Education, Organic Farming and Angels Exhibition Highlights Rudolf Steiner's Influence on Modern Germany

The Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner is best known as the somewhat eccentric founder of anthroposophy, widely regarded as a wacky Christian splinter group. But his ideas have had a profound impact on many aspects of modern German society, as a new exhibition shows.


"Can you really dance your name?" It's a question that is familiar to anyone who, like this author, is a former student of a Waldorf school. It doesn't come right away, but it is almost inevitable, once a sufficient level of familiarity has been reached in a conversation. After all, it's part of the general stereotype that people in Germany have about Waldorf schools, whose unusual educational philosophy is based on the ideas of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.

And no matter what his or her school experience was like, every former Waldorf student finds the question a little embarrassing -- because the answer is indeed, yes, you can dance your name. Waldorf schools do indeed teach eurhythmy, an expressive art form where people dance to music or poetry, waving their arms around while doing so.

Sometimes -- and this is probably something former students should keep to themselves -- the pupils wore dresses and green or purple veils while performing their dances, even at the age of 17. They are also generally unwilling to demonstrate their eurhythmy skills to the curious; many former Waldorf students are just happy to have that part of their lives behind them.

Unusual Educational Ideas

Nevertheless, it's a good question. It condenses the image of Waldorf schools into a single sentence. In the general imagination, these schools are seen as different. They are regarded as somehow promoting creativity, but it is doubtful whether the children will ever use all the things they are taught. The question is also often accompanied by a sense of astonishment. Do these schools really manage to produce students who successfully earn the high-school diploma that they need for university, despite having been required to do such crazy things as eurhythmy? How is this possible?

That, in a nutshell, is the paradox of anthroposophy, the spiritual philosophy founded by Steiner. On the one hand, anthroposophists appear to be a relatively wacky Christian splinter group. On the other hand, the ideas of anthroposophy penetrate deeply into contemporary German society, and not just because of Waldorf education.

Many things that are part of everyday life for middle-class Germans, such as alternative medicine, biodynamic agriculture and natural cosmetics, are heavily influenced by Rudolf Steiner's thought. Household names in Germany which have connections to anthroposophy include the Demeter association of biodynamic farmers, which includes 4,200 farms around the world, the Weleda group of pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, which was established by Steiner himself and currently has annual sales of €238 million ($295 million), the ethical bank GLS and the DM drugstore chain.

Two Sides

Rudolf Steiner (1861 - 1925), the father of anthroposophy, wasn't just one of the great eccentrics of German cultural history. He also became a philosopher whose ideas crossed over to the mainstream, and whose Goetheanum building in Dornach, Switzerland is a pilgrimage site today. It isn't easy to reconcile the two sides of Steiner.

Nevertheless, the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg has taken a stab at it, with two major exhibitions devoted to Steiner: "Rudolf Steiner and the Art of Today" and "The Alchemy of Daily Life," both of which run until October 3. In the first part of the show, 15 artists address Steiner's worldview. And these are not anthroposophist artists, but big names.

A piece at the entrance, by Giuseppe Penone, a representative of Italy's Arte Povera movement, consists of biodynamic vegetables placed onto a metal, snail-shaped mould. Olafur Eliasson, the world-famous Berlin-based Danish artist, exhibits a sculpture. Anish Kapoor, who is building a giant, iconic tower in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, has created a bulge in a wall, next to which visitors can receive neck massages, which are meant to bring together the spirit and the body.

Forward Thinker

And then there is the late German artist Joseph Beuys, who was deeply influenced by Steiner. After Beuys' death, his assistants were surprised to discover just how much the artist's famous blackboards, on which he had drawn diagrams and words during his lectures, resembled the blackboards Steiner had created during his talks.

The second part of the show presents Steiner as a forward thinker in architecture, design and social issues. Many of the chairs, architectural models, letters, images, books, films, color chambers and sculptures that the Vitra Design Museum has assembled for the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg are being displayed outside anthroposophist buildings for the first time ever.

The exhibition's organizers did not, however, venture to hang a portrait of Rudolf Steiner, like the one that hangs in every Waldorf school, in the entrance area. But the exhibition poster does feature Steiner's likeness, staring off into the distance. "A hypnotic power resided in his dark eyes," the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig once wrote, and his gaze does in fact have an astonishing L. Ron Hubbard-like quality. But Steiner, unlike Hubbard, who only managed to become a mediocre science fiction writer before establishing Scientology, was a real scientist and academic.

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