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Those Who Do Not Want To Think Should Be Thrown Out! – Joseph Beuys and Mangelos

Aver nicht denken will, fliegt raus! 

(“Those who don’t want to think should be thrown out!”)

Goethe-Institute Belgrade – U10 Art Space – New Gallery of Visual Arts

26/08/2021 – 18/09/2021

In 1921, two artists were born who would significantly changed the concept of art with their life and work. Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld, Germany, and Dimitrije Bašičević Mangelos was born in Šid, Yugoslavia. It is also interesting that they died within a short time interval between each other: Beuys in 1986, and Mangelos in 1987. Both artists were strongly marked by the direct aftermath of the Second World War, experiences at the brink of death, and the destruction and massacres of incredible proportions. Beuys described his feeling of a near-death experience, when the plane in which he was the co-pilot crashed in the Crimea during the war (1944), in a special section of his idiosyncratic curriculum vitae Lebenslauf / Werklauf, called The Story. After the crash, Beuys was found frozen and unconscious by Crimean Tatar tribesmen, who rescued him by wrapping his body in felt, having previously smeared it with animal fat. (Even if this episode was invented by the artist – although we encounter references to this event in the work of many theorists (Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Beuys: Sumrak idola, uvodne bilješke za kritiku, from: dossier beuys, ed. Ješa Denegri, DAF, Zagreb, 2003, p. 100) – it speaks of his obsession with the moment of being on the edge of death). Animal fat and felt became two of the basic elements of his art as well as his philosophy, in which both the technical and speculative aspects of Beuys’s views on sculpture are represented: “My original intention when using fat was to start a discussion. I was attracted by the elasticity of that material, especially considering its changes at different temperatures. This elasticity is psychologically effective – people instinctively feel its connection with internal processes and feelings. I wanted to initiate a discussion about the possibilities of sculpture and culture; about what they mean, and also about language, human production and creativity. Therefore, I took an extreme position in sculpture, I used a material that is very close to life and not related to art. At that time, although I had not yet exhibited, students and artists who saw the work reacted with interest, which confirmed my feeling of the effect that the placement of fat in the corner would have. People started to laugh, they were angry, or they tried to destroy it.” (Jozef Bojs in: Demosthenes Davvetas: ‘Joseph Beuys – čovjek je skulptura’, in: dossier beuys, op.cit, p.164)

At the beginning of the Second World War, Mangelos started marking the first news of dead friends or relatives on small black monochrome surfaces in his high school notebooks. When the war reached the gates of his house in Šid, Mangelos hid the notebooks along with other precious books from his home library, locking them in a chest and burying them under the ground. After the war, he took out these notes and marked the black monochromes with the titles Paysages de la guerre and Paysages de la mort. As part of a lecture on the activities of the Gorgona group held at the MoMA Museum in New York in 2013, Mangelos’ monochromes were defined in the following way: “Mangelos and his black surfaces with small red markings: they were created in the early 1940s, and we thereforeplace them in their artistic and historical context; they could be placed next to Rodchenko’s or Reinhart’s black paintings.” (Ješa Denegri, ‘Gorgona Group—Now and Then’, Post (MoMA Web resource), posted July 9, 2013,http://post.at.moma.org/content_items/176-gorgona-group-now-and-then)

Mangelos had his own experience of imminent death in 1942, when he escaped execution by a Nazi (Ustasha) firing squad by fleeing to Vienna, where he was employed in a labour camp manufacturing aircraft parts. When the conditions were met for him to obtain permission to leave the factory, he began his art history studies at the University of Vienna in 1942. Mangelos’ awareness of death did not end there; on the contrary, it became a motif strongly present in his entire oeuvre, culminating in the Šid Manifesto (1977), in which he accurately predicted the year of his own death (1987). And indeed, after being struck by an illness, he died in 1987 exactly. “The prophecy came true and thus the whole complex of his art and personality gains a special weight and a mystical dimension.” (Anton Maračić, O slikarstvu D.B. Mangelosa, Quorum no.1, Zagreb, 1989) Mysticism was the dominant characteristic of both artists, Beuys and Mangelos, and therefore of both their artistic opuses.

How to create art after the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust? This was the famous question posed by Adorno. As it turned out, both Beuys and Mangelos began struggling with this issue at the time of their joining the post-war Europe art scene. However, their reflections on art were gradually translated into the complex systems of a different view of man and his essence, as well as of the rules on which the functioning of society as a whole was based. Mangelos saw the horrors of the war as frightful evidence of the impotence of a civilisation that had relied on its supreme achievements. In order to avoid a new experience of destruction, if not the potential suicide of that same civilisation by the use of the instruments of mass destruction produced by itself, he suggested the removal of its previous contents – which he did by applying his ‘negation of painting’, i.e. antipeinture, and then by starting again and learning from scratch. Why it became necessary to destroy the traditional image, the author explained in his work 99% of Humanity is not Familiar with this Picture (1967-1972), from the series The Picasso Phenomenon, a collage with a detail from Picasso’s Guernica in the upper half, and the following text below:

“ 99% of humanity is not familiar with this picture

its message will not reach them

the part of humanity that received

that message

crashed into another world

the war – was that the message?”

The symbol of Mangelos’ artistic practice became a school board, which was his variation on the principle of Duchamps’s idea of introducing a non-artistic object into the domain of art. The only other artist with whom we associate the school board and classroom space is Beuys. Beuys’ education was a real, open and public process, while in the case of Mangelos, it was deeply ironical and resided in his private sphere. However, the essential message recognisable in both artists was – to expand art by introducing education into its domain. In 2007, both the authors’ boards appeared in the exhibition Live/Work: Performance into Drawing, at MoMA, and the theme of active education was expressive of the belief held by both artists that “Marcel Duchamp’s silence is overrated” (Joseph Beuys, 3-Tonnen-Edition, 1973-1985).

Theory has placed these artists in the interspace between Modernism and Postmodernism, in which they still felt they could move forward towards some future culmination, and yet had lost faith in the old order of aesthetic determinism articulated by Kant (The Critique of the Power of Judgment). It was this position that conditioned these authors to look for new spaces for their activities. At the same time, they expanded the definitions of the space of art in general. Both Beuys and Mangelos introduced artistic contents into spaces that were not by definition art spaces such as galleries and museums). For both of them, the beginnings of such thinking was to be found in Fluxus’ approach to art, which Beuys implemented in his work since he was a member of the Fluxus group for a time. Meanwhile, Mangelos, together with a group of like-minded people, founded the Gorgona art group in 1959 in Zagreb, and their work, as it turned out, was based on Fluxus’ principles of the merging of art and life.

Beuys and Mangelos built their position as artists on the idea of opposing and denying the interpretation of the artist as a superior master (artist-genius) who produces precious and unique objects. It is precisely this approach to artistic practice that has made them timeless and supranationally great artists, without whom art as we know it today would not exist.

dr Ivana Bašičević Antić