Art and Philosophy: Joseph Beuys and Rudolph Steiner
NGV Curator Allison Holland, NGV Curator, Prints & Drawings chats to Paul Andrew about imagination, inspiration and intuition.
One hundred blackboards graced in chalk spirals, glyphs
and equations like ancient alchemical diagrams. One
blackboard features a horizontal figure with a prominent
love heart. The organ is connected to handwritten scribbles
by white dusty threads. Words – rhythm, feeling power,
and movement- hovering above the muscle like encrypted
Blackboards like this comprise German artist Joseph Beuys’
seminal work Richtkrafte (Directive Forces Of A New Society)
1974-1977 a series of intuitive “conversations” between
Beuys and influential thinker Rudolf Steiner. It is the
centrepiece for a groundbreaking Australian exhibition,
examining Beuys’ work across platforms like “social
sculpture”, performance art, environmental art and his
involvement with the Fluxus art movement of the 1960s.
Curator Allison Holland suggests these blackboards are “an imaginal dialogue ”between inspired men – one an artist, one a philosopher - who shared the vision that creativity can change the way we live. “Beuys was a political activist during the cold
war period and a founding member of the Green Party,”
reveals Holland. “He also participated for a period in
the worldwide Fluxus movement, an organisation that
promoted art as an organic and lived experience. Beuys
had a charismatic persona, presenting himself equally as
shaman, mediator and educator – the legacy of his life work
is only now becoming evident.”
“Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 in Kraljevica. A scholar
of Goethe’s writings, Steiner was involved in the mysticism
of the Theosophical Society. In 1912, he founded the
Anthroposophy movement based on his own philosophies,”
she adds. “And in the last five years of his life(1919-1925)
he presented over 2,000 public lectures using coloured
chalk on black paper to visualise complex, esoteric ideas,
advocating a holistic approach to life. This philosophy
underpinned his development of Waldorf education,
biodynamic agriculture, or artistic, musical expressions like
According to the Curator Steiner’s blackboard made an
indelible impact on the young post war artist Joseph Beuys.
Holland reveals that Beuys was born in Krefeld, Germany
in 1921, four years before Steiner’s death. “In 1943, he
went to Italy for military training. Overwhelmed by the
sun drenched Italian countryside he wrote to his parents of
his decision to become an artist when the war had ended.
About this time Beuys began reading Steiner’s writings,
collecting over 120 editions. In 1961 he was appointed
professor of sculpture at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in
Düsseldorf, where he had been a student. In 1972 Beuys
was dismissed from the academy amid great controversy
over his open teaching policy. In the following year he
joined the Anthroposophical Society.”
Today, in an era of inconvenient truth – with nuclear
power debates raging again – alongside global greenhouse
emissions protests, collective apathy towards the Kyoto
protocol and the anti-intellectualism promulgated by
conservative governments, Beuys actions or “Aktionen” are
as relevant today. Holland explains, “He used his Aktionen
to explore the relationships he perceived existed between
the environment, economics, politics and the individual.
This was an expanded concept of art proposing that we are
all artists in ‘social sculpture’, where life is integrated with
Holland cites Richtkräfte, as one of her exhibition faves.
“This installation was the outcome of the ‘actions’
from Beuys’ Art into Society, Society into Art held at the
Institute for Contemporary Art in London in 1974. This
accumulation of 100 blackboards documents people and
events that were central to Beuys’ life at the time and his
thoughts on social reform–through creative production."
"During these actions, he placed a blackboard on one of the
three easels while interacting with participants. In chalk he
inscribed basic principles for ‘social sculpture’, proposing
that direct democracy is achieved through political and
legal reforms based on a system of social equality. ”
Joseph Beuys & Rudolph Steiner: Imagination,
Inspiration, Intuition. 26 October 2007–17 February 2008
Interview with Allison Holland - Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria
Joseph Beuys & Rudolph Steiner: Imagination, Inspiration, Intuition
Philosophy informs many artists throughout time - what philosophies inspire this duo?
This exhibition is as much about ideas as it is about art. It moves from fundamental questions of human existence and the ability to think, to conceptualise the structure of society and the forces of the greater cosmos. At the centre are two men - Joseph Beuys and Rudolf Steiner – and how they visualised their epistemologies through chalk drawings.
Imagination, Inspiration, Intuition presents a selective glimpse of the work of these two men. The most fundamental connection between Steiner and Beuys was their concept of a ‘threefold social organism’. This was a tripartite relationship that considered the legal, economic and spiritual or creative needs of the individual within society.
Art History is a brimming with artists seeking a holistic approach to art and life, an artful life that pays attention to the small things where do Beuys and Steiner sit in this context?
Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861 in Kraljevica, which in the nineteenth century was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A scholar of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s writings, Steiner was also involved in the mysticism of the Theosophical Society. In 1912, Steiner founded the Anthroposophy movement based on his own philosophies, and from the Society’s headquarters at the Goetheanum in Dornach, disseminated his ideas through lectures.
In the last five years of his life (1919-1925) Steiner presented over 2,000 public lectures using coloured chalk on black paper to visualise his complex and esoteric ideas. He advocated a holistic approach to life, a concept that underpins his development of Waldorf education, biodynamic agriculture, and artistic and musical expressions such as eurythmy.
Joseph Beuys was born in Krefeld, Germany in 1921, four years before Steiner’s death. In 1943, Beuys went to Italy for military training. Overwhelmed by the sun drench Italian country side he wrote home to his parents of his decision to become an artist after the war had ended. About this time Beuys began reading Steiner’s writings collecting over a 120 editions, many of which were annotated, in his personal library.
In 1961 he was appointed professor of sculpture at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, where he had been a student. However, in 1972 Beuys was dismissed from the academy amidst great controversy over his open teaching policy. In the following year Beuys joined the Anthroposophical Society for a period of time.
Chalk and blackboard are used to communicate a message. What is the inspiration behind the medium - what is the context – and the message?
As educators both men used chalk and blackboard. However, it was the process of mark making, of making visual their thoughts and communicating them to their audience that was most important. The works were not considered the primary outcome of their thought processes like most drawings, but today these traces have become significant objects for the current generation.
Some commentators on the Steiner’s drawings state that the works take the viewer into the realm of the inner eye. They are portals into things commonly unseen enabling one to make connections using one’s imagination
What are two of your favourite works in the exhibition, what do they reveal for you, why so?
(Directive forces (Of a new society)) 1974-1977, commonly refered to as Richtkräfte, was the outcome of Beuys’ action Art into Society, Society into Art held at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in London from 30 October to 24 November 1974. An accumulation of 100 blackboards, Richtkräfte documents the people and events that were central to Beuys’ life at that time and, more importantly, his thoughts on social reform through creative production.
During the action, Beuys placed a blackboard on one of the three easels and, while interacting with the participants, inscribed in chalk his basic principles for ‘social sculpture’. Beuys’ theory of social sculpture proposed that direct democracy could be achieved through political and legal reforms based on a system of social equality.
This equality was interlinked with Beuys’ ideal of sustainable economic forms and the notion that, on an individual level, there was a need for freedom in the cultural and educational spheres.
What do the works in this exhibition help us understand about our world today in an era of environmental chaos and political conservatism and an interrelationship with intellectual pursuits, philosophy, art and culture?
The concepts behind the works selected for this exhibition are encapsulated in two declarations which outline Steiner’s holistic approach to living and Beuys’ insistence on the integration of art and life.
Steiner’s Appeal to the German nation and to the civilized world (March 1919) was sent to the German government in the aftermath of World War I. Beuys’ An appeal for an alternative (1982) was publicly launched in the artistic forum of documenta 7, one of Europe’s most significant contemporary art exhibitions held in Kassel.
Steiner, responding to the destruction of the Great War, proposed that to prevent such a recurrence society need to reconsider the balance of power between politics, economics and belief. Responding to the perceived crises in the economical, ecological and personal spheres of society during the Cold War period, Beuys proposed a reassessment of the monetary system which acknowledged equally the worth of individual labour. Both believed that social transformation was only achievable through an evolution of humanity to a higher level of consciousness.
Steiner used coloured chalk on black paper to visualise his complex and esoteric ideas about spirituality - what are some of these ideas and how are they relevant today in our understanding of soul, of metaphysics?
Steiner created abstract, figurative and annotated drawings that visualised his ideas on the different states of human consciousness. The drawings selected for Imagination, Inspiration, Intuition have been loosely grouped to reflect the ideas of the forces of thinking, social renewal, natural metamorphosis, the cosmos and human existence.
Some commentators on the drawings state that the works take the viewer into the realm of the inner eye. They are portals into things commonly unseen enabling one to have a metaphysical understanding of self which brings about a transformation.
Joseph Beuys's creative endeavour is multi- platform; political, performance, environment, Allison what can you tell us about his peripatetic approach?
Beuys used his performative art practice, which he called Aktionen, (actions) to explore the relationships he perceived existed between the environment, economics, politics and the individual. This was an ‘expanded concept of art’ where life was integrated with artistic practice.
And specifically about his participation in Fluxus, it's coterie of artists, it's political and cultural aspirations?
A political activist and a founding member of the Green Party, Beuys also participated for a period in the world-wide Fluxus movement that promoted art as an organic and lived experience. However, Beuys had a charismatic persona, he presented himself as a shaman, a mediator, an educator which did not sit well with the core values of Fluxus.
How is Beuys work relevant today and what artists has he influenced?
The legacy of Beuys oeuvre is only now becoming evident. His avant-garde installations and performative actions have inspired many German artists, such as Anselm Keifer, Jorg Immendorf and Sigmar Polke. Amongst the current generation of international art stars, Marina Abramovic, Felix Gonzales Torres, Matthew Barney and Maurizio Cattalan have all made reference to Beuys in their works.
What do you feel may be a standout or showpiece in this exhibition for newer audiences to the work of Beuys, why so?
The exhibition has been selected to give a sense of Beuys performances. There is a film of Beuys’ Trans-Siberian Railway which while be screened continuously on the mezzanine level of the Gallery. An audio component of Beuys and two colleagues in conversation will be played in the gallery space at 11.30am and 3.30pm daily.
What do you feel artists will love about visiting this exhibition?
The exhibition offers a unique opportunity to experience a seminal installation by Joseph Beuys and an extensive selection of Steiner drawings, none of which have been seen in Australia before.
This exhibition will immediately appeal to artists, academics and those interested in German culture especially those who are already familiar with the works of Beuys and/or Steiner. For others it will be an exploration of how thought and creativity can be communicated through a visual medium.