Beuys and Kleve
The first steps along the Lower Rhine
The first steps along the Lower Rhine
Joseph Beuys spent his childhood and youth in Kleve. This town, some of its people, and the landscape of the Lower Rhine left a life-long impression on him. The city and its surrounding wetland meadows, fields, rivers, and lakes offer numerous highlights that are worth a visit, in particular with a view to Beuys, who also left his traces here.
The expanse to the horizon propels thoughts into motion. A need for physical activity follows quickly. Bicycles are a popular means of transport here, just as they were for Beuys and his parents. Cyclists will barely find any ascents along the Lower Rhine. Instead, they can enjoy a variety of highlights well worth visiting along the way, including, among other things, the Schwanenburg, a landmark of the city that is visible from afar, and Beuys’ first studio, which can be visited at the Museum Kurhaus Kleve.
Joseph Beuys grew up in Kleve. This is where he took his first steps, where he learned to ride a bike, and where he went to school. He was known to follow the latter two pursuits at the same time now and then. He supposedly raced his bike from the top floor of what is now the Freiherr-vom-Stein-Gymnasium down the stairs all the way to the basement as a pupil.
His home on the Lower Rhine left its mark on him, and the same is true vice versa. Kleve is where Beuys found his way to art and created his first works. In the former Kleve Kurhaus, now an art museum, visitors can look at Beuys’ first studio to view his early works before strolling through the baroque gardens of the former spa town. Joseph Beuys worked in his studio in the Kurhaus, quite run-down at the time, during the seven years from 1957 to 1964. The Büderich memorial, Beuys’ largest work in public space was created there.
Art and artful design are not limited to the Museum Kurhaus. Among other things, the largest collection of works by Beuys’ influential teacher Ewald Mataré is shown right across from the former spa hotel. The baroque park around the classicistic buildings beckons visitors to walk in it and enjoy their discoveries there. Joseph Beuys must have roamed this area even as a child, considering that his family lived at Tiergartenstraße 101, just a few hundred metres from the former Kurhaus and the Kleve gardens, for many years.
Schwanenburg castle, once the ancestral seat of the Counts of Kleve who claimed the Swan Knight Lohengrin as their progenitor, is the town’s characterising focal point and serves as a landmark that is visible from afar. The medieval castle and legendary water bird were important for Beuys as well. The swan is a recurring theme in his drawings. Parts of the castle, including the Swan Tower that affords a vast view of the Rhine plains and all the way to the Netherlands, are open to visitors in the scope of guided tours today.
Speaking of the Netherlands: Beuys regularly met with friends and colleagues in the B. C. Koekkoek house, now a museum for Dutch landscape painting of the period of romanticism. Artist Barend Cornelis Koekkoek had built the residential palace in Italian renaissance style. While impressing foreign guests, the exhibition hosted for Joseph Beuys by the city of Kleve here in 1961 was received extremely controversially by the locals. All references to that time have been erased since. Visitors will rather find themselves diving into 19th century romanticism instead. Anyone who walks through the representative rooms with their many landscape paintings and historical furniture can experience a journey back through time into a more distant past.
There are other places outside the town that are well worth a detour as well. An outstanding example is the Stiftung Museum Schloss Moyland, which has the world's largest collection of Beuys' works. Hans and Franz Joseph van der Grinten, with whom Joseph Beuys had a lifelong friendship, started the collection.
Jean Baptiste de Cloots, another person who was important to Beuys, used to live in Kleve’s Donsbrüggen quarter. Born at Schloss Gnadenthal in 1755, the baron called himself Anacharsis Cloots during his later activity in the French Revolution – a role in which he produced a plethora of revolutionary writings. Beuys felt so closely spiritually connected to this native of Kleve that he was known to sign his name as Joseph Anacharsis Cloots Beuys at times. The baroque manor in a pretty park with a mirror lake and small forest serves as a conference hotel today.
Cyclists will pass many other locations that are worth a visit on their route along the Rhine between Duisburg and Kleve. One of them is the tranquil town of Kalkar, still exuding an air of medieval prosperity with gabled Gothic buildings, its large St. Nikolai’s church, and two powerful windmills. Xanten even offers a travel back through time to the days of the ancient Roman Empire: The LVR Archaeological Park invites visitors to take a historical excursion among the remains of Colonia Ulpia Traiana. The local nature is impressive, too. For example, cyclists will cross the Bislicher Insel nature reserve near Xanten, one of the last near-natural wetland areas on the Lower Rhine and a home to many birds.