In the footsteps of the "Der Blaue Reiter" group of artists

By Brigitte Kaiser, Georg Schumann, March 2022

As a special feature at the Daglfinger Waldorf School there is a "Blaue Reiter" main lesson for our two class 7s right at the beginning of the school year. We start the colourful autumn with a trip to the artist towns of Kochel and Murnau. After an introduction in the school, we then walk locally in the footsteps of the artists of the "Blaue Reiter", we sketch in nature and paint indoors in the evening. Immediately after the trip, the classroom becomes a studio and the pupils spend two days painting a large-scale oil painting. A visit to the Lenbach House rounds off this main lesson.

But first: who was the group of artists "Der Blaue Reiter"? The group formed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its most important representatives are Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, Franz Marc, August Macke, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin. This association of artists only existed for a few years. In 1911, the first "Der Blauer Reiter" almanac was published. This art magazine formulated groundbreaking new thoughts and ideas about art. With the outbreak of the First World War, however, this intensive period of artistic exploration came to an abrupt end. 

The idea for the main lesson is also connected with Munich and its specific local references. All the artists lived in Schwabing. Many children know the streets Ainmillerstraße, where Kandinsky, Münter and Marc lived, as well as Giselastraße, where Jawlensky and Werefkin had their home. For this reason the group was initially called "the Giselists". In the years after 1900, Munich – especially the district of Schwabing – developed into an innovative metropolis of art, leaving behind its image as a provincial capital. Princes of painting such as Lenbach, Stuck or Hildebrand resided in their stately villas, and writers such as Thomas Mann and comedians such as Karl Valentin also lived here. Rudolf Steiner also gave his art lectures here at this time. In the salons, the artists debated and partied extensively.

Today, the Lenbach House displays the works of the "Blaue Reiter" artists. The reputation of the Lenbach House as an internationally important museum is based on its unique collection of works by the "Blaue Reiter". In 1957, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday, Gabriele Münter donated her art collection of outstanding works, which she had saved from destruction by the Nazis in her hiding place in Murnau, to the municipal gallery. Thus this previously rather provincial exhibition venue achieved world fame in one fell swoop.

Many of these works were created during excursions into the Munich countryside, where the artists also lived for a time. They did not always paint the impressions they gained in nature immediately. On the contrary, they transformed their impressions into a picture in the evening or even after returning to Munich and processed their recollections in this way. Kandinsky calls this process improvisation. This process is also followed by the pupils during the trip or back at school in linguistic and pictorial form.

"I have looked for you and have not yet found you,
The longing is great, but find you I can't.
I know you are there, but I never see you.
Where and when, I have no idea.
I will find you, I know that for certain.
To the question: Who is he? What's his name?
I don't know the answer because it is something I don't know myself.
Yet I would love  to know his name.
How long I will wait is uncertain,
but if you are there, it would be wonderful.

The poems that were written during the trip or as a follow-up at school clearly reflect that the pupils are in a transitional phase. This is known as prepuberty. Around the age of fourteen, the growing human being enters into a new relationship with the world. Carefree childhood comes to an end and at the same time the new is not yet tangible for them. A moment of speechlessness occurs. The change is also noticeable on a physical level. The effects often manifest themselves in an enormous growth spurt, fatigue and a great need to chill.

Fundamental things change with the emotional and mental ability to establish distance and to be able to take on the role of the observer. An understanding of irony and the comprehension of causal connections now becomes possible. The pupils also feel that they want to shape processes themselves, which is increasingly evident in class and at home; they want to decide for themselves, for example, when and how they complete their tasks.

In accordance with their stage of development, the pupils explore the beginning of the modern era in the history main lesson under the motto "Off to a new world". They embark on journeys of discovery also on an artistic level by getting to know Expressionist painting and set out into new pictorial worlds. These awakening forces can drift in a positive or negative direction. If a young person does not find any points of reference in the world for their ideals, their energy can also become a destructive force.

The artworks of the "Blaue Reiter" provide external images by which the adolescents can orient themselves. This artistic expression can take place through colours and forms or through the linguistic-poetic path. When pupils write about works of art connected with the "Blaue Reiter", they do not have to deal directly with themselves but thanks to the language of art can express what is occupying them at that moment, something they may not be consciously aware of, but which is nevertheless present in their emotional lives.

Heavenly child and earthly child

Henning Köhler calls this phase between the tenth and twelfth year of life a "pivotal time", as much is decided during this period with regard to the source of inner strength and inner health. It is during this period that the emotional power of "eros" first appears. "Eros" is the potential to come to terms with one's very own individuality. Through artistic activity, aspects of themselves appear before the pupils' eyes as an image told in pictorial language, as seen above as a bird or a horse for example. However, this can only happen if the "earth child" enters their will in such a way that artistic work comes about. Köhler's reflections on the power of "eros" are based on the assumption that the human being exists in both "earthly" and "heavenly" realms of being.

From an anthroposophical perspective, the human being as a "heavenly child" is connected back to their life before birth. This realm is comparable to a space of innocence, with purity, complete openness, receptivity, guilelessness, devotion and trust. Johannes Greiner characterises the ability to connect with the spiritual world as the "inner child". The childlike in us is the creative and renewing force, which in turn is linked to imagination and conceptual capacity. It connects us with our original source and origin. It is continual growth, the unexpected, the power of initiative, the ability to marvel, to question and to be inspired. The inner child is always present, but comes to expression particularly in childhood. It is never lost, but the human being loses access to it. The spiritual connection to the cosmos that children still have is reflected artistically in a primal expressiveness. Picasso's saying that every child is an artist has become famous. However, this intuitive expressiveness is repressed with the onset of puberty.

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." (Picasso quoted in Time Magazine, 4 October 1976)

The "earth child", in turn, is connected with earthly conditions, pragmatically they deal with the hard realities. They are no longer an innocent and trusting being. Access to the world becomes more rational, processes are penetrated, which does not always strengthen self-confidence but can also lead to doubt, mistrust and loneliness. Köhler emphasises that the "heavenly child" is a source of strength for the health of the "earth child", it can also be described as their higher self, their higher "I".

The trip

The trip lasts three days. These are organised with a variety of activities with visits to museums, painting, writing poems and hiking in nature. The children are introduced to basic ideas of Kandinsky's theories of colour, Franz Marc's colour symbolism and the colour wheel with the complementary contrasts. Telling the biography of the artists gives the pupils emotional access to the personalities, their works and to the early twentieth century.

Nevertheless, for the class 7 pupils the experience of the colours in the painting process has absolutely priority. They should actively immerse themselves in colours and forms and be guided by an emotional, intuitive approach. The pupils of class 7 plunge into in the activity without a deep, rational penetration of the artistic positions of the "Blaue Reiter". The early works of the artists are particularly suitable for this, supported by walks and painting in nature. In this way, a thematic space opens up over several days and nights in which the pupils immerse themselves without the everyday distractions.

The subject of abstraction will not be dealt with until class 11, when we will again deal with the "Blaue Reiter", Kandinsky and his theory of colour and form. While the thirteen-year-olds develop access to colour through doing, the class 11 pupils have the necessary mental maturity at this stage of development to engage with the theories of art.

Oil painting in the classroom

After the trip, the classroom is transformed into a studio for two to three mornings. The preparations for this must be well thought through. Large-scale painting with oil paints offers the children a new quality and intensifies the painting process. They experience the feel and intense luminosity of the colours. Oil painting is technically demanding, certain rules on how to do it have to be learned by the children. At the level of the technical challenges it becomes clear to them that artistic activity is not only a creative impulse but that specific material properties also play a role and craft skills are required.

Close observation and differentiated perception are among the basic learning objectives of the main lesson – especially when discussing the pictures. The moments in which the children strive to see the perceptual world in its diversity contribute to the development of their aesthetic sense.

There is an obvious parallel here. In the physical development of the class 7 pupils, the lungs have developed in a differentiated way. The sensitisation to the complexity of phenomena and to precise observation is analogous to the development of respiratory maturity. Breathing becomes differentiated and the ability to feel increases. In their colourful diversity, these trees can symbolically stand for the differentiated lungs and at the same time reflect the rich inner life of the children.

Especially between the ages of twelve and fourteen, the possibility is still open for children to draw on an immediacy until, with increasing puberty, such spontaneous creative power is overlaid by fixed ideas and is thus also lost. A trip lasting several days – creating a window of opportunity – enables the children to immerse themselves intensively and impulsively in artistic work during this special phase.

About the authors: Dr Brigitte Kaiser is an art teacher. Georg Schumann is a crafts teacher and gives courses in Waldorf education and art in Hungary and Georgia. Both work at the Munich Daglfing Rudolf Steiner School.

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