A man’s suit is not an unusual sight within an art museum–though usually one would expect such a garment to be worn by a visitor, and not hanging up on the wall as a work of art itself. Yet this is the case with Joseph Beuys’ artwork, entitled Felt Suit (Flizanzug). It consists of simply that: a man’s suit, made entirely of a soft grey felt, suspended neatly on a hanger on the museum wall. In the large gallery space, surrounded by brightly-colored canvases and monumental works of sculpture, this piece seems quite out-of-place. It is easy to imagine amusing backstories for the existence of this intriguing piece of clothing–perhaps a curator had brought a suit to change into for an evening event, yet had no room to hang it in his office, so he simply wandered into the galleries and hung it upon an unused nail?
Of course, this is not the case! So just what could an artist express through the choice of such a plain garment? It would be easy enough to dismiss the work as yet another absurdist contemporary piece attempting to challenge the conception of “art” itself – Duchamp had already claimed the urinal, so Beuys had to turn to menswear instead. While there certainly is an element of defiance and anti-traditionalism within Beuys’ work, to stop at a surface-level analysis without any consideration for the personal history of its creator does the work a great disservice. While at first we might see nothing special in plain grey felt, in fact, this material, and the garment out of which it was made, held incredible significance to Beuys himself.
Joseph Beuys was born in Germany in 1921. At the beginning of World War II, in 1941, he enlisted with the Luftwaffe, the airborne division of the German army. It was during his years of service that he experienced an event which would serve as a major creative influence for him in decades to come. Beuys’ plane was damaged by enemy fire near the Crimean front, and crashed in a neutral, remote area. In his own account, he was saved from near-certain death by a group of nomadic tribesmen, who found his unconscious body and spent subsequent weeks nursing him back to health, wrapping his badly burned torso in animal fat and felt bandages. In Beuys’ own words:
Had it not been for the Tartars I would not be alive today. They were the nomads of the Crimea, in what was then no man’s land between the Russian and German fronts, and favored neither side. …It was they who discovered me in the snow after the crash, when the German search parties had given up. I was still unconscious then and only came round completely after twelve days or so, and by then I was back in a German field hospital. So the memories I have of that time are images that penetrated my consciousness… I remember voices saying ‘Voda’ [Water], then the felt of their tents, and the dense pungent smell of cheese, fat and milk. They covered my body in fat to help it regenerate warmth, and wrapped it in felt as an insulator to keep warmth in.
—Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, 1979, pp. 16-17
There were no other eyewitnesses to the crash, and some have questioned the authenticity of Beuys’ account. Yet, veracity aside, the symbolism of salvation by such simple, elemental materials – fat and felt – became a crucial part of Beuys’ “origin myth” as an artist, and he continually returned to draw upon such charged substances throughout his career.
In some ways, Felt Suit can be seen as a self-portrait: It is tailored to Beuys’ own proportions, and clearly references an important event within his personal history. For Beuys himself to wear this suit would be a highly meaningful and emotionally-charged experience, since it would parallel the last time that his body was wrapped in felt, during the plane crash which had the potential to end his life, and yet instead dramatically transformed it. Even without the physical body of Beuys inhabiting the suit, his presence is still felt as the piece hangs empty in the wall, creating a silhouette of his form in the material which helped to maintain its existence.
Yet Felt Suit is not merely self-referential. The material of felt holds a strong elemental symbolism which can be experienced by all. When creating his felt artworks, Beuys stated that he specifically chose the material of felt because it created “an element of warmth.” Viewing the simple grey material of the suit evokes strong, tactile memories: the rough feel of a grandfather’s overcoat rubbing the soft cheek of a child during a winter walk, the excitement of a young woman setting out to a party in a new cloche hat, the comfort of reading beneath a blanket during a week of illness.
The felt of Beuys’ piece reminds us of our own creation stories, of the sense of inner warmth that comes from the recollection of powerful memories. In his work, Beuys reminds us to maintain and honor our memories, both the good and the bad. They have formed us into the people we are today, and in times of hardship, they can keep us warm – like a thick felt suit.
Emma Fallone was a summer digital learning intern, focusing on blogging. At the time, Emma was a junior at Yale University, majoring in history and art history. In June 2014, she moved to Washington, DC, to work at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.