Rudolf Steiner's Blackboard Drawings: An Aesthetic Perspective
Lawrence Rinder

A German museum director recently remarked that if Rudolf Steiner's blackboard drawings do not fit within any current definition of art, then a definition must be devised to include them. Such rhetorical gymnastics attest to the evocative and singular quality of Steiner's pedagogical drawings, produced during his lectures on "spiritual science," art, medicine, agriculture, economics and other subjects. Steiner was a scholar and mystic who played a major role in spreading theosophical ideas at the turn of the century. He later founded the Anthroposophical Society to foster his own social and spiritual views. Steiner's influence today is perhaps most evident in the over nine hundred Waldorf schools around the world that perpetuate his innovative pedagogical theories. The Camphill Communities for the mentally disabled are also an outgrowth of Steiner's work. Other areas in which his influence can be seen are agriculture--he developed the system known as "bio-dynamic" farming--architecture--his extraordinary Goetheanum, for example, inspired Le Corbusier's monumental church at Ronchamps--and art, insofar as some of the leading figures of early twentieth-century art studied his ideas and incorporated them into their work. While his organization was based at the Goetheanum, a campuslike community in Dornach, Switzerland, Steiner propagated his ideas by means of a wide-ranging lecture circuit. From 1900 until his death in 1925, Steiner traveled extensively throughout Europe, giving over five thousand lectures. During these lectures, Steiner, like most professors, drew on the blackboard. It is these blackboard drawings that are the subject of this exhibition.

Steiner drew on actual blackboards which he erased at the conclusion of the talks. In 1919 Steiner's colleague Emma Stolle began placing sheets of black paper over the blackboard and then dating and storing the resulting works on paper. Except for the exposure they received in an exhibition organized by Assja Turgenieff in 1958, these drawings remained virtually unknown outside the anthroposophical community until 1990 when the current archivist of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dr. Walter Kugler, decided to publish the entire collection of more than one thousand drawings. Kugler also sensed their relevance within a contemporary art context and helped to organize a series of exhibitions in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Japan. This exhibition marks the first presentation of Steiner's blackboard drawings in the United States.

These drawings may be compelling for us as art but they evidently were not for Steiner or his contemporaries. Artists such as Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Jawlensky attended Steiner's lectures and were influenced (to varying degrees) by his theories, yet not one of them left any written commentary on the remarkable images and diagrams they saw Steiner draw. Furthermore, although some art historians have pointed out Steiner's conceptual or thematic influences on these artists, none of their works in any way incorporate the drawings' strikingly expressive linear gesture, high-key and high-contrast color, and combination of image and text. There does not seem to be any contemporary artistic parallel to the drawings whatsoever. Stolle's reasons for saving the them are unknown. She may well have preserved them more for their ideational content than for their aesthetic qualities. Indeed, students of anthroposophy actively used the drawings at the Goetheanum for some decades following Steiner's death as visual complements to group readings of his lectures. The artworks Steiner made as such have an altogether different sensibility: his two-dimensional works are typified by indistinct washes of tepid color; his surviving three-dimensional work is an enormous sculpture depicting Christ positioned between the anthroposophical deities Lucifer and Ahriman. Today, these works appear clumsy and derivative, whereas the blackboard drawings radiate inspiration and originality.**

It is interesting to consider how Steiner himself might react were he alive today to see these pieces presented in a museum context. To imagine his response, it is helpful to know something about his broader cosmological views and how these related to his aesthetic theories. Steiner's cosmological ideas were far-ranging and complex. In the following passage, Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerreo have attempted a short summary:

The visionary and theosophist Rudolf Steiner has revealed that our planet, before it became the earth we know, had passed through a Sun stage and before that through a Saturn stage. Man is now made up out of a physical body, an etheral body, an astral body and an ego; at the start of the Saturn era or the Saturn state there was only a physical body. This body was invisible, not even palpable, because at that time on earth there were neither objects nor fluids nor gasses. Only radiating energy was there, there were energy objects. Constellations of light determined various forms in cosmic space; every human being was just a creature of energy. Before the Sun phase, fire ghosts or Archangeloi (arch angels) inspired the bodies of "man", who then began to sparkle and shine. Did Steiner dream these things? Did he, because they once happened, at the beginning of time? Anyway, it is certain that these things are more astounding than the Demiurges and snakes and bulls of other cosmogonies.1

Steiner himself attributed his capacity to know of such distant events to the accessibility of the so-called Akashik Record, or world memory. He claimed to have learned of the existence of the ancient, lost continents of Atlantis and Lemuria, for example, through his clairvoyant "reading" of this record; arguably, he appropriated this particular conception from the theosophical writings of Madame Blavatsky. According to Steiner, following the destruction of Atlantis in approximately the tenth millennium b.c., human civilization entered into a series of epochs, each of which marked by a further separation of humanity from nature and the spirit and an increased emphasis on intellect and personal freedom. Steiner believed that we now live in the fifth post-Atlantean epoch that began in the fifteenth century, which is characterized by a critical deadening of humanity's intuitive and clairvoyant capacities. Unlike other turn-of-the-century spiritual movements, Steiner's did not, generally, condemn rational thinking or blame technology for society's problems. Rather, he saw these approaches as essential components of a larger evolutionary pattern. His call for the development of "spiritual science" exemplifies his dialectical synthesis of seemingly opposed categories as a means of achieving a kind of Hegelian cognitive-spiritual self-awareness.

For Steiner, the appearance of Christ on earth marked a critical turning point in the evolution of humanity. His emphasis on Christ was one of the main distinctions between his teachings and that of the theosophists, who emphasized the spiritual traditions and prophets of Hinduism and Buddhism. Essentially, Steiner understood Christ as appearing just as the influence of Greco-Roman civilization (Steiner's fourth post-Atlantean epoch) was about to swing the balance of human consciousness too far in the direction of rationality and materialism. The incarnation of Christ embodied a reunification of spirit and matter.

In a series of lectures presented in 1923 and later published as The Arts and Their Mission, Steiner discussed architecture, fashion, dance, and painting in the context of "the evolution of humanity since the time of Christ." 2 In these lectures he defined historically specific aims and practices for the various art forms. Art's historical specificity arose from the fact that, "cultural elements can only be understood in connection with the feelings and intuitions which people [have] out of the spiritual world."(p. 22) Humanity's relation to the spiritual is determined largely by the tenor of prevailing historical epoch. For example, Steiner proposes that while in ancient times architecture originated from "the belief that, because the soul has a certain relation to the discarded body, it can find the path out into the world of spirit through the architectural forms vaulting above it,"(p. 19) the reason for architecture today is to ensure that we are "protected while eating roast beef!" (p. 18) In his own architectural work, Steiner designed most of the buildings that now make up the campus of the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, he sought to return to an expression of the idea that "architecture unfolds out of the principle of the soul's escape from the body after passing through the portal of death."(p. 22)

Fashion, or costuming, on the other hand, was, in a more spiritual age, expressive of the beginning of life, the "birth-pole." This is because, in Steiner's view, "the world man inhabits between death and a new birth is a soul-permeated, spirit-permeated world of light, of color, of tone; a world of qualities, not quantities; a world of intensities, rather than extensions."(p. 23) With greater intuition of the spiritual world than we have today, the ancient costume maker created garments that "reflected something brought down from a pre-earthly existence, reflected a predilection for the colorful, for harmony; and we need not be astonished that at a time when insight into the pre-earthly has withered, the art of costuming has shriveled into dilettantism." He goes on to assert, justly, that, "modern clothing hardly conveys the feeling that man wants to wear it because of the way he lived in a pre-earthly existence."(p. 24)

Steiner based his explanation of sculpture on the rather esoteric concept that a person's head in one life is an echo, or reformulation, of that person's body below the head in a previous life. That is, for example, the middle part of the head (e.g., the nose) corresponds to the middle part of the body (e.g., the chest) in a prior incarnation. Furthermore, what in a present life is a person's trunk and limbs will become in a future life the head. Thus, in looking at a person's body, one can have an impression of his or her past and future intersecting in a historically bound present. "Sculpture shows how man, through his earthly form's direct participation in the spiritual, constantly overcomes the earthly-naturalistic element, how, in every detail of his form and in its entirety, he is an expression of the spiritual."(p. 31)

Steiner's critique of painting in the fifth post-Atlantean epoch (fifteenth century to the present) is that "the intelligence employed in painting is a falsified sculptural one."(ibid.) He takes issue with the emphasis on "naturalistic" representation and, especially, with the spatial illusionism of perspective. "A true painter," he argues, "does not create in space, but on the plane, in color, and it is nonsense for him to strive for the spatial."(ibid.) In place of linear perspective, Steiner proposes "color-perspective."(p. 32) Color is the absolute essence, for Steiner, of the art of painting, and this is because "color is something spiritual."(ibid.) His explanation of color's spiritual engagement with the human soul relies heavily on Goethe's subjective understanding of color perception. Yet, Steiner goes well beyond Goethe in proposing that colors, at least in their pure mineral (or jewel) forms are direct expressions of ancient spirit-beings. "The moment we confront a green precious stone," he asserts, "we transport our eye back into ages long past, and green appears because at that time divine-spiritual beings created this substance through a purely spiritual green."(p. 34) Individual colors possess a quasi-symbolic meaning: "red is the lustre of life, blue the lustre of the soul, yellow the lustre of the spirit."(p. 102) He also discusses "color-perspective" in strictly formal terms, explaining how the dynamics of color relations alone can create a sense of spatial dimension. The medium in which the pigments are applied is of significance insofar as oil paint tends to "have a down-dragging effect,"(p. 73) whereas a more fluid medium (e.g., watercolor) allows for an expression of "the shining, revealing, radiating element."(ibid.) Finally, Steiner makes a psychological case for the specific role of painting: "Our feelings have no relation to the three space-dimensions; only our will. By their very nature, feelings are bound within two dimensions. That is why they are best represented by two-dimensional painting."(p. 36)

So, if Steiner were here today would he agree to call his blackboard drawings art? I think it is likely that he would. Although his lectures on art do not touch on drawing per se, his comments on color in painting do shed light on the extraordinary richness and evocativeness of the hues of colored chalk used in the pedagogical works. Clearly, in making these drawings, Steiner was highly conscious of the meaning, emotional impact, and spiritual resonance of the colors he chose. One cannot easily explain the largely illustrational and linear handling of his medium in the terms he used to define the practice of painting with a fluid medium. The explicit combination of text and image is also unique to these works. Interestingly, the curator of the 1958 exhibition of the blackboard drawings at Dornach, Assja Turgenieff, made the case that in these drawings, "an imaginative, colorful, flowing Gesamtbild [whole picture] emerged, that could be experienced as a directly comprehensible, visual transformation of the spoken word." She added, "Thus, these unpretentious drawings typify Rudolf Steiner's art: they are witnesses to the manner in which art and knowledge, provided they both come from the same spiritual source, can pave the way to a new culture." 3 Indeed, the concept of aesthetic correspondences between different modes of expression does occur in another important aspect of Steiner's creative work: eurythmy. In eurythmy, a new dance form invented by Steiner, the dancers' movements are kinesthetic expressions of specific texts, such as certain passages from Shakespeare, that are translated into movement according to Steiner's own idiosyncratic system.

Perhaps the most compelling case for understanding these drawings as art is to see them not in terms of narrow formal criteria but rather in terms of a larger conceptual schema. Besides discussing individual art forms, Steiner articulated more general notions of the role of art in the evolution of humanity. He believed that art is one of three essential aspects of the spiritual evolutionary path--the other two being religion and science--aspects that once, long ago, were unified. It would be the specific role of art in the Christian era to bridge the gap between matter and spirit.

Art must realize that its task is to carry the spiritual-divine life into the earthly; to fashion the latter in such a way that its forms, colors, words, tones, act as a revelation of the world beyond. Whether art takes on an idealistic or realistic coloring is of no importance. What it needs is a relationship to the truly, not merely thought-out, spiritual. No artist could create in his medium if there were not in him impulses springing from the spiritual world.(pp. 45-46)

When Steiner spoke of the threefold social order comprising "science, religion, and art," he was not speaking in terms of strictly defined disciplines. "Science" in this context could be translated "cognition" or "knowledge," and "religion" referred not to a specific institution but to spiritual aims in general. Similarly, Steiner's notion of "art" can be understood as an active practice of perception and soul transformation extending well beyond the creation of individual "works of art." In the lectures published as The Arts and Their Mission, Steiner specifically addressed the need for teaching to embody the intersection of artistic, scientific, and religious practices.

You see, if we really enter the spirituality of world phenomenon, we gradually transform dead abstract concepts into a living, colorful, form-bearing weaving and being. Because what surrounds us lives in the artistic, mere intellectual activity can, almost unnoticed, be transformed into artistic activity. That is why we constantly feel a need to enliven impertinently abstract conceptual definitions, physical body, ether body, astral body, all such concepts, these impertinently rigid, philistine and horribly scientific formulations, into artistic color and form.

If I drew it on the blackboard you would see that this living weaving in of color becomes a real artistic experience of the astral element of the world.(pp. 42, 94)

In speaking of the need to imbue pedagogical work with an artistic dimension, Steiner was not suggesting merely the kind of attractive design finesse that today's young scientists use to make their presentation posters more appealing. Rather, the skills he alludes to require that the instructor achieve a level of imagination, inspiration, and intuition that is the mark of a self-realized being.

Finally, our ability to understand Steiner's blackboard drawings as art must be, at least in part, attributed to the work of the late German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986). Beuys, who is known for his "expanded idea of art" (he coined the phrase "Everyone is an artist") and the notion of "social sculpture" (which extended to his participation in the founding of the Free International University and the German Green Party), was profoundly influenced by the teachings of Steiner. Of particular relevance to this discussion are his own so-called chalkboard drawings. These works, collected and exhibited as works of art by numerous museums around the world, are, much like the drawings in this exhibition, artifacts from the artist's public lectures. In appearance, they bear an uncanny resemblance to Steiner's pedagogical drawings, with the exception that Beuys's drawings lack Steiner's luminous and evocative use of color. In fact, it is quite likely that Beuys saw (perhaps in the 1958 exhibition), or at least knew of, these works. For those of us who have come to accept Beuys's chalkboard drawings within the compass of twentieth-century art-- albeit as highly idiosyncratic or even unique forms--it is exciting to discover the equally compelling and arguably more beautiful creations made by Rudolf Steiner more than half a century before.


1. Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerreo, Einhorn, Sphinx und Salamander. Ein Handbuch der phantastischen Zoologie, trans. Ulla Herrera (Munich: 1964), p. 132, quoted in Walter Dahn and Johannes Stuttgen, "The Self-Evidence of a Butterfly," inWenn die Erde Mond wird, (Cologne: DuMont Verlag, 1992), p. 8.

2. Rudolf Steiner, The Arts and Their Mission, trans. Lisa D. Monges and Virginia Moore, from lectures given in Dornach, Switzerland, May 27-June 9, 1923, and in Oslo, Norway, May 18 and 20, 1923 (Spring Valley, N.Y.: The Anthroposophic Press, 1964), p. 1. All quotations from this book are noted in the text.

3. Assja Turgenieff quoted in Beitrage zur Rudolf Steiners Gesamtausgabe, No. 103 (Dornach: Rudolf Steiner Verlag, 1989), p. 65.