Beuys will be Beuys even in Bexhill

I went to Bexhill-on-Sea yesterday.

It is a seaside town in East Sussex, England – not far from here but I have never been there before.

I knew about it, of course.

As a small schoolboy I read about it in the first Agatha Christie book that I ever read – The A.B.C. Murders.

It stays with me, vaguely, the murderer is picking his murder locations from the A.B.C. Railway Guide and B is for Bexhill-on-Sea – a rather dull seaside town with some impressive sea views.

The book was written in 1936 and is admired now as much for its period feel as for the charming Hercule Poirot who I was meeting for the first time.

Whilst Madam Christie was writing her book, the modernist architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff were unveiling their sensational new building, the De La Warr Pavilion on Bexhill’s seafront.

It was one of the very first modernist public buildings in Britain and it is one of the finest Art Deco buildings in Europe.

A pavilion for the arts was built for the local people under the inspiration of the current Earl De La Warr who was an interesting mix of English aristocratic paternalism and socialist activist who became Mayor of Bexhill – a title that smacks neither of aristocracy nor of socialism.

At its unveiling, George Bernhard Shaw gave it his seal of approval too: “Delighted to hear that Bexhill has emerged from barbarism at last, but I shall not give it a clean bill of civilisation until all my plays are performed there once a year at least.”


Well done to Earl De La Warr and more than well done to Mendelsohn and Chermayeff. If you like architecture, art deco style in particular, then you just have to go to Bexhill.

You will be quite safe too, Mrs. Christie exaggerates your chances of being murdered there.

The Pavilion has lasted and a few years ago it re-emerged after a restoration as a shining beacon for the arts and for civilisation.

I was there to see an exhibition of works by the great German radical, the artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986).

His only previous connection with Bexhill is that he served in the same airforce during the Second World War that bombed the hotel which used to stand immediately in front of the De La Warr Pavilion.

He had nothing to do with that, we are told, but he was shot down over the Crimea and emerged from the war as a champion of radical politics and art where he was a pioneer in Installation art,Performance art and Green politics pursuing his belief that Art should be available to everyone – a central ingredient in everyday life. His work, like the music of his near contemporary and fellow German, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) inspired a younger generation of creatives in the 1960s and after to move across the conventional boundaries of art forms.

Forgive my prejudices but it amazed me yesterday to revisit the man’s work here in conservative seaside Bexhill.

Dangerous art that questions and calls for debate is only here because of that cranky Earl who also had a vision of the value of Art. Astonishing.

Bexhill has a wonderful building which is home to modern art and which is surrounded by open spaces that encourage people even to play with sculpture. The Earl, Herr Beuys and George Bernhard Shaw would all have given it that clean bill of health.

Here is a clip of Joseph Beuys doing what he does best – making you feel uncomfortable:

4 Comments

  1. I'm never entirely sure how I feel about Beuys' work. I suppose that's part of the beauty of it – making you feel uncomfortable, as you said. I prefer his German contemporary Anselm Kiefer for most things, however. I believe they did work together for some things though.

  2. Anselm Kiefer was one of Beuys' students so I guess that is why he uses corruptible materials in his work too. Though of course everything is corruptible even the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

    He shares Beuys' interest in Shamanism and mysticism too but he is, I think, a lot more depressing.

    Maybe that is cos he is a post Nazi child. There is a lot of stuff in his work about the Holocaust.

  3. Oh, I didn't know he studied under Beuys, that's interesting. I have more of an interest in the materials and textures he uses rather than the meanings behind the pieces, terrible as that may sound. As you say his work is rather depressing, due to the post war theme that most of his works fall under. I did a comparative personal study between Kiefer and Rauschenberg for fine art last year, made for an interesting analysis. I regret not looking more into Beuys when I was studying art as I think his work would have been quite influential to my final pieces.

  4. I wouldn't worry Colette, there is plenty of time for your work to reflect anything that inspired you in Beuys.

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