Images of Beuys performance banned
German court rules museum breached artist’s copyright by displaying photographs of 1964 happening
By Josephine von Perfall. Museums, Issue 218, November 2010
Published online: 17 November 2010
DUSSELDORF. A German court has ruled in favour of Eva Beuys, the widow of Joseph Beuys, in a trial concerning the exhibition by the Museum Schloss Moyland of photographs taken of the late artist during a performance in 1964. The museum in North Rhine-Westphalia, which holds an extensive Beuys collection, faces a fine if it redisplays them. It is also liable for substantial legal costs.
“The case raises the issue of who controls the photographic documentation of an artistic performance,” said Daniel McClean, a consultant at London law firm Finers Stephens Innocent, “the artist, the photographer, the artist’s estate or the museum.” (See related article)
The regional court in Düsseldorf ruled on 29 September that the Museum Schloss Moyland may not exhibit 19 photographs taken by the late Manfred Tischer. The penalty for doing so is a potential fine of up to €250,000.
The images document Joseph Beuys during the performance Das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp ist ueberbewertet (Marcel Duchamp’s Silence Is Overrated), which he staged during a German television show. Beuys’ performance was not filmed and only Tischer’s photographs exist as a visual record.
Beuys had granted Tischer permission to take the photographs but had apparently not authorised their publication or display. When the pictures were included in the museum’s exhibition “Joseph Beuys, Unpublished Works by Manfred Tischer” in 2009, held a year after the photographer’s death, Eva Beuys and the Joseph Beuys estate objected. They pursued the case through the German copyright society, VG Bild-Kunst. The judge ruled that the pictures of the performance were an “incorrect deformation of the original performance” and by exhibiting them the museum had violated Beuys’ copyright. The museum’s director, Bettina Paust, and its lawyer, Simon Bergmann, stated that the photographs are neither a “deformation” or copyright violation but “art historically valuable documentation material, which must be able to be exhibited against the will of Eva Beuys”.
“I cannot understand the court’s decision,” said Paust, pointing out that Beuys wanted the pictures to be taken. “The judgment will limit us massively in that it forbids us from exhibiting works from our collection. It abolishes the medium of ‘performance photography’ as now every photograph of a happening is a ‘deformation of the original’,” she added.
Johannes Stuettgen, an artist who was Beuys’ assistant, said the artist had wanted his performance documented: “It was a question of quality.” The director of the photography department at Essen’s Folkwang Museum, Ute Eskildsen, expressed her disbelief at the judgement, pointing to the fact that the German news agency DPA has many images of Beuys’ performances in its collection. “Why exactly these ones?” she said, referring to Manfred Tischer’s images, noting that Beuys always wanted photographers at his performances so his work could reach a wider audience. Eskildsen also criticised VG Bild-Kunst, saying: “It should protect photographers just as much as artists.”
In a statement VG Bild-Kunst said Schloss Moyland “broke its agreement to ask for the approval of the Joseph Beuys estate to exhibit unpublished photos before the exhibition. Had the museum tried to find an agreement with [the estate] prior to setting up the exhibition, the VG Bild-Kunst would have acted as a mediator, surely successfully, as it has in previous cases.”
The disputed images are part of the Museum Schloss Moyland’s 6,000-strong Beuys collection. The museum and Eva Beuys have a history of clashes.
In 2009, she said she wanted the collection moved to Düsseldorf’s NRW-Forum, where she said it would be “more accessible”. She also produced a list of the museum’s “shortcomings”, in which she criticised it for a lack of her late husband’s work.
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