Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Mondrian and Theosophy – part one

Robert P. Welsh – USA

[Dr. Robert P. Welsh (1932-2000) was an American art historian. Welsh’s magnum opus, the catalogue raisonné of Mondrian’s early work up to early 1911, was published in 1998. This article originally appeared in a book called The Spiritual Image in Modern Art containing a series of articles compiled by Kathleen J. Regier published by Quest Books. All images are purely educational illustrations to an academic review of the subject].

Self-portrait, 1900. The Phillips Collection. Washington D.C.

Mondrian's membership in the Theosophical Society, although invariably cited in accounts of his career, in general has been treated merely as an intellectual interest which helped to clarify his thinking about art, especially during the period of World War I which he spent in The Netherlands. By 1917, along with other members of the De Stijl group, he had arrived at a form of geometrizing abstract art so radically novel that some theoretical justification seemed called for in printed form. Thus, in October 1917 he joined in founding, under the editorship of Theo van Doesburg, the periodical De Stijl, which immediately began to carry his own series of articles, "De Nieuwe Beelding in de Schilderkunst" ("The New Plasticism in Painting").1  As an influence on these essays, most critics have singled out the Dutch "Christosoph," Dr. M.H.I. Schoenmaekers, whose books Het Nieuwe Wereldbeeld  (1915) and Beginselen der Beeldende Wiskunde (1916) Mondrian is known to have admired.2  Indeed, although translated into English as The New Image of the World and Principles of Plastic Mathematics, like Mondrian's own Franco-Anglicized term "Neo-plasticism," these titles all rely upon the significance of the Dutch word "beelding." This is best translated as "form-giving" and closer in definition to the German "Gestaltung" than to the English "image" or "plasticism." In any case, both the art theory of Mondrian and the philosophical system of Schoenmaekers adopt the concept beelding as a fundamental principle in viewing the world, and there can be no doubt that the personal contact between the two men was a mutually fruitful one, Doubtless, too, Professor H.L.C. Jaffé is correct in finding an affinity between the "abstract" thought patterns of Mondrian and Schoenmaekers, which, in turn, share in Dutch Calvinist traditions of precise and logical intellectual formulation.3  Nonetheless, the general tendency to grant such emphasis in Mondrian's art theory development to the role of Schoenmaekers has helped to obscure two essential facts; namely, the importance of Theosophy to Mondrian at a date previous to his contact with Schoenmaekers, and the incorporation of Theosophic ideas into his actual style of painting.   

It was, in fact, as early as May 1909 that Mondrian officially joined the Dutch branch of the Theosophical Society. Shortly there¬after, an approving critic, the Amsterdam writer Israel Querido noted Mondrian's use of Theosophic terminology in a letter received from the painter which contained art theoretical observations, and which Querido published in lieu of comment by himself.4  In exhibition reviews from both 1910 and 19115  another critic cited the artist’s Theosophic interests, in the latter year with specific reference to the monumental Evolution triptych, a work which, as will be shown below, eminently deserved this special mention. By the winter 1913-14, Mondrian's attachment to Theosophy was so well appreciated that, although then living in Paris, he was asked to write an article upon the subject “Art and Theosophy" for Theosophia, the leading organ of the Dutch Theosophical movement.6  Although this essay remained unpublished, it very likely reflected the thoughts about art with which Mondrian annotated two sketchbooks from approximately the same period7  and which are also summarized in several extant letters from early 1914.8  In sum, there is adequate documentation that adequate documentation that Mondrian's involvement with the Theosophic movement predated his contact with Dr. Schoenmaekers and from the first related directly to his own activities as an artist.

Significantly, in none of his surviving texts from before the De Stijl period does the artist as yet advocate the exclusive use in painting of either straight vertical and horizontal lines, rectilinear planes or the three primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Nonetheless, whereas the basic color triad is mentioned by Dr. Schoenmaekers for the first time in his Het Nieuwe Wereldbeeld, it is apparent that the combination of ochre (for yellow), blue and red/pink hues already occurs in a number of major paintings which Mondrian executed previous to his return from Paris to The Netherlands in mid-1914 when the book in question was datelined. Similarly, in his Mensch en Natuur (Man and Nature)9  of 1913-14 a work until now unnoticed in the literature on Mondrian, Schoenmaekers discusses such abstract geometric forms as vertical and horizontal lines, crosses, circles and ovals in a manner which might seem to explain their occurrence in compositions by Mondrian. Indeed, the oval-shaped, so-called plus and minus grid, which is expressed overtly in the "pier and ocean" theme of 1914-15 and a number of related compositions, embodies the same range of linear configurations emphasized in the three above-mentioned volumes by Schoenmaekers. Yet, a closely related grid conception occurs as the underlying structural basis for several tree and still life paintings executed by Mondrian as early as 1912.10  These chronological considerations make clear that the structural character of Mondrian's painting during his Cubist and proto-De Stijl phases of 1912-early 1917 was determined by precepts which antedate the occurrence of related formulations in the writings of Dr. Schoenmaekers. In fact, although the founder of Christophie in particular was reluctant to acknowledge his intellectual dependence upon standard Theosophic doctrine, preferring to credit personal intuition and mystical insight instead, both he and Mondrian maintain a worldview and employ a critical jargon patently derived from earlier texts fundamental to the international Theosophic movement. In Mondrian's case, the principal debts are to no lesser personages than Mme H.P. Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner, whose writings appear to have influenced his painting most directly during the pre-Cubist or "coloristic" period of circa 1908-11.

1)    Passion Flower, 1908. Ink, watercolor. Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague

The gradually increasing and self-transforming debt to Theosophic belief found in the pre-Cubist work of Mondrian is summarized in, though scarcely encompassed by, an analysis of three figural compositions. The Passion Flower (Fig. I), a watercolor executed as early as circa 1901,11  already manifests the basic iconographic format which would be used in all three works; namely, the combined image of a profoundly meditative female torso with upturned head and accompanying heraldic flower blossoms. The Devotion (Fig. 2) of 190812  summarizes essentially the same iconographic nomenclature by means of a profile view of a girl seen contemplating a single chrysanthemum blossom. This latter work nonetheless adds a novel element by its bright blue and red coloration. Such hues are lacking in the dullish tones of the earlier example and doubtless are symptomatic of the artist's new appreciation for Post-Impressionist and Fauve traditions.

2)    Devotion, 1908.Oil on canvas. Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague

Finally, by late 1911, Mondrian had produced his Evolution (Fig. 3),13  a work which thrice employs a frontally posed figure with flanking "flower" attributes as found in Passion Flower and which yet surpasses the color intensity of even the Devotion through the use of a deeply resonant blue background and a radiant yellow ambiance for the head of the central figure. The general debt to Symbolist and Art Nouveau tradition which informs all three of these works is indisputable and has been discussed in some depth already by Martin S. James.14  Therefore one need only to emphasize here those aspects which differentiate Mondrian's approach from that contained in his presumed models and to elucidate where, if at all, Theosophic thinking performed an innovative function.

3)    Evolution, 1910-11. Oil on canvas, triptych. Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague

Such an influence, of course, is not very likely to have affected the Passion Flower, which was produced at least several years before the artist officially registered as a Theosophist. Moreover, the title alludes to the inherited Christian symbolism of a particular flower, since its three stamens and its tendrils were popularly equated with respectively the three nails and the crown of thorns from the Crucifixion.15  At the same time, Mondrian's female may be thought to suffer as much from the torments of her own earthly passions as from contemplation of her Savior's sacrifice on the cross. Hence, the artist's close friend and the watercolor's former owner, the late Mr. A.P. van den Briel, preferred to stress the mundane circumstances in which the work had its origin.16  Having heard that his model might be infected with venereal disease and possessing some dubious medical advice that one symptom of such illness was a greenish discoloration of the throat, Mondrian incorporated this information in the pose of the upturned head with its suggestion of "longing for release" and the somber, earthen tonalities of his palette. Apart from providing an early instance of Mondrian's frequently recorded mistrust of the hue green as "too close to nature," this story illustrates the still basically ethical or Christian content with which his iconography was preoccupied. The Passion Flower thus remains closer in conception to the example of Jan Toorop and other Dutch fin-de-siecle Symbolists than to the teachings of an esoteric Theosophy, which was little concerned with specific instances of terrestrial woe.

In a brief biographical sketch from 1907, Mondrian stated that in 1901 he had ceased doing "portraiture" in order to concentrate upon landscape painting.17  But with the Devotion of 1908, he once again employed figural content in a manner which attracted immediate critical attention. After seeing this painting when exhibited in January 1909, Querido, believing himself to be reiterating the painter's own analysis, described it as representing a praying girl.18 Yet Mondrian reacted immediately and insistently against this interpretation, stating in effect that the girl was not viewed in an act of prayer but as representing the concept "devotion:' The painter also explained his use of an unnatural red color as a means by which the viewer's attention was distracted from thoughts about the girl's material reality. In the same account he admitted his wish to obtain "knowledge of the occult spheres" and claimed that progress in this pursuit was accompanied by the attainment of greater clarity in his art, which nonetheless still was produced "in the normal way." While one may in fact understand the basis of Querido's traditional manner of interpretation, it is even more important to investigate the additional levels of meaning which were intended by Mondrian.

The most relevant explanation of the artist's own content can be found in the writings of Rudolf Steiner. Among the handful of books which Mondrian kept until death was a collection of lectures, paraphrased in Dutch, which the then German Secretary of the Theosophical Society had given in various Dutch cities during March 1908.19  A number of passages in these Dutch Lectures were pencil marked by Mondrian. In one such passage Steiner explains how certain occult “. . . impulses, which time and again must work themselves into the Etheric Body, can be awakened by devotional religious feelings, true art, music."20  In numerous related texts,21  Steiner elaborates on how an esoteric capacity for devotion can be developed in the Theosophic initiate through recourse to meditative exercises. For the attainment of this goal the "positive mystical" observation of various forms of mineral, animal and, especially, plant life is particularly recommended and is described in great detail. In reference to Mondrian's paintings, it is noteworthy that Steiner mentions young girls as sometimes gifted with natural feelings of devotion and describes how the mystical experience of devotional feelings is to be sought with eyes open and in full mental alertness, rather than by turning away from the world of nature as had earlier practitioners of "negative mysticism."

Nonetheless, this devotional contemplation of natural objects is accompanied, whenever fruitful, by clairvoyant visions of the "higher spheres" in which color manifestations not visible to the normal, untrained eye play a fundamental role. Such manifestations radiate from the objects viewed, constituting their "aural shells," and represent the supramundane "astral" or "etheric" levels of being. Although the exact meaning of specific hues and tints sometimes is disputed within Theosophic circles (and single hues may assume variant shades of both honorific and derogatory connotation), Steiner definitely associates the appearance of blue with the experience of devotion, and this sometimes in combination with certain forms of red which can be interpreted to signify deeply felt affection. It is important to note that these color auras are not to be thought of as symbols for something else, but as indications of spiritual states of being. This attitude in itself would explain why Mondrian objected to the conventional interpretation of his painting as a symbolic action.

Unfortunately, neither Mondrian's own references to Devotion nor any single Theosophic text adequately explain the exact relation of Mondrian as creative artist to the clairvoyant experience of devotion. One may wonder, for example, whether the artist either was attempting to reproduce in paint some form of remembered vision, had actually combined his working procedure with devotional meditative exercises, or otherwise sought through his activity as painter to gain a knowledge of the higher spheres. The question, as intriguing as it is, for lack of further evidence, is unanswerable. For, whatever attitude one maintains in reference to supra- or extra-sensory perception and spiritualism in general, only a first-hand account by Mondrian could provide the basis for serious discussion of this complex issue. It can be stated, however, that by 1908 when Devotion was executed Mondrian was profoundly concerned with the possibility of clairvoyant experience in relation both to his creative and to his personal life.

A second aspect of the Devotion which can be illuminated by reference to the writings of Steiner is the significance of the flower blossom included in the upper left. In fact, this blossom was meant to serve an iconographic function which may be extended equally to other major flower studies from the same period. These include several treatments of the sunflower theme and numerous depictions of chrysanthemums, particularly the well-known Dying Chrysanthemum of 1908 (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague). Steiner's analysis of plant life depends heavily upon his esoteric reading of the scientific theories of Goethe and comprises in essence a Theosophic reinterpretation of German Romantic nature philosophy.22  Like human and animal bodies, plant forms, especially flower blossoms, radiate "auras" of color which can be perceived by all properly trained clairvoyants.23  As part of the function which they serve in devotional exercises, flowers may be said to recapitulate in microcosm the eternal processes of birth, life, reproduction, decay, material death, and regeneration which Theosophy sees as the ruling principle of the universe, and which is summed up in the term "evolution." For Steiner in particular, the flower illustrates this process with unmistakable clarity. Like the human or animal eye, the flower blossom stands as proof of the primal efficacy of light as a cosmic force. In reference to the evolution of animal organisms, Steiner considers it unthinkable that the material organ of the eye would have developed except for the omnipotence of light, which, as the purest manifestation of spirit, called the physical eye into being.24  Steiner's favorite metaphor for spiritual awakening is the man born blind who suddenly is enabled to see. As does physical vision, so does the flower depend upon light for its very existence, not to mention the beauty of its color, which phenomenon is treated wholly as a function of light. The power of light is said to be directly operative in every phase of the life cycle of the plant, since from germination of the seed to withered decay the life of plants responds to the warmth and rays of the sun and to the "etheric" and "astral" principles which govern all organic growth. What is the significance of these theories for Mondrian's flower pieces?

First, the blossoms both of the chrysanthemum in Devotion and of numerous independent flower studies from a comparable date are embellished with a color halo that can be interpreted as an artistic re-creation of the flower's etheric or astral shell. Even as the material body of the plant decays, this astral phenomenon survives, which concept would seem to explain the vibrant ebb and flow of color surrounding the many dying blossoms produced by Mondrian during the years circa 1908-09. Second, Steiner insists that the individual species of a flower is of little importance, since only the cosmic process in which all flowers participate provides a sound guide to esoteric knowledge. Here, too, the intellectual bias is anti-Symbolist, and associations of ethical virtues with specific flowers are notably absent from Steiner's analysis, except as historical illustration. By analogy, one should not casually associate the flowers chosen by Mondrian for his paintings with the various accretions of meaning inherited from Symbolist art. It is in this respect that the Devotion, iconographically interpreted, is further removed from the Passion Flower in which such associations are paramount.

Third, even the contrast between healthy, upright flowers and withering alternative forms so graphically illustrated within Mondrian's oeuvre by the Upright Sunflower  of circa 1908 (Private Collection Hengelo, The Netherlands) and the Dying Sunflower of 1908 (Collection Mr. & Mrs. David Lloyd Kreeger, Washington, D.C.), participated in the fin-de-siècle fascination with life-death polarity, chiefly thanks to the power of tradition. In keeping with the basically Utopian and transcendental optimism of the whole Theosophic movement, Steiner, for example, encourages the Theosophic initiate to discover in a dying blossom the expectation of regeneration and in the healthy flower the inevitability of decay. In this respect Steiner's esoteric pedagogies reflect the adoption by Theosophy of oriental religious doctrines regarding trans¬migration of the soul. It is therefore very likely not by accident that in 1909 Mondrian exhibited a flower piece, probably the Dying Chrysanthemum, under the title "Metamorphosis."25  Though usually described not only as indebted to Art Nouveau style, which it is, but also as containing a Symbolist allusion to death, this work was explained by Mondrian himself, when writing in 1915,26  as limited merely by an excess' of "human emotion." This limitation, moreover, was contrasted to a somewhat later flower painting, which was very likely the Arum Lilly of 1909-10 (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague) and which in its frontal, upright positioning, promised more of lithe immobile." In all those works, Mondrian clearly was concerned more with thoughts of perpetual life than with premonitions of death. Of course, flowers, like other subjects based on nature, gradually would disappear behind the veil of Mondrian's adoption of the Cubist style during the winter 1911-12. In this historical context, the adoption of Cubist style involved for Mondrian the abandonment of all residual attachment to particular instances of natural beauty. Thereafter, only in the stylistically retardataire, yet exquisitely subtle flower pieces with which Mondrian, especially during the early 1920s, ensured his material survival' can one believe that he continued to practice a form of artistic "devotion" which related intimately to his Theosophic preoccupations of circa 1908.

1  I.e. De Stijl, I-Il, 2 Oct. 1917-0ct. 1918.

2 See M. Seuphor, Piet Mondrian, Life and Work, New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1956.
3 See H.L.C. Jaffé, De Stijl, 1917-31: Dutch Contribution to Modern Art, London, Alec Tiranti, 1956, pp. 53-62. See also L.J.F. Wijsenbeek, "Introduction," Piet Mondrian 1872-1944, New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1971.   

4 Translated in Sketchbooks, pp.9-10.

5 M.D. Henkel, “St. Lucas-Ausstellung,” Kunstchroniek, June 6, 1910, and, "Ausstellung der Kubisten in dem ‘Moderne Kunstkring’zu Amsterdam, Kunstchroniek, Dec.22, 1911.

6  See "Documentatie 1," letters 7, 8, 10.

7 Sketchbooks, p. 13.  

8 "Documentatie 1," esp. letter 5.

9 Published in Bussum, The Netherlands, by C.A.J. van Dishoek.

10 See R.P. Welsh, "Mondrian," Revue de l'Art, no. 5, 1969, pp. 99-100.

11 The original owner, Mr. A.P. van den Briel, repeatedly advises the present writer that this watercolor was in his possession by 1904 at the latest and, according to his memory, had been executed several years earlier.

12 Exhibited Amsterdam, January 1909, at the Stedelijk Museum, no known catalogue.

134 Exhibited Amsterdam, Oct.-Nov. 1911, Moderne Kunstring, no. 97.

14 In "Mondrian and the Dutch Symbolists," The Art Journal, vol. XXIII, no. 2, winter 1963-64, pp. 103-11.

15 Ibid., pp. 105-06.

16 In conversation with the present writer.

17 See F.M. Lurasco, ed., Onze Moderne Meesters, Amsterdam, C.L.G. Veldt, 1907, under "Piet Mondriaan," n.p.

18 Sketchbooks, p. 10.

19 Known in the literature on Mondrian from the title of the first recorded lecture, "Mystiek en Esoterik," since the title page of the artist's copy is missing. Hereafter: Dutch Lectures.

20 Ibid., p. 32. Though unacknowledged, Steiner's concept of "devotion" owes much to the Thought Forms, of  
A. Besant and C.W. Leadbeater (trans. in Dutch, 1905) and, through these writers, to Mme H.P. Blavatsky, the founding spirit of modem Theosophy. The source of Mondrian’s interpretation is therefore not necessarily limited to the writings of Steiner.

21 Esp. in the popular introductory texts, Theosophy and Knowledge of the Higher Worlds, which Mondrian could have known in the German original versions (Dutch trans. 1909 and 1911 respectively).

22 Steiner had begun his career by editing the scientific writings of Goethe.

23    Here, too, Steiner was reiterating standard Theosophic doctrine. For the general teachings of Theosophy and their relation to the development of abstract art, see Sixten Ringbom, "Art in the 'Epoch of the Great Spiritual,' " Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXIX, 1966, pp. 386-418.

24 Dutch Lectures, p. 2. The following discussion of Steiner's theories is based on statements found in this same text.

25 Sketchbooks, p. 9 and note 10.

26 I.e. letter to Mrs. Aug de Meester-Obreen, "Documentatie 2," p. 267.


To be continued

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