Art and theosophy

The Birth of Theosophy

On 14 October 1874, an encounter stranger than fiction took place at a small farm in Vermont. The chance meeting was between Henry Olcott, a retired American army colonel who had written a bestseller on sorgho and imphee (substitutes for sugar cane), and 43-year-old Helena Blavatsky, a wandering Russian aristocrat. Both had been drawn to the farm by reports of ghostly apparitions and levitations. Their meeting marked the beginning of a bizarre and unlikely partnership that yielded the major esoteric revival of modern times.

A year on from the Vermont encounter, and almost by accident, Olcott and Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in a New York apartment. Although Olcott assumed the mantle of president, it was Blavatsky's personality that dominated the organisation. A compulsive confuser of fact with fiction, Blavatsky claimed that she had ridden bareback in a circus, toured Serbia as a concert pianist, opened an ink factory in Odessa, traded as an importer of ostrich feathers in Paris, and worked as an interior decorator for Empress Eugenie. The speculative outline of her life also included meetings with Red Indians in Canada, fighting with Garibaldi's army in the Battle of Mentana, shipwreck off the Greek coast at Spetsai, and dealings with cabbalists in Egypt, secret agents in Central Asia, voodoo magicians in New Orleans and bandits in Mexico.

But the central event of her Wanderjahre was a meeting with a dematerialising Tibetan called Master Morya. It was this encounter that alerted Madame Blavatsky to the existence of the 'Secret Doctrine', which was the key to the truth of life itself. Who better to mediate this wisdom to the world than Blavatsky herself? Hastily synthesising oriental religion, Western magic, Asian scripture and Rosicrucian, Masonic and Templar mythology, she came up with Theosophy, and charged her followers with the duty of collecting and diffusing the 'knowledge of the laws which govern the universe'. Organised occultism in the West had begun.

Modernism, Mondrian and mumbo-jumbo

More than 100 years after the founding of the Theosophical Society, a major retrospective of the work of Piet Mondrian has been organised at the Gemeente Museum in Amsterdam. Cool, elegant, rational - Mondrian's horizontals and verticals, his squares and grids show again and again an artist committed to exploring the parameters of perception and meaning. From naturalism to Cubism, to the arrival at a grammar of almost total abstraction, Mondrian is rightly represented as a pivotal figure in the unfolding story of Modernism.

But while they promote this view of Mondrian as the very model Modernist, the exhibition's organisers have found it necessary to suppress one astonishing fact: Mondrian was a card-carrying Theosophist. He was, by his own admission, influenced by Madame Blavatsky's intoxicating brew of hocus-pocus, and he was fascinated by her monumentally opaque tome, The Secret Doctrine, a work in two volumes that Blavatsky claimed contained the key to all knowledge.

In other words, while Mondrian was straining for an art that broke completely with the past, he was also meddling with spiritualism and mouthing the mumbo-jumbo of the ancients. And he was not alone. Some of the greatest artists and writers of his time were steeped in the magic and mysteries of the occult.

There was plenty of it on offer as the new century broke into its stride. After Darwin had given the world his theory of evolution, it took a lot of faith still to believe that the world had been created in six days. Nietszche had decided that God didn't exist after all, and Freud was conferring enormous powers on the id and the ego. These revelations, coupled with revolutionary breakthroughs in science and technology, produced a crisis in conventional belief systems. The Christian church saw congregations shrinking as people looked elsewhere for answers to the new and totally absorbing set of questions that the modern age posed. Summing up this atmosphere of doubt and expectation, the artist Wassily Kandinsky later wrote, 'Suddenly thick walls crumbled. Everything was soft, uncertain, vacillating. It would not have astonished me to see a stone melt in the air and evaporate.'

It was in this context that spiritualism became modish in the first decades of the 20th century. Pablo Picasso, a robust atheist, spent many a turn-of-the-century evening reading tarot cards (smoking opium at the same time gave added piquancy). Amedeo Modigliani was partial to Ouija boards, and attended seances to see if there was anybody out there in the 'great beyond'. And W. B. Yeats liked to dabble in magic, and claimed it was the 'most important pursuit' of his life next to poetry. Yeats experimented with a wide range of esoteric 'sciences', including cheirosophy (palmistry), celestial dynamics (astrology), chromopathy (healing by colours) and polygraphics (automatic writing).

Kandinsky, Paul Gauguin, Constantin Brancusi, Theo van Doesburg, Johannes Itten, Walter Gropius (for a while), Robert Delauney, Aleksandr Scriabin, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Blok, Katharine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot - all were great pioneers of Modernism, and all were involved in Theosophy and its unpronounceable spin-offs, such as Anthroposophy, Christosophy, Theozoology and Aiosophy. In fact, from fin de siecle Paris to 1950s' New York (Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock were both one-time disciples of Eastern gurus), a fascination with magic, the occult and the supranatural were integral to the Modernist spirit.

An embarrassing secret: Mondrian's Evolution

The idea that Modernism enjoys a formal relationship with Theosophy is anathema to many critics. As its texts are largely indecipherable, and Madame Blavatsky (alias Koot Hoom La, alias Mahatma Morya) is widely considered a charlatan, many art historians flinch at the association of the avant-garde with what they see as the loony fringe. But the link does exist, and it plays havoc with the conventional history of Modernism. The central claim of this history is that Modernism is something that pushes forward, that represents a caesura, a complete rupture with the past. But the truth is that, if Modernism is a great juggernaut that moves inexorably forward along the road of progress and formal innovation, it also looks in its rear-view mirror at the road stretching out behind it.

Significantly, the curators of the Amsterdam exhibition seem determined to play down Mondrian's association with Theosophy. The matter receives only a glancing mention in the catalogue, where it is treated as a kind of teenage crush from which Mondrian later recovered. And his explicitly Theosophical works have been excluded from the exhibition. Instead they sit, unseen, in the vaults of the Gemeente Museum, hidden reminders of Mondrian's embarrassing secret.

This group of paintings is dominated by a triptych called Evolution. Three large panels show the figure of a woman in different states of consciousness. Painted with garish colours and punctuated with occult symbols, the work is shockingly crude compared to the poised and elegant composition of Mondrian's other work. Evolutionis kitsch, gaudy, excruciatingly naive, like a contemporary New Age 'get well' card. If this is what Theosophy led him to, it's understandable that critics should want to side-step the issue. But the steps that took Mondrian to Evolution were to take him much further.

Theosophy and abstraction

Mondrian had been a member of the Theosophical Society for three years when he painted Evolution. He had joined in 1909, after spending a summer in the Dutch village of Domburg, a retreat favoured by avant-garde spiritualists. 'All the time I'm driven to the spiritual,' he explained. 'Through Theosophy I became aware that art could provide a transition to the finer regions, which I will call the spiritual realm.'

Mondrian - and many other Modernists - believed that art could change the objective conditions of human life. He saw art not as an end but as a means to an end - spiritual clarification. But it soon became clear that traditional ways of seeing would not satisfy this imperative. Artists now understood that the key to understanding the universe could not be found just by looking at ordinary day-to-day matter. 'What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things,' wrote Brancusi. 'It is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its exterior surface.'

This was the key to abstraction, which began to emerge around 1910. And it was also the key to Theosophy. Both busied themselves with investigating the process of cosmic and human evolution, with finding the 'essence of things'. Both looked for a universal grammar that could communicate this essence. Both were instinctively drawn into the ancient philosophical and religious controversy concerning the relationship of appearance and reality. And both were essentially anti-intellectual movements: they shared the belief that one could understand emotionally the secrets of creation in a way that transcended scientific observation or sheer logic.

Wassily Kandinsky in Germany, Frantisek Kupka in Czechoslovakia, Kazimir Malevich and others of his circle in Russia, Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands - all now moved away from representational art towards the creation of a pure abstract vision that embodied their involvement with esoteric thought. In an attempt to draw upon deeper and more varied levels of meaning, they replaced natural colour with symbolic colour, perceived reality with signs, direct observation with ideas. Abstraction was not just about making pretty patterns. For the Modernists, it indicated the existence of a level of reality higher than the merely material.

Kandinsky: the artist as messiah

The existence of a reality that transcended the material world was precisely the selling point of Madame Blavatsky's 'secret doctrine': 'In the 21st century this earth will seem a paradise compared to what it is now,' she wrote. 'Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which the spiritual revelation will be felt.' This was encouraging news for many Modernists. For the Russian composer Aleksandr Skryabin, it was like pennies from heaven. He dreamed of bringing the physical world to an end in an ecstasy of religious fulfilment at a ceremony of music, poetry, light, perfume and dance that he planned to stage in a Himalayan temple. Unfortunately, Skryabin died from an infected mosquito bite before he could realise this apocalyptic ambition.

Like Skryabin, Kandinsky was committed to using art as a way of changing the world. For him, the artist was a kind of messiah or prophet (or even magician) whose job it was to communicate a higher truth to humanity. 'Our minds are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal,' he warned. 'The nightmare of materialism which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip.' Kandinsky would do everything he could to loosen the grip of the material on the soul, and he exhorted his fellow artists to do the same: 'Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will some day reach to heaven.'

Together with his lover Gabrielle Munter (who had an impressive occult library), Kandinsky travelled to Tunisia to see the whirling dervishes. These mystics could reach a state of trance by praying and spinning round. Thus elevated, they would feel no pain as they inserted glass into their mouths or sabres through their stomachs. Kandinsky wanted his art to have the same effect as the whirling dervishes. He believed that people could arrive at their 'superior selves' simply by looking at abstract art. He wanted to lock the viewer into a meditative trance. 

Further reading

Concerning The Spiritual In Art by Wassily Kandinsky, Dover, 1977

Ancient Wisdom Revived: A history of the Theosophical movement by B. F. Cambell, University of California Press (US), 1980.

Madame Blavatskys Baboon by Peter Washington, Secker & Warburg, 1993.

Mondrian: The art of destruction by Carel Blotkamp, Abrams (US), 1995.

The Spiritual in Art: Abstract painting 1890-1985 edited by Maurice Tuchman & Judi Freeman (LA County Museum exhibition catalogue), Abrams (US), 1986.

The Spiritual Image in Modern Art by Kathleen J. Regier, Quest, 1987.

The Spiritualists: The passion for the occult in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by Ruth Brandon, Alfred Knopf Inc. (US), 1983.

The Table Rappers by R. Pearsall, Michael Joseph, 1972.

Wholeness and the Implicate Order by D. Bohm, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.


This article is perhaps a bit dated. The connection between Mondriaan and theosophy is no longer denied as frequently because the work of art-historians like Marty Bax whose PHD thesis has recently been published as a book (in Dutch) 'Het web der schepping; Theosofie en kunst in Nederland van Lauweriks tot Mondriaan'.

This article was found online in 2003 and has since disappeared from the Internet. The facts on theosophy are slanted, but the information on the link between theosophy and art are generally sound. Published on Katinka Hesselink net in 2006.