Art and Theosophy
Helena P. BLAVATSKY considered the art of her time as being already in deep decline. In 1891 she wrote of “the gradual decadence of true art, as if art could exist without imagination, fancy and a just appreciation of the beautiful in Nature, or without poetry and high religious, hence metaphysical aspirations!” (CW XIII:180). She herself had an educated talent for drawing (including automatic or trance drawing), but no pretensions as an artist. Professionals among the early theosophists included the engraver Albert Rawson, the painter Isabel de Steiger and Hermann Schmiechen, who painted iconic portraits of KOOT HOOMI, MORYA and BLAVATSKY.
George RUSSELL, the Irish poet and painter known as “AE” joined the Esoteric Section in 1890, but left the TS in the Annie BESANT era. His work belongs within the Celtic Revival movement, with its awareness of mythology and the spiritual world, but with the distinction that he was a clairvoyant who painted spiritual beings that he had seen, not merely imagined.
A similar instance is the Czech painter Frantisek Kupka, who was a spiritualist medium in Prague and Vienna before coming to Paris in 1896 and mixing with theosophists and occultists. Kupka’s work combines the results of his own visions with geometrical symbolism and allusions to esoteric philosophy.
Charles W. LEADBEATER, while clairvoyant, was not a painter, but employed artists to reproduce his visions of the auras and thought forms of the human being and of astral forms made by music. These were published in Man: Visible and Invisible illustrated by Count Maurice Prozor and Gertrude Spink, and in Thought Forms illustrated by John Varley and others. A similar practice was followed by the theosophist Geoffrey Hodson in the 1920s, whose book on the devas, The Kingdom of the Gods, was illustrated by Ethelwynne M. Quail.
Much of the art inspired by Rudolf STEINER and executed by Anthroposophists stems from the same desire to make the invisible worlds as visible as they may be, especially through the calculated use of color.
It is very likely that the illustrations in Leadbeater’s books influenced the pioneers of abstract painting in the early 20th century. Wassily Kandinsky moved in German mystical circles before 1908, when he started reading Blavatsky, Leadbeater, Besant and Rudolf Steiner. His art moved quickly into abstraction and he wrote the important book On the Spiritual in Art (1912). Piet Mondrian joined the Dutch TS in 1909 and stayed at the French TS on moving to Paris in 1911. His art moved from Art Nouveau style, through the overtly theosophical Evolution triptych (1910-11) to the severest geometrical abstraction. A third abstract painter, the Russian Kasimir Malevich, seems to have developed his style of “Suprematism” independently of theosophy, through the experiences of yoga practice. Malevich’s exhibition in 1923 of blank canvases should be understood in that context, as representing the state of consciousness without an object. These pioneering artists have had innumerable imitators, especially in America, whose motivation is questionable.
The Symbolist movement in painting which arose in France, Belgium and the Netherlands around 1890 was not a direct result of theosophy, but was a phenomenon that could only have arisen at the same time and in the same milieu. It was certainly “theosophical” in the traditional sense of the term. The Symbolists aimed at the re-spiritualization of art, rejecting both academic realism and the everyday subject-matter of the Impressionists. Most of them, like the theosophists, were syncretic in their sources. Their inspiration came variously from Christian mysticism (e.g., some of the paintings of Maurice Denis, Thorn Prikker), Oriental mythology (Paul Gauguin, Paul Ranson) the “Rosicrucian” revival of Josephin Peladan (Jean DELVILLE, Fernand Khnopff, Carlos Schwabe, Jan Toorop) and sacred geometry (Charles Filger, Paul Serusier).
After the turn of the century, the Russian Symbolists (including Mikalojus Ciurlionis, Ivan Kliun, Nikolai Kulbin) and the Italian Futurists (Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini) emerged, similarly in societies where theosophy was being vigorously discussed by the intelligentsia. Their experimental attempts to expand the limits of human perception and imagination, usually on a basis of unorthodox spirituality, were fully in accord with the Third Object of the Theosophical Society.
Two slightly later American groups were keenly aware of theosophy, oriental philosophy, occultism and spiritualism. The first, loose grouping of Arthur Dove, Marasden Hartley, Georgia O’Keefe and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz added to this awareness a feeling for the mystical qualities of the American landscape. The second group, based in New Mexico and led by Raymond Johnson and Emil Bisttram, benefitted from a familiarity with theosophy and with Kandinsky’s book. In 1921 they joined the “Cor Ardens” movement of Nicholas ROERICH and in 1938 founded their own Transcendental Painting Group.
Roerich, who had belonged to the TS in pre-revolutionary Russia, was a prolific painter of mythological scenes and landscapes in an easily recognizable style. His earlier work drew on Russian folklore and the iconic tradition of Orthodox Christianity. Later he painted a series of the founders of all the world’s religions. During and after his expedition to the Himalayas (1925-28), he treated MAHAYANA BUDDHIST subjects, especially concerning the hidden realm of Shamballa, known to theosophists through Blavatsky’s reference in The Secret Doctrine. Roerich, whose wife Helena claimed to act as a channel for the Master Morya, is probably the most thoroughly theosophical of 20th-century painters, although opinions of his merit vary.
Claude Bragdon, the American architect, was brought into the TS by C. JINARAJADASA and wrote a short history of the movement, Episodes from an Unwritten History (Rochester, N.Y.: Manas Press, 1910). His wide range of creativity and large circle of friends made Bragdon a central figure of East Coast culture between the World Wars. His particular interest, which he shared with his friend P. D. Ouspensky, was in geometry, especially the hypothesis of the fourth dimension and its possibilities for the renewal of all the arts.
Although there is very little “theosophical art” as such, the mysterious impulse that gave rise to the theosophical movement found ample resonance among painters. It led them, in their very disparate ways to produce a visual commentary on the great themes of theosophy: the inner truth and symbolic richness of all religions and the boundless universe that the human being is destined to explore.
Jacqueline Decter. Nicholas Roerich, Messenger of Beauty. Vt.: Park Street Press 1993.
Linda Dalrymple Henderson. The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Kathleen Raine, “AE” in Yeats the Initiate. Mountrath: Dolmen Press, 1986, pp. 65-81.
Maurice Tuchman and others. The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting. 1890-1985. New York: Abbeville Press, 1986.
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