The world’s first self-conscious “youth” movement sprang up in response to, and as a rejection of, urban life and the cold, impersonal mechanics of modernity. It’s members wanted to reunite themselves with nature. They went vegetarian, sometimes favored nudism, hiked and even camped out in the wilderness, creating alternative societies to the mainstream. It was a romantic, spiritual movement. Many saw themselves as pagans, worshipping the sun, conceived of as an ancient Teutonic deity. The young men grew their hair long, sang songs and played guitars around campfires. But this movement did not emerge in 1960s California, but the proceeding century, during the 1890s, in Germany.
Known as Bohemians, as members of the Wandervogel (Wandering Birds) or Lebensreform (Life Reform) movement, these spiritual radicals engendered a proto-Hippie worldview and style that was transferred to the USA, and developed there, by German immigrants between the 1890s and the beginning of the First World War. In their new homelands they began to make converts of the locals. Professor Arnold Ehret, who arrived in California in 1914, promoted raw food diets, fasting, and nude sun bathing. He also believed that men should let their hair, and their beard, grow long. Ehret’s Rational Fasting (1914) and Mucus-less Diet (1922) gained wide acceptance during the 1960s, in the Hippie circles of San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Maximillian Sikinger arrived in the USA somewhat later, in 1935, at the age of 22. He settled in California, inspiring many of the young Americans around him to become “Nature Boys.” One of those who did so was Gypsy Boots. He was born to Russian-Jewish parents in San Francisco, in 1916. He met Sikinger in 1935, and began experimenting, under the German émigré’s tutelage, with natural diets, fasting, and Yoga. He opened his Health Hut in Hollywood in 1958, and quickly gained a reputation as a health instructor, appearing more than two dozen times on the Steve Allen show during the 1960s.
Another influence from the German Bohemians was art, especially the work of Hugo Höppener (1868-1948), who used the pseudonym Fidus. Depicting nude figures among the natural landscape, not sexualized, but in harmony with nature and working in cooperation with each other, Fidus gained wide recognition during his day, and inspired the psychedelic art style of the 1960s. Several of his works show a male-female couple embracing, not out of lust, but in a kind of Tantric reaching for Deity.
In one work, we see a naked, young man standing and stretching his arms out to the universe, as a young woman, sitting cross legged in a giant lotus – inspired by Hindu or Buddhist imagery – clasps his legs. Above them is a Hagal rune, an ancient Germanic symbol – or rune – then associated with the cosmos, health, energy and the body. In another image, Fidus depicts a man lying on the ground, while a female figure, kneels above him, looking to the sky. And, in another, a female – deity-like – figure holds the outstretched arms of a young man, in Christ-like posture.
With his career in decline, in 1932, Fidus joined the Nazi Party, membership of which became increasingly important in the acquisition of employment and positions of prominence. Fidus was probably also impressed by the Nazi Party’s environmentalism and romantic portrayals of the German people. His art, and the spirit of the artist it reveals, is, however, completely alien and antithetical to Nazism’s war machine, aggression, and industrial scale destruction of Jews and other minorities. Not surprisingly, the Nazis took no interest in Fidus, and ignored his art.
His most famous work (of which he made several versions), Prayer to the Light, shows a man standing on a rock mound, with his arms outstretched to the sky. Marianne Gullestad believes that it may have influenced missionary art, such as a painting made by Adolf Thunem in 1923, showing an African male with arms outstretched to an angel that appears in the sky. Fidus’s image was also reproduced by the Hasomer Hatzair in Palestine, in their journal El-Al, in 1922. Inspired by the counter-cultural youth movement of Germany, used it to illustrate a poem titled The Son’s Rebellion, which urged readers to disobey their parents, and pave their own path, for “The generation of the future, so distant and full of light.”
Still, Prayer to the Light may not have made Fidus’s biggest cultural impact. In 1934, Fidus sketched the design for a mural called Herbst (Autumn), which depicted a group of naked figures picking fruit from a tree. At the top of the design is perhaps the first ever peace symbol – a symbol that would become synonymous with the 1960’s Hippie and later anti-nuclear movements. British artist Gerald Holtom is generally accredited with designing the peace symbol in 1958, but this is nearly a quarter of a century after it appears in Fidus’s work, where it probably represents the Yr rune, a symbol of the feminine, and of drawing to an end.
The 1960s revived, and popularized for a new generation, the Bohemian adventures of the preceding century. But, the Hippies put the own stamp on it. They adopted clothing – as well as love beads, and fabrics such as hemp and cheesecloth – from India, China, Tibet, Mexico, and elsewhere. India, proved especially influential by providing the Hippies with the technique of tie-dye, which they used to transform simple items of clothing into brightly-colored, swirling psychedelic canvases. But, it wasn’t just clothing that they adopted. Regarding the West as “superficial and misguided,” like that late nineteenth century Bohemians, they looked upon Asia – India especially – as authentic culture.
Occultism also entered the mix, and later influenced some elements of popular music culture. Jimmy Page, the celebrated guitarist of the influential Seventies rock band Led Zeppelin, opened an occult shop in London that specialized in the works of Aleister Crowley. He also acquired one of the largest private collections of Crowley’s works, and even bought the English occultist’s house at Bolskine, Lock Ness. Page’s interest in Crowley led him to collaborate with movie make Kenneth Anger, another Crowley devotee, in 1973, who was working on his movie Lucifer Rising. Page and Anger later fell out publicly, in 1976, with the moviemaker complaining that only 28 minutes of the soundtrack had so far been recorded.
It was during the late 1970s that Punk emerged, largely in Great Britain, but also in the USA. Later, as it developed, or became more codified and commercial, the movement adopted other semi-spiritual trappings: the “Mohican” hairstyle from the native American culture, and tattoos. Originally worn only by petty criminals and sailors at the time, tattoos have become not only mainstream, but, among the more hardcore devotees of skin art, are often regarded in spiritual terms. Books on tattoos often talk about it as being an initaitic ritual – practiced by primitive tribes as well as modern counter-culture figures – and of the images representing “archetypes.” Tattoo Advocate, an early tattoo magazine that promoted more sophisticated skin art, included articles on the occult and Buddhism, as well as ancient Egyptian tattooing, and “read like a Bible for people seeking spiritual solace through tattoos.”
Gordon Kennedy, Children of the Sun, Nivaria Press, 1998.
Lebensreform: A Middle-Class Antidote to Wilhelminism? By Matthew Jefferies. Published in Wilhelminism and Its Legacies: German Modernities, Imperialism, and the Meanings of Reform, 1890-1930, Berghahn Books, 2004.
Marianne Gullestad , Picturing Pity: Pitfalls and Pleasures in Cross-cultural Communication Image and Word in a North Cameroon Mission, Berghahn Books, 2007.
Joerg Forbrig, Revisiting youth political participation, Council of Europe Publishing, 2005.
Veronica Manlow, Designing Clothes: Culture and Organization of the Fashion Industry, Transaction Publishers, 2009.
Gavin Baddeley, Lucifer Rising, Plexus, 2006.
Nigel Williamson, The Rough Guide to Led Zeppelin, Rough Guides/Penguin, 2007.