Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Mondrian and Theosophy – Part two

Robert P. Welsh – USA


[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].


A young Piet Mondrian

If the Devotion comprised an attempt by Mondrian to give artistic expression to an esoteric, clairvoyant experience of "astral" colors appropriate to the preliminary stages of Theosophic initia¬tion, then the Evolution triptych transports us to more exalted realms of occult knowledge. Above all, it is the title of this composi¬tion which betrays the ''higher spheres" to which its content relates. Evolution is no less than the basic tenet in the cosmological system predicated by Mme Blavatsky and, as such, replaces the Christian story of Creation as an explanation for how the world functions. This cosmology is analogous to Hindu and other mythologies which stress a perpetual cosmic cycle of creation, death, and re¬generation. It also has much in common with the Darwinian scientific theory of evolution. Darwin's only essential mistake, in Blavatsky's opinion, was to substitute matter for spirit as the motivating force in the universe. In her own world view, matter, though constituting a necessary vehicle through which the world of spirit was to be approached, clearly stands second in importance to the latter phenomenon, from which, to be sure, matter is said to have been born. The resulting concept of spirit as the active and matter as the passive force in the world is, of course, deeply rooted in a wide range of mystical tradition reaching far back into the past, as the writings of Blavatsky profusely attempt to illustrate.  More to the point, this conceptual polarity was universally accepted as a cardinal doctrine throughout the Theosophic and other in¬tellectually related late nineteenth century spiritualist movements and also is present within the subsequent Anthroposophy of Steiner and the Christosophie of Schoenmaekers. The same polar conception pervades the art theoretical writings of Mondrian, be-ginning with his letter to Querido of 1909, and is epitomized in his Sketchbook of circa 1912-14. In the latter text he specifically alludes to the Theosophic Doctrine of Evolution as a determining factor in the history of art.  In short, Mondrian could not have chosen as the theme of his monumental triptych a doctrine which was more central to Theosophic teaching than this.

In terms of compositional format the Evolution, like the Devotion, derives from Symbolist precedent. Jan Toorop's Three Brides (Fig. 4) of 1893, a work doubtless known to Mondrian, comprised an example of an hieratically tripartite composition based upon three frontally posed female figures which was inherently suggestive of sacerdotal tradition. 3 


Jan Toroop, The Three Brides, 1892-93. Pencil and black crayon on paper. Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, the Netherlands

Nonetheless, one should not be satisfied to interpret Mondrian's triptych merely as a late example of Dutch Symbolism. Toorop's Three Brides, like comparably symbolic figures in the art of Edvard Munch which are sometimes also said to have influenced Mondrian, 4 constitute ethical and psychological archetypes which relate essentially to the mundane world of human joy and woe. The physically undifferentiated figures of the Evolution, in contrast, are expressively devoid of human emotion and appear to participate in a transcendental ambiance which exists beyond any concrete earthly setting. Similarly, the crimson flower forms which accompany the figure at left defy identification with any particular species and hence with any well-established Symbolist flower iconography. To the extent that a reference to another flower representation can be supposed, this image, because of its similar color and triangulated petal shapes, relates to the artist's own Amaryllis, a watercolor quite dose in date and style of execution to the Evolution.5  The six petals of the amaryllis, if viewed frontally, can be thought to form as six-pointed star, which is the insignia of the Theosophic movement and us to be found with the figure at right in Evolution. The positive meaning for Theosophy and Mondrian's triptych of these geometrizing elements will be discussed in greater detail below. Here one merely needs to note their negative function of obviating the kind of orthodox Symbolist floral associations which inform the content of the Three Brides.6  In contrast to this work by Toorop, Mondrian has not provided his figures with attributes which are explicable exclusively in reference to any established iconographic tradition, Christian or otherwise. Thus, while his imagery may bear a formal resemblance to his own earlier Passion Flower, the intended content is substantially different. On one level, his three starkly upright nudes further expand the idea of clairvoyant visionary experience found in Devotion. Theosophic writings couple supersensory perception with either open or closed eyes according to specified conditions, and the blue and yellow colors used by Mondrian in Evolution can be interpreted as suggesting "astral" shells or radiations of the figures. 7 However, the visionary spheres in which these figures participate clearly relate to a stage of Theosophic initiation considerably more advanced than that appropriate for the cultivation of devo¬tional feelings. Indeed, as a consequence of the exalted level of spiritual activity in which Theosophy conceives "evolution" to have its origin, the implied setting of the triptych may be described not only as supra-mundane, but as transcending the limits of particular time and space.

It is in reference to this occult metaphysical sphere that the three figures of Mondrian's triptych and their accompanying emblems must be analyzed. As the similar, somewhat androgynous physical appearance of the figures implies, one should view them not merely as personifications of three separate ideas, but as the same person viewed in three complementary aspects. Indeed, another Dutch artist who was a Theosophist wrote in 1906 that "For Theosophy man himself is a living temple of God,"8  or, in other words, represents within himself a microcosmic instance of the universal principles which govern his existence. Thus, Mme Blavatsky, in paraphrasing a text from the mystic Paracelsus, explains:

“Three spirits live and actuate man,... three worlds pour their beams upon him; but all three only as the image and echo of one and the same all¬ constructing and uniting principle of production. The first is the spirit of the elements (terrestrial body and vital force in its brute condition); the second, the spirit of the stars (sidereal or astral body-the soul); the third is the Divine spirit. . . 9”  

Of course, this statement permits an identification of the three figures as generalized personifications, since if read in the order left, right, and center, we have the classic mystic progression from matter through soul to spirit. To this extent the Evolution still reflects Symbolist thinking. Yet Blavatsky's writings also contain a more profoundly syncretic idea which is as relevant for Mondrian's back¬ground as for his figures. This idea is inclusively defined in another statement by Mme Blavatsky, which comprises one of her most essential pronouncements upon the nature of man:

“Man is a little world-a microcosm inside the great universe. Like a foetus, he is suspended, by all his three spirits, in the matrix of the macrocosmos; and while his terrestrial body is in sympathy with its parent earth, his astral soul lives in unison with the sidereal anima mundi, He is in it, as it is in him, for the world pervading element fills all splice, and is space itself, only shoreless and Infinite. As to his third spirit, the divine, what is it but an infinitesimal ray, one of the countless radiations proceeding directly from the Highest Cause--the Spiritual light of the world. This is the trinity of organic and inorganic nature-the spiritual and the physical, which are three in one. . .10

According to this principle, not merely the figure at left but all three females participate as physical beings in the world of matter, while the astral colors in which each is shrouded suggest the "sidereal anima mundi" which as "the world-pervading element fills all space, and is space itself." Finally, at least the center figure may be considered representative of mankind's "third spirit, the divine," conceived as "one of the countless radiations proceeding directly from the Highest Cause-the Spiritual light of the world," As such, these figures embody what Blavatsky described as "the same all-constructing and uniting principle of production," which is no more than to say the idea of Evolution as defined by Theosophy.

It is in this same exalted metaphysical context that one must analyze the various geometric figures, particularly triangles, which occur within the composition. These Mondrian attached to the navels and breast nipples of the figures (most probably through Theosophic identification of such body parts with the anima mundi), but also to the "flower" images which are placed with heraldic symmetry near the figures' heads. Here, too, a progression from matter to spirit is operative. At left the triangles, including that at the center of the flower image, point downward, at right over¬lapping downward and upward pointing triangles form a six pointed star, the emblem of the Theosophical Society;11  and at center upward pointing triangles are inscribed in circles. As any seriously interested student of Theosophy would know, the respectively downward and upward pointing triangles basically in¬dicate the opposing principles of matter and spirit which sometimes interpenetrate and achieve balance in the “sacred hexagram”. This abstract imagery thus derives from those same metaphysical principles with which Blavatsky described the nature of man. This philosophy is perhaps best described as a. kind of "tripartite dualism" since even the triangle itself participates in a related dualist principle. As Blavatsky writes:

“The triangle played a prominent part in the religious symbolism of every great nation; for everywhere it represented the three great principles- ¬spirit, force and matter; or the active (male), passive  (female), and the dual or correlative principle which partakes of both and binds the two together.12

This latter "dual or correlative principle," incidentally, frequently is identified within Theosophic writings as androgynous, an idea which may help to explain the expressively masculine aspect of Mondrian's ostensibly female figures. In any case, in her exegesis of the Theosophic hexagram, Blavatsky identifies the significance of triangles with a basically dualist philosophy:

“In the great geometrical figure which has the double figure in it [i.e. a double hexagram, as that accompanying the figure at right in the Evolution] the central circle represents the world within the universe.... The triangle with its apex pointing upward indicates the male principle, downward the female; the two typifying, at the same time, spirit and matter.13

In reference to the Evolution, this text explains not only the presence and meaning of the Theosophic hexagram, but also why Mondrian chose to inscribe within circles the upward pointing triangles which occur with the figure at center. For Blavatsky the circle, too, comprises a profoundly meaningful spiritual essence. Its use by Mondrian thus elevates the center figure to a mystical status identified with the "worlds within the universe," or with the force of cosmic creation and evolution itself. In fact, both her triangular emblems of spirit and the head of this center figure appear embedded in radiating auras of white and yellow light m striking similarity to the diagrams used by Blavatsky to explain the first principles of the cosmos.  14

However, it is not only as a refined distillation of Symbolist and Theosophic thinking that the Evolution was important 1n the career of Mondrian. The ideas it embodied proved of equal im-portance to his future stylistic development, especially during the Cubist and immediately post-Cubist periods of circa 1912-17. During these years, as mentioned above, virtually all Mondrian's major compositions employed some form of underlying or overt grid of vertical and horizontal lines. Frequently the dispersion of linear elements was contained within a circular or oval perimeter, which nonetheless allowed for a varied play of curvi- and rectilinear forms. In fact, for Blavatsky, who introduced into Theosophic literature the alleged quotation from Plato, "God geometrizes," all basic geometric shapes bear witness to the same doctrines which she discusses in reference to the triangle. The triangle, with its three-in-one character, comprises for her at the same time the "mystic four," which concept also is "summarized in the unity of one supreme Deity." In reference to the Greek cross, which she calls the Egyptian cross and places at the very center of her hexagram and inscribes within a circle,15  this too embodies the same unitarian, dual, tripartite, and quadripartite concepts elsewhere associated with the triangle. As well as speaking of "the celestial perpendicular and the terrestrial horizontal base line," she observes that "the vertical line being the male principle, and the horizontal being the female, out of the union of the two at the intersection is formed the cross." Far transcending in significance its historical occurrence within any particular religion, the cross, like other geometric figures, expresses a single mystical concept of life and immortality. Blavatsky summarizes this concept conveniently in another and our final quotation:

“The philosophical cross, the two lines running in opposite directions, the horizontal and the perpendicular, the height and the breadth, which the geometrizing Deity divides at the intersecting point, and which forms the magical as well as the scientific quaternary, when it is inscribed within the perfect square, is the basis of the occultist. Within its mystical precinct lies the master-key which opens the door of every science, physical as well as spiritual. It symbolizes our human existence, for the circle of life cir¬cumscribes the four points of the cross, which represent in succession birth, life, death, and IMMORTALITY. Everything in this world is a trinity completed by the quaternary, and every element is divisible on this same principle.16

Such was the weight of philosophical meaning borne by the mystical cross of Theosophy and by the other geometric forms which relate to it. Considering the importance of simple, two-dimensional geometric forms to Theosophic teaching, it is not surprising that shortly after completing the Evolution triptych, Mondrian intro¬duced and increasingly emphasized free play of often crossing vertical and horizontal lines as the basis for his evolving com¬positional experiments.  17Indeed, since "the four points of the cross  . . .represent in succession birth, life, death, and  IMMORTALITY," the cross, too, may be thought emblematic of those cosmic processes which Theosophy sums up in the term "evolution.18

In similar fashion, although concomitantly inspired by models in the work of Braque and Picasso, Mondrian's adoption in 1913 of a well-defined oval compositional border also very likely carried with it an iconographic meaning derived from Theosophy. The oval is viewed within Theosophy as a variant form of the circle and was identified by Mme Blavatsky and her followers 19 with the "world egg" of Hindu mythology, which concept, therefore, also relates directly to the theme of cosmic birth and evolution. Finally, even Mondrian's use beginning circa 1918 of the lozenge compositional format probably owes some carried-over debt to an esoteric in¬terpretation of geometric form. His diamond-shaped canvases in fact comprise perfect squares turned to stand upon a corner point, which shape, as such, can be thought to circumscribe an imaginary upright Greek cross. At the same time, this format also may be read as an alternative form of the Theosophic double triangle, which is to say, as two triangles joined at a horizontal line bisecting the lozenge. 20 These are only a few salient possibilities, limited to the plastic or beeldend element "line," in which the artist's use of geometric elements of expression can be associated with the cosmological theories of Mme Blavatsky. In each instance, the Theosophic concept which justifies in iconographic terms the diagrammatic shapes found in the emerging abstract art of Mondrian relates to the movement's cardinal Doctrine of Evolution. It is thus not by chance that the artist chose this doctrine to com¬memorate in his triptych of 1911, nor that it is cited specifically, indeed provides the underlying theme, in the two annotated sketch¬books which he produced during the Cubist years circa 1912-14.

The early intrusion of Theosophic beliefs in Mondrian's art was of profound meaning to his development of a fully abstract style. Above all, his precipitate adoption of Cubist style during the winter of 1911-12 and his immediate enthusiasm for the writings of Schoenmaekers may now be interpreted to have resulted from his previous deep involvement with Theosophic teachings. Not that this fact diminishes the importance of either the Cubist or Schoenmaekers' influence upon the art of Mondrian. The writings of Blavatsky and Steiner by no means constituted an exclusive source of inspiration during his periods of transition to abstract art. Indeed, throughout the years 1908-17, virtually every major paint¬ing within his numerically restricted oeuvre deserves special attention for the idiosyncratic fusion of natural subject, esoteric iconography and employment of style which it contains. While typically unorthodox in approach Mondrian's successive use of the Art Nouveau, Pointillist and Cubist styles was invariably inventive and aesthetically satisfying. Consequently, whereas many viewers of the present, unprecedentedly complete showing of his mature work will have little interest in Mondrian's Theosophic iconography, they will respond readily to the extraordinary quality of his handling of color, brushwork and compositional structure. In this respect, the Evolution and such related works as the Church at Domburg from 1910-early 1911 (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague) and The Red Mill of circa 1911 (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague)21  may appeal to a present-day audience chiefly for the optical phenomena of intense color luminosity and irradiation which they contain and which so clearly anticipate contemporary artistic trends. Similarly, no one who seriously studies Mondrian's abstract work in the original will confuse his paintings-enlivened as they are by subtle tensions of line, color, implied movement and generated space-with the theoretical preoccupations which inform his iconographic content. Nonetheless, it was with the aid of such preoccupations that Mondrian achieved his artistic results. If for no other reason than this, one may feel grateful for the con¬tribution made by Theosophic doctrine to the art of one of the major painters of the present century.

 

 

1 The ideas relevant to the present discussion were proliferated in numerous texts, lectures and discussions undertaken by Mme Blavatsky and her followers. However, for the sake of convenience and because its role as a source for other quotations often has been overlooked, the monumental two volume Isis Unveiled of 1877 (New York: J.W. Bouton) and esp. its discussion of two cosmological diagrams (IL pp. 266-71) will provide the exclusive text upon which our discussion is based. In the original Dutch translation, vol. I is dated to 1911 and vol. II to 1914, but, in fact, both vols. were available through serialized installments (published resp. 1908-10 and 1911-14).

2 Sketchbooks, p. 64.

3 Toorop had anticipated essential features of the Evolution in a minor crayon drawing of circa 1893, the Two Sylphs Ringing Bells (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

4 E.g. James, op.cit  pp. 106-7.  However, the present writer has found virtually no evidence that the work of Munch was either exhibited in The Netherlands or illustrated, in Dutch art journals by the date that the Passion Flower or even the Evolution was executed. In any case, such an influence would have been a formal one at most.

5 Either this or a second version (now priv. coll., France) was exhibited Amsterdam, April-June 1910, at St. Lucas, no. 490.

6 E.g. the virginal symbols of lilies at left and rose garden at center.

7 In De Stijl, I: 3, p. 30, note 3 (1968 edition, p. 46) Mondrian rejects the "imitation of astral colours" as incompatible with his approach to painting which he then described as "abstract-real." See Miss Charmion von Wiegand's remarks on this subject in Piet Mondrian 1872-1944, New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1971, p. 81.

8 I.e. the Dutch architect and Theosophist, J.L.M. Lauweriks, writing on "Rembrandt and Theosophy" for Theosophia, XV, July 1906, p. 136.

9 Isis Unveiled, vol. 1, p. 212. James, op. cit., p. 107, was the first to discover in a similar quotation from Ed. Schures, Les Grand Initiés (Dutch trans. 1907), an essential iconographic aspect of Mondrian's triptych. However, apart from documenting the availability of Mme Blavatsky's ideas in this popularized secondary source (see note 27 above), the quotation does not prove equally applicable to the Three Brides according to the strict form of James' analysis.

10 Ibid.

11 As found, for example, on Mondrian's membership certificate preserved by the artist's heir, Mr. Harry Holtzman.

12 Isis Unveiled, vol. II, p. 269 (i.e. in reference to the "Chaldean" diagram which follows p. 264).

13 Ibid., p. 270, in reference to the Hindu diagram placed adjacent to the "Chaldean."

14 A variant use of this same abstract iconography can be found in a paradigmatic example of Dutch Symbolist art, a woodcut from 1894 known as The Marriage by the architect and Theosophist, K.P.C. de Bazel (Rijksprentkabinett, University of Leiden). No. 12 in De Houtsneden Van K.P.C. de Bazel, Amsterdam. S.L. van Looy, 1925, whose editor, J.L.M. Lauweriks (see note 34 above) in his introduction refers to de Bazel's wish with his woodcuts "to make visible the supersensory world."

15 I.e. in her "Hindu" and "Chaldean" diagrams, Isis Unveiled (see notes 38 and 39), to which the shorter quotations given in the present text also allude.

16 Isis Unveiled, I, p. 508.

17 See note 10.

18 Mondrian's drawing from 1913, the Circular Composition: Church Facade (Sidney Janis Gallery, New York) can be interpreted iconographically as a tribute to all the abstract geometric configurations, the meaning of which is summarized in the philosophical cross of Blavatsky

19  I.e. including by the Theosophist-Christosoph Dr. Schoenmaekers, beginning with his Mensch en Natuur of 1913, which may be considered a personal interpretation of standard Theosophic doctrine.

20 This alternate usage is found in the hexagram and body emblems of the figure at right in Evolution, and may already have been incorporated into the Arum Lily of the previous year.

21 These works also contain triangulated design elements which relate to the iconographic content found in Evolution.

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