VISUAL ART: Inside the mind of a true German superstar

Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments Tate Modern LONDON
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It strikes me, in a puerile way, that Joseph Beuys and Gunther von Hagens bear an unfortunate resemblance to each other. There is the German-ness, of course, together with a mutual taste for disaster and felt hats. But the artist and the anatomist also share another quality, and that is a love of showmanship.

So strongly do we identify this trait with a lowness of brow that we tend to see both men as let down by their public personas: that Beuys certainly, and Hagens possibly, have a higher moral purpose that is hidden by the trademark headgear, the waving arms, the lecture-room histrionics. And yet, as a brilliant new show at Tate Modern suggests, Beuys' persona was his art, and vice versa.

To get Beuys, we need to see him in a pair of overlapping contexts. First, there is the historical moment in which he found himself. A Luftwaffe pilot in the Second World War, Beuys was part of an international trend in post-war art that looked for redemption in communal practice. This took different forms in different places - Happenings in America, Actions in Vienna - but was based on a belief in the higher morality of collaboration; in an innocence to be found in overthrowing demagoguery, in sublimating the self to a greater good.

Yet this last ideal - expressed, in the 1960s, in Berlin's Wohngemeinschaft or Dusseldorf's Fluxus performances - had also been a key part of Germany's Nazi past. The way that past has been dealt with is analysed in Harald Welzer's acute study, Opa war kein Nazi ("Grandpa wasn't a Nazi"). Roughly speaking, Welzer points out that, while modern Germans freely own up to a communal guilt for the horrors of National Socialism, they refuse to acknowledge the role of their own families in perpetrating those horrors. They can thus take comfort from national breast-beating while feeling no personal pain, no weight of inherited history.

Seen in this light, Beuys's stardom, far from obscuring his moral agenda, actually was his moral agenda. When, in 1964, he performed an action called The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overrated live on German TV, he was sticking his head above a national parapet. Unlike Welzer's Germans, he was standing up to be counted. And he was standing up in a very specific way, as a moral Wotan, a mythic Everygerman.

We see this in the story that kicks off the Beuys myth: that he was shot down over the Crimea in 1943 and saved by Tartar herdsmen who wrapped him in felt and fat. This is not the place to examine that story, other than to say that it bears a strong resemblance to a class of myth that includes those of Icarus and Satan. Like these, Beuys suffered a Fall, in his case from the technological height of the German war machine. Unlike his mythical archetypes, though, he was redeemed by this descent into Hell: brought back to life by the elemental force of a people wedded to the earth.

The brilliance of the Tate's show is in the way it views Beuys's stardom in this light. The show makes no hierarchical distinction between its three components - the Actions, Vitrines and Environments of its title - so that we see each class of work in the context of the other - the point being that each bears Beuys's signature, is a relic of his Beuysness.

In one room, the famous Pack, on rare loan from Kassel, bears a stencilled "Beuys" under the red cross on a door of a Volkswagen ambulance. From the back of this, two dozen wooden sleds of a kind used by the artist's alleged Crimean herdsmen spill like yelping huskies, each carrying on its back the trinity of Beuys's personal salvation: warmth, food and light, in the form of felt, fat and torches. It's his Tartar story all over again - the ultimate symbol of German engineering, the People's Car, marooned in a gallery, its role taken over by things that seem primitive, even animalistic. And yet The Pack's sleds feel elemental rather than savage; vital in a way that Beuys's abandoned VW does not.

Walk into another room and you'll see the extraordinary I Like America and America Likes Me, the filmed remnant of a 1974 Action in which Beuys locked himself in a New York gallery for three days with a coyote. Usually seen as a symbol of the artist's anti-Vietnam stance or of his solidarity with the Native Americans for whom coyotes were gods, this work can also be read in another way.

As the animal sniffed around him, the felt-wrapped Beuys naturally assumed a variety of postures: affectionate, supplicating, scared. He became, in effect, an abstract sculpture whose forms were shaped by its own emotions. And it is this elision that best sums up Beuys for me: that his work makes no distinction between the personal and public, the material and sculptural, the intellectual and the animal; between national and private histories. It is a difficult point to bring home in an artist whose work was wilfully diverse, intently throwaway: and yet the Tate's show manages to bring it home brilliantly, and is on no account to be missed.

`Joseph Beuys': Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8008), to 2 May