Theosophical Encyclopedia

Art, Theosophy and

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!" (Collected Writings 13:180). She herself had an educated talent for drawing, but no pretensions as an artist. Professional artists among the early Theosophists included the engraver Albert Rawson, the painter Isabelle de Steiger, and Hermann Schmiechen, who painted iconic portraits of Koot Hoomi, Morya, and Blavatsky.


Albert Dawson

Isabelle de Steiger

Hermann Schmiechen’s famous painting of H. P. Blavatsky

George Russell, the Irish poet and painter known as "AE" joined the Esoteric Section in 1890. 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.

George Russell "AE"

Similarly, the Czech painter Frantisek Kupka 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.

Frantisek Kupka, Spouting (Swirling) (1920)

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. So also Geoffrey Hodson’s book on 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 possible, especially through the calculated use of color. 

The illustrations in Leadbeater's books influenced the pioneers of abstract painting in the early twentieth 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 Theosophical Society in 1909 and stayed at the French Theosophical headquarters on moving to Paris in 1911. His art developed 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, but through his experiences with yoga. 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, who did not necessarily share their esoteric interests.

Wassily Kandinsky

Piet Mondriaan (Dutch spelling)

Kasimir Malevich, selfportrait

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 general 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 (for example, some of the paintings of Maurice Denis and Thorn Prikker), Oriental mythology (Paul Gauguin and Paul Ranson), the Rosicrucian revival of Josephin Peladan (Jean Delville, Fernand Khnopff, Carlos Schwabe, and Jan Toorop), and sacred geometry (Charles Filger and Paul Serusier). 

After the turn of the century, the Russian Symbolists (including Mikalojus Ciurlionis, Ivan Kliun, and Nikolai Kulbin) and the Italian Futurists (Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, and Gino Severini) emerged, also 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.

"The Messenger," painting by Nicholas Roerich

Roerich, who had belonged to the Theosophical Society in prerevolutionary 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 (1925-8), he treated Mahayana Buddhist subjects, especially concerning the hidden realm of Shambhala, known to Theosophists through Blavatsky's references to it (see Collected Writings, cumulative index).  Roerich, whose wife Helena claimed to act as a channel for the Master Morya, is probably the most thoroughly Theosophical of twentieth-century painters, although not as highly regarded artistically as some others. 

Claude Bragdon, the American architect, was brought into the Theosophical Society 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.

Claude Bragdon

Although there is little specifically "Theosophical art" as such, the 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.

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