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Joseph Beuys: trauma and catharsis
  1. C Ottomann1,
  2. P L Stollwerck2,
  3. H Maier3,
  4. I Gatty3,
  5. T Muehlberger4
  1. 1Unfallkrankenhaus Berlin, Zentrum für Schwerbrandverletzte mit Plastischer Chirurgie, Berlin, Germany
  2. 2Universitätsklinikum Schleswig Holstein Campus Lübeck, Sektion für Plastische Chirurgie, Lübeck, Germany
  3. 3Charité Berlin, Robert-Rössle Klinik, Abteilung für Allgemeinchirurgie, Berlin, Germany
  4. 4DRK Kliniken Berlin, Abteilung für Plastische Chirurgie, Berlin, Germany
  1. Correspondence to Dr Peter Leonard Stollwerck, Universitätsklinik Schleswig-Holstein, Campus Lübeck, Sektion Plastische Chirurgie, Handchirurgie und Intensiveinheit für Schwerbrandverletzte, Ratzeburger Allee 160, 23538 Lübeck, Germany; peter.stollwerck{at}


Joseph Beuys was one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. He was a gunner and radio operator in the German Air Force during World War II, and was severely injured several times. In March 1943 he had a life-changing experience after the dive bomber he was assigned to crashed in the Crimean peninsula. This trauma influenced Beuys' entire artistic career, and is known in art history as the ’Tartar Legend’ or ’Tartar Myth’. Profoundly affected by the crash, the severe trauma, the near-death experience and his rescue, which he perceived as a “rebirth”, Beuys no longer saw himself, other people or society as a whole in the same way as previously. With his new consciousness, he ignored boundaries and created visions whereby all mankind could experience the healing he had undergone. Beuys did not bring society far enough for the turning point towards “the healing of the world” to be visible, yet today it is important to keep his work alive as a record of his extraordinary strength, which arose from trauma and severe injury, and was carried by a passionate commitment to mankind and to life itself.

  • Joseph Beuys
  • modern art
  • medicine
  • history
  • trauma
  • catharsis
  • art and medicine
  • fine art
  • cultural history

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.