Health Helper
Joseph Beuys Health Helper, 1979
plastic sign, ink
Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992
(c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY
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MEDICINE AND HEALING


One of the many roles Joseph Beuys assigned himself was that of healer, and he often spoke of a vast social wound that needed repair. No doubt he was making a general statement about the state of Western culture, but he must also have been thinking about his own country's moral devastation in the wake of World War II. His art offered both poetic representations of the injury and practical prescriptions for a cure (see Political Activism guide), and alludes to healing techniques of all kinds, both physical and spiritual: Western medicine (salves of sulphur, gauze and adhesive bandages, X rays), homeopathy and natural cures (copper, herbs), the Christian notion of suffering, redemption, and rebirth (motifs of the cross, baptism), and the ecstatic, mystical activities of the shaman, who serves as a channel for the flow of energy between the earthly and spiritiual realms.







Backrest
Joseph Beuys Backrest for a Fine-Limbed Person (Hare-Type) of the 20th Century A.D., 1972
iron casting
Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection, Walker Art Center, T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1992
(c)1997 Estate of Joseph Beuys/ARS, NY


The dualities of art as tool and wound are evoked in the doubled photographs of the multiple Show Your Wound (1977), a simultaneous allusion to Christ's display of his stigmata and the image of a hospital radiograph used in World War II, which is incorporated into the work. Sulphur-Covered Zinc Box (Plugged Corner) (1970), presents sulphur as both a destructive and healing agent, the gauze stopper in the corner might be seen as the stanch to a wound. Health Helper (1979), incorporates the sign of the Red Cross and the Holy Cross with the artist's name, signaling his dual status as artist and shamanistic transformer. Ultimately, Sled (1969), with its organic references to spiritual and physical survival in times of crisis, is Beuys' "emergency kit." It contains bodily sustenance (fat), spiritual guidance (flashlight), and insulation against the elements (felt).

Beuys argued that the key to survival was in the collective transformation of the "social organism." For him, communication between the domains of the spiritual and the earthly were primary to cultural regeneration. The print Tramstop (1977) presents a metal cruciform sculpture that serves to commemorate his hometown, Kleve, where he meditated on the political actions of Anacharsis Cloots, a local folk hero. Vitex agnus castus (1973), with its verbal play on Latin for the "Lamb of God," both alludes to the suffering of Christ and explores the healing properties of the plant named in the title. Backrest for a Fine-Limbed Person (Hare-Type) of the 20th Century A.D. (1972) is based on a plaster cast used to treat a child's spinal disorders, and also refers to rebirth through the hare, an ancient symbol of fertility.

During the war, Beuys combined his interest in botany with cooking and he hunted in the fields around his bunker for wild plants, as is illustrated in the multiple Botanical Madness (1976). Beuys was interested in medieval chemistry, or alchemy, which was concerned both with the transmutation of base materials into gold and with finding a universal cure for disease. His art often incorporates sulphur, gold, zinc, silver, and other substances that have both medicinal and alchemical applications. The influence of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), founder of anthroposophy, who combined the activities of spirituality and medicine, homeopathy and political activity, is evident in Mirror Piece (1975), a painted bottle containing crystal iodine, which is a topical healing agent and a poison if taken internally.

The dual aspects of poison and cure are central to the science of homeopathy. This wedding of chemical and transcendent properties is seen in the multiple Cuprum 0,3% unguentum metallicum praeparatum (1978-1986), a beeswax block shot through with copper whose title is the formula for a homeopathic remedy with which Beuys was treating himself. One of his last works, the multiple represents somewhat poignantly the dual aspects of unguent as a medicinal salve and spiritual anointment.

-Amy Levine, University of Minnesota

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FURTHER READING

Levine, Amy E. and Arthur S. Levine. "Creativity in Scientists: Do We Know It When We See It?." In The New Biologist 2 (March 1990), pp. 207-209.

Murken, Axel Hinrich. Joseph Beuys und die Medizin. Münster, Germany: F. Coppenrath Verlag, 1979.

Stemmler, Dierk. "On the Multiples of Joseph Beuys." In Joseph Beuys: The Multiples. Cambridge, Mass., Minneapolis, and Munich/New York: Harvard University Art Museums, Walker Art Center, and Edition Schellmann, 1997.