla’ (Figure 8) is a place in mythology where it is ‘the hall of fallen warriors of Norse mythology, were first recorded in the Poetic Edda, or Codex Regius, a book of Old Norse poems compiled in the 13thcentury.’ (Stonard, 2017, p. 51) Kiefer has made the mythology into an installation that is like a war zone, hospital beds line the central space in the corridor. The only hope is seen with the figure at the end of the central space, walks away into the distance to the light. The installation is made from lead; the sculpture forms of the beds carry heaviness that this heaviness and the tragedy still live on. There are no figures, just empty beds. The way Kiefer allows the viewer to interpret their own meaning, allows deeper connection to the piece of art that is beyond that particular time and space of the gallery.

Justin Mortimer (1970 – )

In Justin Mortimer’s artwork, his process is something that can give insight into his final outcome. Firstly, images are collected this can be photographs, from the historical or from the present. The images are than organised on his computer where collages are created before the painting is started. This allows an image to create a new environment that is further away from the reality. ‘It’s a very strange love/hate relationship between the painted and the digital’ (Mortimer, 2012, pg86). Mortimer plays around with the images of the photographs to ensure he is happy with the composition before he will start to paint.

‘Creche’ (Figure 9) has different objects that are within the composition, balloons, surgical bed, computer screen and a patient. The different objects would not of been seen together if a photograph was taken, it is hard to work out compositionally how this could work as one image. But somehow with the view point of Mortimer he is able to create a new composition that explores much more than what can be seen within the reality of a one photograph. He is able to allow a new meaning to the different objects; balloons are usually at a party. Looking at the balloons first as the scale is a large proportion of the painting the cropped feet of the patient on the bed are seen next. This adds more mystery to the painting. It raises questions around the circumstances of the patient. Mortimer is able to question different relationships in his work from balloons that are more likely seen at a party to contrast with cropped legs of a patient. It also contrasts styles from figurative detail to abstract images in the painting.

The time in which Mortimer grew up, and circumstances he experienced have influenced his artwork. He was born in 1970’s, this generation living through the Cold War. In reading Jane Neal’s, introduction, After the party, it has become clear how his generation and the impacts of history have influenced. In the 1990’s there was a new found freedom, the Berlin war had collapsed, it was a time to celebrate, ‘The party was in full swing and know one thought it was going to end’ (Neal, 2012, p. 5).  The party did stop, on September 11th2001 when the war on terror begun. The balloons as described are acting as an abstract form. They are abstract but balloons also represent a party, the party of the 90’s that seemed it would last, but like a balloon it quickly popped and left with an unknown future. The imagination within the compositions of realistic painting of the human forms for medical journals contrasted with the balloons as abstract forms create a different futuristic world that is not real. It gives a different dimension that cannot be viewed within time, but with the contrasts from history and the representation forms it becomes a new dimension that almost seems possible.


Jane Neal suggests that the 90’s are a party decade, however in Speculative Everything by Anthony Dune and Fiona Ray, they discuss a dimensional system. With the collapse of the Berlin War, it then confirmed that Capitalism was the model. It wasn’t until September 11thand the financial crisis in 2008 where Capitalism became to be under question. ‘And although no new forms of capitalism have emerged yet, there is a growing desire for other ways of managing our economic lives and the relationship among state, market, citizen, and consumer’. (Baby, Dunn, p.9).





All three artists perceive the world in different ways and dimensions in their art practice. It is a lot like every individual perceives the outside world and their internal self differently. It is with conflict that one can see each other differences and can view the extreme ugliness of society and realise the impacts that humans can have on their surrounds. It has taken decades not to suppress the pain that has been felt from the aftermath of the Second World War. Artist have conceptually thought about the pain and dealt with the suffering that is evident in society. To stop to suppress feelings, it is important to believe that everyone is an artist to ensure society remembers and reflects on their past. In the future, it is impossible to know what is next, however it is important not to just hope but dream as described in Speculative Everything, ‘once again begin to dream’ (Baby, Dunn, p.9).Artists are needed to imagine or question our environment. To ensure nature will continue and will not be destructed and that conversations will continue. Artist can create different perspective and dimensions in their art practice. This creativity is needed in a society of technological advancement to ensure that new viewpoints are visited, and current or old views are questioned.


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