The exhibition “Rudolf Steiner – Alchemy of the Everyday” at the Vitra Design Museum is the first major retrospective on the complex man who was all at once a writer, philosopher, sociologist, educator, architect, and artist. I don’t really know much about Steiner’s achievements in such different fields. So it’s a perfect chance for me to learn about his life and work and get a holistic view on the inception and progression of the whole anthroposophical movement that he started.
The first room provides an overview of the context where Steiner’s worldview and artistic style were formed upon. Turning of the century, Goethe and German Idealism, late Romanticism and the advent of Modernism, the Lebensreform (“Life Reform”) social movement, etc. Josef Gočár’s desk clock is included as an example of Czech Cubist influence. And there’s a model of Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion to show the Durchgeistigung (spiritual permeation) idea of the German Werkbund. It was also the age of evolution theory, microscopy, and X-ray. Organic design works by Antoni Gaudí, Henry van de Velde, Richard Riemerschmid, and Hector Guimard are featured alongside Ernst Haeckel’s groundbreaking book Art Form in Nature published in 1904.
|The first room: Context|
|Josef Gočár, desk clock, 1913|
|A print from Ernst Haeckel’s Art Form in Nature, 1904|
In Steiner’s view, nature consists of four parts: a mineral world, a plant world, an animal world, and the human being. And the human being includes a physical body, an etheric (life) body, an astral (sentience) body, and the ego “I”. His 9m-high wooden sculpture The Representative of Humanity is the perfect illustration of this thinking. The Christ figure – the human existence with “the most sublime principle” – stands free in the center. He is surrounded by different distorted figures of Lucifer and Ahriman – light and dark devils that represent the two polarized traits of our lives. Christ’s gesture with one arm raised and the other lowered suggests an inner state of consciousness, a balanced existence between Luciferic frenzy and Ahrimanic tedium, between expansive pride and contractive insecurity.
|A miniature of The Representative of Humanity (1917-25) on show|
The anthroposophical society
The anthroposophical approach had influence in many areas of social lives, including education, agriculture, medicine, and social finance.
Steiner founded the Waldorf schools, a pedagogy based on his child development theory and education principles outlined in The Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy in 1907. The approach follows an interdisciplinary curriculum according to “epochs” rather than subjects. It emphasizes the role of imagination and the arts, integrating knowledge with creativity. In 1919, the first Waldorf school was founded to serve the children of employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. Now there are more than 1,000 Waldorf schools around the world and it has become the second largest group of private schools just after parochial schools.
Anthroposophical farms practice biodynamic agriculture, which sees the soil, plants, and animals as a self-sustaining system. One of the key elements is the exclusion of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Preparations are made with extracts of certain substances, and their efficacy is enhanced by the observation of cyclic rhythms in nature. This method recognizes and supports natural energy and mechanisms of a healthy balance, and links back to the fundamental worldview of Steiner’s anthroposophy.
It gets a bit more cult-like when it comes to anthropological medicine. The approach incorporated some aspects of homeopathy but defined itself as an extension of mainstream academic medicine. Steiner adhered to Paracelsus’s principle of similitude (“like cures like”): “a poison in the body would be cured by a similar poison.” He was convinced that certain methods could be used to extract the active ingredient from a substance and successively dilute it until a “spirit-like essence” remains (“potentiation”). Yet again, all this has its anthroposophical roots: it is a holistic medical discipline where etheric and astral bodies must be taken into account.
The central social concept of anthroposophy is social threefolding, laid out with a series of essays in The Renewal of the Social Organism (1919-20). The theory suggests a threefold social order: economical, political, and cultural; and the three realms should be relatively independent to form a mechanism where they can mutually correct each other in an ongoing process. Steiner believed that it could be “a third way” between capitalism and socialism. Joseph Beuys’s blackboards installation is featured as a sample artwork that was inspired by this theory of a new society.
|Joseph Beuys, Directional Forces, 1977|
Art and design
Steiner’s contribution to art was far more than just inspirations. He was himself an artist (as sculptor of The Representative of Humanity) and invented a performing art form called eurythmy. As the Greek root of the name suggests, this expressive movement art emphasizes on the beauty of harmony, both between the performers and the audience and within the performers themselves. It was widely taught at the Waldorf schools as well as performed on stage.
|An installation explaining the stage composition of an eurythmy performance|
Eurythmy reminds me of Loïe Fuller. In fact, the same fluid language was “frozen” in the form of stage set for one of Steiner’s four mystery dramas, The Guardian of the Threshold. The organic waves created a landscape of spirit and fantasies.
|The Guardian of the Threshold, Scene VI (The Spirit World), 1937|
Steiner also worked with scientists on geometric research to develop crystalline structures, which became an important part of the so-called “anthroposophical style.” Examples include Carl Kemper’s platonic solids series (1930s) and Paul Schatz’s Oloid discovered in 1929. It reminds me of Olafur Eliasson’s structural studies. The curator obviously also sensed the similarity and included Eliasson’s Before the star lamp in the show.
|A showcase with Carl Kemper’s platonic solids (left) and Paul Schatz’s Oloid (far right)|
In order to have a headquarters for anthroposophy and a center dedicated to the spiritual sciences and all art forms, Steiner began to build the first Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland in 1913. Named after Goethe, the timber-concrete structure opened in 1920, but was soon destroyed by arson on New Year's Eve 1922/23. Right after the accident, Steiner set out to design a second Goetheanum, this time completely made of reinforced concrete (15,000 m3). Construction finished in 1928, after Steiner’s death. It was the first large-scale building to use concrete for such a sculptural form. In the center is a large auditorium with a 30m span that can house 1,000 visitors for eurythmy and mystery dramas performances.
|The second Goetheanum, 1923-28|
The Organic-Expressionist style is similar to that of Gaudí, Erich Mendelsohn, and Wenzel Hablik. In Dornach, Steiner also designed about a dozen other buildings, including Duldeck House (1915-18), De Jaager House (1921-22), Eurythmeum (1927), and two utility facilities: a boiler house (1913-15) and a transformer house (1921) – all with expressive forms.
|Models, with the boiler house (1913-15) on the right|
|Models, with the transformer house (1921) in the front|
As I walk through the exhibition, a voice keeps whispering to me: “you have to go to Dornach.” I am sure it will be totally worth the trip. I will definitely report more after that. Till then...
To be continued...