Letter from London

[Letter from London]

  • 1977
  • Lithograph on wove, mounted on wooden panel; stamped
    89 x 118 x 2 cm
  • Edition: 115 plus 15 a.p., signed, numbered and dated
  • Publisher: Matthieu AG, Dielsdorf/Zurich
  • Catalogue Raisonné No.: 194

This image replicates a blackboard drawing that Beuys created while delivering a lecture in 1974. The occasion was an exhibition, to which he had contributed, entitled Art into Society—Society into Art, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. Like other drawings of its kind, Letter from London provides a visual summary of the main ideas in Beuys’s talk, of which he later gave a full account to the critic Willi Bongard.1 In doing so, he emphasised how each of his notes and illustrations was linked closely to the contents of his lecture.

As Beuys explained to Bongard in 1977, his lecture addressed the need for humanity to transcend materialism and develop a more spiritual worldview.2 Especially important in conveying this concern were the large circle that stands near the centre of the blackboard, and the two smaller circles, linked by the criss-crossed lines that lie beneath it. Beuys remarked to Bongard that the large central circle depicts the realm of materialistic thought to which modern Western life was in his view confined. Within its borders the word ‘Materia’ [matter] is inscribed, together with a pair of jaggedly zig-zagging lines, and the letters S and E, connected by a series of dashes. S and E stand for ‘Sender’ [sender] and ‘Empfänger’ [receiver] respectively, a pairing Beuys employed as a symbol for communication. To stress that this process should always be reciprocal, he has turned the E to face the S. Both sender and receiver reside within the sphere of matter and exchange information at a purely material level. The lines that pass between them stand for messages conveyed in this environment. In his talk, Beuys described the need to foster new forms of communication, which would transpire at a spiritual level.

Below the sphere of matter are two smaller circles, connected by a pair of intersecting lines. The lefthand circle contains the word ‘Myth’ and is partially encircled by a hovering white line. This image signifies the worldview of many pre-Christian cultures, which conceived of human evolution in cyclical or orbital terms. The righthand circle stands as Beuys’s symbol of a more enlightened worldview to come. Rendered as a series of concentric, gently undulating contours, it signifies a less materialistic, more spiritually-attuned approach to life. Between the two lower circles floats a cube bisected by two linear axes and set against a background of small white dots. This complex, three-part motif was conceived by Beuys as an image of the modern scientific-materialistic worldview. Its intersecting axes evoke the analytic mindset of scientific thought, while the field of dots against which they float convey the atomistic nature of scientific descriptions of reality. Finally, the cube itself conveys the rigid and confining nature of materialistic thought. Only by embracing non-material forms of experience, Beuys argued, could humanity escape these box-like confines.

  1. See ‘Letter from London: Joseph Beuys im Gespräch mit Willi Bongard,’ in Jörg Schellmann (ed.), Joseph Beuys: Die Multiples (München, New York: Verlag Edition Schellmann, 1997), 555–564. 

  2. Beuys, ibid. 

    Photo 1

    © Mario Gastinger, Photographics, Munich

    Economic Values1977 La zappa 1978