Alastair Thain's best photograph: Joseph Beuys close to death

Jan 31, 2019 11:09AM

Article by Dale Berning Sawa, originally published by the Guardian on 27th September 2018.

‘I love the fragility in his face – although that human spark, that charisma, is still intact’, Alastair Thain

‘You couldn’t really take an uninteresting picture of him’, Alastair Thain. Joseph Beuys and carnation. Photograph: Alastair Thain

"In the mid-1980s I was working with a woman who wanted to make a book about artists. She was married to a very famous one herself and knew them all, as well as the dealers. She had a mega-mansion on Capri and that is how I came to meet Joseph Beuys.

I shot this portrait of him for the book a few months later. Beuys was installing a show, Plight, at the Anthony d’Offay gallery in London; that’s one of his felt works you can see in the background. The space was designed to get warmer with the felt; I remember the change in temperature. The work was up and Beuys was on a cigarette break. There’s ash on his hat.

We had breakfast together – he ate a single poached egg. I remember thinking we had a very different attitude to culinary indulgence. I got the impression he didn’t eat a lot – though compared with me, much of humanity would fall into that category.

I wanted to use a flower to reference his deep connection to the natural world. On Capri we had gone on walks together. He knew the names of all the plants and all the herbs. He was also really into symbolic meanings and the carnation has lots of associations going back to Greek and Roman times: to love, compassion, and occasionally death. I didn’t tell him how to pose with the flower though. My methodology was always to be very gentle, to allow people to feel comfortable and reveal whatever aspects of themselves they wanted to.

I love the fragility you can see in his face. He died shortly after, in January 1986, and here he is close to death. But that human spark, that charisma that characterised him, was intact. He was so photogenic, you couldn’t really take an uninteresting picture of him. The reason I particularly like this one is that he appeared to really want to have a picture that was more than just an empty record of the event.

The book was all photographs with very little text; an in-depth look at the big artists of the day – Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol,Anselm Kiefer(a difficult character, the least open of them all) andJean-Michel Basquiat, a lovely, lovely man. I mean, how do you describe Basquiat? Obviously he was physically attractive but he also had the gentleness of a Buddhist monk; a devastating combination for me. And then Beuys. Talk about meeting my heroes!

In person, too, Beuys was an astonishingly powerful presence. Obviously, with fame comes a veneer of celebrity, which can inform how you perceive the person. But with him it was much more deeply rooted. You could sense profound authenticity behind the power of his ideas. It didn’t feel contrived or narcissistic.

Meeting him was probably the most formative encounter of my career. He was very open and we chatted about all kinds of things, though I can’t remember his voice. The real power of his communication was visual. What has stayed with me ever since was his interest in issues that are so important today: healing, inclusiveness, respect for the natural world, the idea of universal love.

For quite a few years now, I’ve felt like there is no point working if I can’t engage with the issues that are important to me. And if this preoccupation started anywhere, it was in my being moved by Beuys’s creative practice. I remember thinking here was someone who had managed to take personal experience and make work that had universal resonance.

Through my travels I’ve seen so many instances where empathy has catastrophically collapsed. People are doing the most appalling things to each other because they think they have an identity difference, which is completely delusional. I’ve tried to follow the path that Beuys showed me: to take your personal experience and do your own little thing to engage in a message rooted in empathy and the consideration of others.

The works of his that marked me the most were I Like America and America Likes Me, The End of the Twentieth Century, Four Blackboards, and 7,000 Oaks. Over the years since he planted the latter, we’ve seen them grow and change; they’ve become a poetic take on greed and consumption.

I realise that the artists I truly love have always informed the works I make, without my being conscious of it: Picasso’s Blue period, Käthe Kollwitz, Francis Bacon’s portraits of Dyer, Munch’s street paintings, Otto Dix. With this portrait, though, I wasn’t consciously trying to reference any single artwork. Rather, it was all about Beuys’s ideas. Being open, having dialogue – I suppose I should have remembered what his voice sounded like more!"

Alastair Thain’s CV

Born: Dusseldorf, 1961.

Studied: “London College of Printing, but mainly in the outside world.”

Influences: “Daniel Kahneman, Sigmund Freud, Robert Trivers, Benjamin Libet, EM Cioran, Ernest Becker, Irving Janis, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, Leo Tolstoy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Shlomo Sand, Steven Pinker, Voltaire.”

High point: “The quality time I spent with my children and those I love. (A reminder that every precious moment is fragile and should be cherished).”

Low point: “A gift that enabled me to see my future direction more clearly.”

Top tip: “Be open to learning from your mistakes and always try to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.”

Photograph: Alastair Thain