For three days last week Amsterdam was the epicentre for anyone interested in the relationship between the arts and anthroposophical and theosophical currents. From September 25th – 27th the international scholarly conference Enchanted Modernities – Theosophy, Modernism & the Arts took place on two locations, the Singelkerk and Doelenzaal, bringing together more than 150 bright minds working in the fields of art, scholarship and Western esotericism. The conference has been organized by members of the Enchanted Modernities network dr. Marco Pasi, dr. Sarah Turner, dr. Christopher Scheer and Katie Jane Tyreman supported by Nadine Faber and a few students of the MA Western-esotericism part of the educational program of the Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy & Related Currents (HHP) of the University of Amsterdam. Besides the Ritman Library’s partnership with the HHP, resulting in our new exhibition ‘Beauty as the Imprint of the Cosmos’ other participating institutes in the event were the Theosophical Library and the Stedelijk Museum. In this article an overview will be presented of a selection of the presentations given during the conference.
The first day started at 09:00 am with the first official keynote provided by prof. Raphael Rosenberg of the University of Vienna entitled ‘Mapping the Aura in the Spirit of Art and Art Theory: Blavatsky, Leadbeater, Besant, and Steiner’. In his presentation, Rosenberg argued that theosophical ideas on the aura were rooted in European avant-garde art around 1900 and in aesthetic theories. Around this time, which was a period of chaos and culture-shock, there existed a pregnant need for individual subjective expression as well as the longing to discover a new ideal order by undertaking a journey to the inner realms of the Self. Avant-garde artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondriaan tried to create a new language, a new logic in their art to respond to these needs, pointing to the dream to return to a more original or spiritual state of man.
It was the art historian Sixten Ringbom who first began investigating whether Kandinsky and other artists of his time were connected to theosophy or not. In his The Sounding Cosmos (1970) he attempted to prove that it was the interest for esoteric movements such as theosophy and anthroposophy that inspired these painters to create abstract art. He connected their art to the books of theosophists like Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater, such as Man Visible and Invisible (1902) and Thought-Forms (first printed in 1901) in which abstract representations of auras are discussed. Rosenberg claimed that theosophy itself was a black box for Ringborn: he never asked himself how Besant and Leadbeater arrived at their abstract images in their Thought-Forms. Ringbom’s book The Sounding Cosmos did not receive a single review and it was not until ‘The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985’, an exhibition which took place in the Los Angeles County Museum in 1986, before Ringbom’s ideas received attention.
The concept of thought-forms as formulated by theosophists Annie Besant and later Charles W. Leadbeater including its series of abstract images seems to be connected with the phenomenon of synaesthesia, Rosenberg argued. This phenomenon was also discussed by Madame Blavatsky and attracted the attention of psychologists around 1880. According to Blavatsky, synaesthesia could be understood as a form of higher perception and clairvoyance. As such she went back to Swedenborg and Oetinger and their theories on higher perception. She regarded theosophy as superior since it allowed man to see with the ‘Naked Eye’ beyond the natural object or physical world: a domain of perception regular science did not have access to. It was synaesthesia, therefore, which proved there indeed existed a world beyond the physical realm. Blavatsky connected the phenomenon with the aura, claiming that the colours seen by people susceptible to synaesthesia are auratic. People with this ability can ‘see’ an oval extra-sensory aura surrounding every human being which reveals their feelings, moods and characters. After her death in 1891, auratic shapes and colours were mapped by Besant and Leadbeater in their work Thought-Forms (1901), which revealed the meaning of every colour, shape and outline. The colour was related to the specific quality of the thought, the shape to its nature, while the clarity of outline showed its specific features.
In the same session, Dmitrij Kraft of the Ludwig-Maximilian- University in Munich discussed Kasimir Malevich’s avant-garde artistic concepts and the esoteric occult tradition of his period. The Russian avant-garde painter Malevich aimed at a radical renewal and reconstruction of all spheres of life and his artworks and philosophical ideas are a reflection of his wish to transcend everyday reality in search for a new psychology, authenticity and a sub-cultural archaic sphere. Around the fin de siècle interest for occultism was increasing posing an answer to the positivist trend that was indicative of a disenchantment of the world. Malevich grew inspired by the Hermetic tradition as presented by Freemasonry and theosophy as well as by native cultures, which introduced aspects of folklore and traditional life in his works. Although there is no actual proof that Malevich read occult literature, he and other artists who are representaive of the avant-garde movement, whether Russian or Western-European, were actively exploring the relationship between matter and spirit. In their artistic practice the spiritual revealed itself as a new symbolic aesthetics unifying the spiritual realm with the worldly realm. These aesthetic rituals aimed at salvation without taking recourse to the established Church as a mediating agency. Here the artist becomes a magician working towards a radical transformation of the world.
The futurist movement, a sub-movement that arose out of avant-garde endeavours and one which heralded an ideal future with the promise of an organic unity and a new language, promoted what could be conceived of as the new man and the new era of art in which new layers of perception were being opened up. Among the sources of inspiration were the revelations of Russian theosophists as well as the esotericist P. D. Ouspensky (1878 – 1947), author of The Fourth Dimension (1909), Tertium Organum (1920) that contained both elements of mysticism and mathematics and A New Model of the Universe (1931). In 1913 Malevich founded Suprematism, an art movement emphasizing basic geometry as expressed in a select range of colours. Suprematism refers to an abstract art based upon the supremacy of pure artistic feeling rather than on visually picturing matter. Secondly, it is related to the attempt to picture the all-encompassing unity of all occult things in art. With his group ‘The Advocates of the New Art’, a kind of secret artistic society, Malevich aimed to design the new ideal world according to suprematist laws.
Another interesting session focussing on the performance arts took place on the second conference day. Dr. Johanna J. M. Petsche of the University of Sydney presented her paper on ‘The Sacred Dance of the Enneagram: G. I. Gurdjieff’s Movemens and their Esoteric Meaning’. Petsche examined the variegated body of ‘Movements’ or sacred dances choreographed by the Armenian-Greek esoteric teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (c. 1866-1949) by putting his Enneagram Movements into focus. Petsche wrote her PhD. on this subject and has at the same time been a ‘sacred dancer’ herself for almost 4 years. Gurdjieff aimed to create friction in students by making them aware of their mechanical condition. He attempted to formulate his own answer to the trends of fragmentation and industrialization of his day. His dances may be regarded as physical exercises realigning the centres of the intellectual, emotional and physical bodies. A change in one of these bodies would affect the others, therefore his Movements – more than 200 of which he would ultimately choreograph – would help to bring back the centres in sync. His inspiration came from Sufist, Buddhist and Islamic traditions and he is alleged to have been an initiate in the Sarmoung Monastery, where the enneagram symbol was transmitted to him. This, however, has never been proved. His movements may also be related to theosophist ideas and to the letters of the Greek alphabet and at the same time it made me think of the Runic alphabet as well as Vajra Dance as developed by the Dzogchen Master, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu who introduced it to his students in 1990. Vajra Dance is a practice that makes use of sound and movement to integrate the three aspects of human existence – body, energy, and mind – with the true or original condition. It is practised by means of a mandala which represents the correspondence between the internal dimension of the individual and the outer dimension of the world.
Gurdjieff’s Ennegram movements are practised by means of an enneagram, a living symbol representing the harmony of nature. The law of seven and the law of three may be considered its essential features. The symbol of the enneagram is divided into 9 points, of which the path 142857 is the most important. This number corresponds to the law of seven, stating that all natural phemomena are sevenfold: everything moves in 7 stages and always seeks to be resolved into one: 1/7 = 0,142857142857142857 (infinitely). These 7 stages contain the law of three representing impulses, this is the path 369 in the enneagram. Both the numbers 142857 and 369 can be reduced to 9: 1+4+2+8+5+7 = 27 (2+7) = 9 and 3+6+9 = 18 (1+8) = 9 (the points of the enneagram). The centre of the enneagram represents 0. In enneagram movements, dancers move from point to point, thereby realigning themselves with the original natural order.
During the first session held on the third day, prof. Reinhold J. Fäth of the Hochschule für Künste im Sozialen in Ottersberg gave a presentation on the artists within and around the AENIGMA group or movement. He is also the curator of the AENIGMA part of the Ritman Library exhibition, which includes small original artworks by Maria Strakosch-Giesler, Irma von Duczynska and other, mostly female, AENIGMA group members. In his presentation he discussed some specific aspects of anthroposophical art theory, especially concerning the aim of creating a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. AENIGMA art group members worked towards the creation of an all-compassing, integrative artwork in their colony in Dornach, Switzerland. It was in fact one of the founder members, Maria Strakosch-Giesler, who is probably the one who brought Kandinsky in touch with theosophy, being one of his students and a good friend.
Maria herself exhibited paintings during the Theosophical Congress in Munich in 1911 and she was the co-founder of the art group AENIGMA in 1917/1918 inspired by the anthroposophic ideas of Rudolph Steiner. Steiner had developed a new theory of colours and forms based on Goethe, one which took the psychological aspects of the world of colours and forms as sketched by Goethe into a new dimension of the spiritual. Steiner’s theory of form is also connected to Goethe’s remarks on the metamorphosis of plants. In 1921 Steiner gave lectures, especially for painters at Maria Strakosch-Giesler’s request, on true colours for which man had to look to the stars. Later Maria would write about these talks. Steiner was opposed to the professional exhibition world, which, according to him, robbed the artwork of its function as a social stimulus and transformed it into a mere commodity. He insisted on the spiritual, social, therapeutic and pedagogical aspects of art, arguing that actually the finest works of art should be hung in the poorest elementary schools. Anthroposophical art should be able to exert its beneficial and soul-nourishing effect on each and every man and woman and in each and every public or private area. With his presentation, Fäth offered a first art-historical exploration of the AENIGMA group which he hopes will be an invitation to further study.
In the meantime, artworks of the AENIGMA group members and other anthroposophical and theosophical works are part of the exhibition ‘Beauty as the Imprint of the Cosmos – The Metaphysical in Art’ – referring to a statement by the founder of the Anthroposophical Society Rudolph Steiner – which will be running in the Ritman Library until May 23th 2014. A group of conference participants visited the exhibition on Thursday morning 26 September, guided by exhibition curator José Bouman. Director and librarian Esther Ritman and prof. Fäth also shared their thoughts on the exhibition. An atmospheric video – designed and edited bypeaceandpixel.com – you can watch below, while photographs of the tour are already online on our Facebook page.