Rudolf Steiner

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)

When Rudolf Steiner—prolific author in twelve fields, charismatic teacher, and founder of the turn-of-the-century mystical movement he called anthroposophy—accompanied his influential lectures with blackboard drawings, he never meant the vividly scrawled amalgamations of image and text he produced to be considered works of art independent of their purpose in elucidating his ideas. For the first twenty-five years of the century, Steiner traveled throughout Europe giving some five thousand talks on a variety of subjects. In 1919, one of his colleagues began placing pieces of black paper over the chalkboard before each lecture, thus preserving what had previously been erased at the end of the evening. More than a thousand of these drawings were stored in the archives of Steiner’s institute in Dornach, Switzerland, where until recently they remained virtually unseen by anyone outside the anthroposophical community. This exhibition of a selection of the drawings marked their first appearance in the United States (they will also be on view in New York at Peter Blum this month).

It has long been a given in modern art (at least since the invention of the ready-made) that the context in which an object is viewed can contribute substantially to how it is perceived. Encountered in a museum setting, Steiner’s works seem so aesthetically prescient that it is difficult to understand how artists such as Mondrian and Kandinsky, both of whom attended a number of his lectures, could have been attracted to his ideas and yet unaffected by his visual style. Still, the identification of these gorgeously eccentric combinations of words and pictures as art objects owes a great deal to developments in the seventy-five years since they were created. Perhaps most significantly, the blackboard itself has become a familiar trope, having been used by artists as different in focus and orientation as Cy Twombly and Gary Simmons, Nayland Blake and Raymond Saunders. The artist most famous for his use of blackboards, of course, is Joseph Beuys, who embraced Steiner’s teachings. Although it is uncertain whether Beuys was familiar with the drawings (prior to 1990, their only public appearance was in Dornach, in 1958), the powerful resemblance of his chalkboard works to Steiner’s is undeniable, as are the connections between art and spirituality in both men’s lives.

In Steiner’s drawings, occasional figurative elements—mostly figures, seen in profile—are incorporated into glowing fields, or haloed by radiating lines. For the most part, however, diagrammatic compositions in brilliant hues have been annotated with phrases written in white in a graceful European hand. Each of the forty drawings on view, designated by the title and date of the lecture it illustrated, was accompanied by a brief passage of text as well as a translation of any German words that appear in the composition. With popular interest in spiritual movements running high toward the end of the millennium, Steiner’s startling combination of pan-religious mysticism with practical prescriptions for education, economics, architecture, and even gardening has remained surprisingly current. Although it was possible to view the drawings without reference to the lengthy captions, it would have been arbitrary to do so, and an introduction to Steiner’s unique set of beliefs only enriched the experience of these images. By giving visitors this enhanced context—a rarity, in these days of minimal label text—curator Lawrence Rinder encouraged the kind of thoughtful appreciation this work deserves.

Maria Porges