Kunstsammlung NRW

What Would Beuys have Wanted? The Cleaning of a Major Early Work

To mark the 30th anniversary of Joseph Beuys’ death, and at the same time, his 95th birthday, the Museum Kurhaus Kleve is organizing an exhibition that will present the most important work ensembles in the artist's former studio rooms. Joseph Beuys Werklinien (Work Lines) focuses on works such as the “Büdericher Ehrenmal” (Büderich Memorial), which relates directly to the milieu around Kleve.

For #32, Ralf Daute reports on the restoration of this monumental early work by Joseph Beuys.

The local newspapers mocked a "filthy Beuys" – but in this instance, there was no question of narrow-minded art criticism, delivered sledgehammer-style, but instead of a straightforward description of how things actually were on site.

Having been set up in its intended location, a church tower in the Meerbusch District, the Büdericher Ehrenmal (Büderich Memorial), dedicated to the fallen of World War II and a central work of Joseph Beuys’ early career, fell victim to "natural processes": nesting pigeons had dirtied the monumental wooden cross with their acrid droppings.

Valentina Vlasic at the Museum Kurhaus in Kleve was appalled when she saw the sixty-year-old artwork in this condition. She had every intention of including the work in the exhibition "Josef Beuys: WERKLINIEN" (on view until September 4th). Her motive: this monumental, curving cross, fashioned from oak wood and with iron mountings, is of central significance for Beuys’ early production: in the mid-1950s, Beuys turned his back on Düsseldorf, having been refused success as an artist. In Kranenburg in the Lower Rhine, he hired himself out as a field worker on a farm. Which is why the news that he had been awarded the commission for the memorial reached him only after weeks of delay.

Suddenly, he was confronted with a problem: he had no studio in which to fulfill the commission. He succeeded in locating a suitable space in the vacant spa building in Kleve, which he rented from the municipality. With the completion of the memorial, Beuys finally enjoyed success as an artist: "From that moment onward, everything was different," explains exhibition organizer Valentina Vlasic. Incidentally, the studio space, renovated just a few years ago, today belongs to the Museum Kurhaus in this town in the Lower Rhine region.

To make the cross presentable again, Vlasic initiated a somewhat unconventional cleaning procedure with the assistance of the Rhineland Regional Council – which is responsible in this instance because the memorial, together with the church portal and tower, constitute a landmarks protected architectural monument. At the Rheinische Amt für Denkmalpflege (Rhenish Agency for the Preservation of Historic Monuments) in Brauweiler near Cologne, the work received intensive treatment: conservator Andrea Ollendorf was busy for weeks with the wooden cross and the equally soiled portal of the memorial complex.

Harshly lit, the work lay in front of her on a bench, as though on an operating table. In carrying out her work, Ollendorf had to wear a protective mask – pigeon feces is not harmless – while she scraped off the material with the scalpel, millimeter by millimeter. For safety reasons, the particles were fed immediately into a hazardous waste vacuum cleaner.

For Ollendorf, this was a remarkable commission: "When do you get a chance to work on a Beuys?" The crux of the matter is that Beuys consciously incorporated processes of decay and change into his works. "Weathering, aging, corrosion, Beuys accepted such processes," explains chief conservator Ludger J. Sutthoff. The cracks that have begun to appear in the oak wood of the cross will remain untouched. The personal signatures left by the pigeons on the crucifix, however, will not.

But what about the screws that were countersunk into the wooden cross at some later point in time, apparently in order to give the structure stability? It seems likely that a tradesman is responsible for this step. "As a conservator, you have to be a bit of a detective," says Norbert Engels, one of the conservatives of the Regional Council, who is involved with the memorial.

One crucial question is: What would Beuys have wanted? The right answer is not ready to hand, for this was an artist who continually pushed the boundaries: in 1972, he collected rubbish from the street during a May Day demonstration in Berlin and collected it in a glass display case. Nor should we forget the "Fat Corner," installed at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, which fell victim in 1986 to an overeager caretaker.

Which is why a scholarly symposium has been organized to take up the question of which restoration measures are appropriate for works by Beuys today. With the pigeon droppings, still a simple question, one that could simply be answered with an emphatic: "It has to go!" Today, visitors to the Museum Kurhaus can enjoy viewing a thoroughly cleaned memorial. Aside from the natural effects of aging, it looks almost as it did in the 1950s when it left the artist's studio – located, incidentally, in the same building the museum inhabits today.