The work of mid 20th-century European sculptor Joseph Beuys is grounded in a tradition of narrative sources often absent in American art of the same period. The historic symbolism of Northern Europe, Christianity, and an invocation of the spiritual power of animals and nature course throughout Beuys’ diverse activities, from performances and lectures to sculptures and drawings. For Beuys, all these works share a common sociopolitical purpose: “the victory of socialist warmth and self-determination over materialist greed and alienation.”
Beuys’ dramatic Lightning with Stag in its Glare (Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirschem), 1958–85, is the only environment that the artist cast in bronze. An offspring of Beuys’ seminal Workshop exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin in 1982, the work is encrusted with layers of meaning. At its core, it enacts a dramatic moment in nature: A bolt of lightning (the large, suspended sculpture) strikes the ground, illuminating a stag (cast in reflective aluminum). Other animals are present, but are not so well illuminated. There is a goat (a metal cart with a pick resting on it) and worm-like primordial animals (the dark bronze fecal forms scattered on the floor). The final element present, the Boothia Felix, is a metal tripod with a cubic mass on top, and a small compass resting on top of that. This element is named for a strip of land in northern Canada that was the first established location of the North Magnetic Pole.
Beuys invokes the creative energy of nature with the forceful bolt of lightning in this work. In many other works, he incorporated conductive metals to symbolically draw energy from the universe, or blocks of lard to represent the stored caloric energy of fat. The Stag, illuminated by the lightning, has a special role in Beuys’ work and in Northern European mythologies. He repeatedly referred to it as a conductor of the soul, a Christ figure, whose shedding and regrowth of antlers symbolized resurrection and the possibility of redemption. According to Beuys, the Stag is a guardian for the Primordial Animals, which writhe on the floor without intelligence or direction. These simple creatures, like the dramatic Lightning, were cast from a pile of loam in the center of the Workshop exhibition and have small broken metal tools for heads. The humble Goat recalls an imaginary laborer, constantly and silently working in the background, a simple wheelbarrow.