Joseph Beuys (May 1921-January 1986) was a famous German performer, installation & graphic artist, and a sculptor. He also worked both, as a theorist and an instructor of art, and has been recognized as a highly influential artist of the twentieth century. Beuys’ popularity is majorly attributed to his public performances of ritualistic nature. “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” has been Joseph’s most popular and compelling performance of all time.
“How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” was a part of his first ever solo exhibition that featured in the year 1965, in a private gallery called ‘Galerie Alfred Schmela,’ in Düsseldorf, Germany. In this remarkable act, the audience viewed the artist through the gallery’s glass window. Beuys was seen sitting on a chair in a remote corner near the entrance of the gallery. With his head draped in honey, Beuys had a few gold leaves affixed on his face. On his boot, a slab made of iron was attached. He lovingly held a dead hare in his arms, and kept looking at it unfalteringly. Beuys also kept mumbling hushed noises into the ear of the dead hare every now and then. He was heard describing to the animal, the drawings and paintings adorning the walls of the gallery. To add to the drama, he would stand up and walk around the place in the midst of everything, cradling the dead creature in his arms with extreme care, while he kept talking to it. Sometimes, he would also hold the hare up close to a painting on the wall. Beuys was seldom seen stumbling over a withered tree, lying in the center of the gallery.
This whole act was performed with a great deal of passion and conviction, leaving the viewer dazed by its realness. The props used in “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” are said to have symbolic significance for the celebrated performer. Since bees are the natural source of ‘honey,’ its use in the performance represented goodwill and warmth that is typical of the society of bees. Being the metal of Mars, iron symbolized the masculine principle of toughness and tenacity. Owing to the rare nature of the act and an impeccable performance by Beuys, “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” gained immense popularity with the audience.
The expanse of the artist’s creativity and the healing potential depicted in his performances, made Beuys a champion of human expression. He brought life to numerous other spectacular performances, including “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” through which he established a compelling persona shuttling between two separate states of spirituality and physicality.