Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Concerning the Spiritual

CONCERNING THE SPIRITUAL: THE INFLUENCE OF THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY ON AUSTRALIAN ARTISTS, 1890-1934 by Jenny McFarlane, Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd, 2012, pp. xx + 205.

The influence of Theosophy on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art is well-known, having been documented extensively by Wassily Kandinsky in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1914), Sixten Ringbom in The Sounding Cosmos (1970), and elsewhere, including by myself in “Art, Kandinsky, and Self-Transformation,” Theosophist 125 (September 2004): 447–50. However, what this book does is to trace that influence specifically in Australia. It does so by presenting a Theosophical view of art as “an alternative tradition of visuality.” That is, in this Theosophical view, art is not a representation of external substance, but rather of internal meaning. The book is academic (in several senses of that term) and thorough. It is a valuable addition to the literature, although not intended for the general reader.

Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W. T. Stead

The Times Literary Supplement of July 13, 2012, on page 30 has a review of a new book: Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W. T. Stead, by W. Sydney Robinson. Stead was an important figure for whom the Theosophical Encyclopedia includes an article. The TLS review, however, presents a more personal glimpse into his life, including this: “Married for years and the head of a large family, Stead routinely sought the company of attractive young women, always swearing that such friendships were innocent. Time and again, Robinson describes his subject’s female associates in similar terms — ‘an attractive young socialist called Annie Besant’ [etc.].”

A young Annie Besant

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 thereafter, 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 1911 5 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 period 7 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.

Read more: Mondrian and Theosophy – Part one

Theosophy, Fantasy, and Mary Poppins

John Algeo – USA

Chapter 1: Introduction: Pamela Travers and the Mary Poppins Cycle

Some books ostensibly written for children in fact appeal also to adults; they attract both age groups, albeit for different reasons. Such books are mainly in the genre of fantasy (or fairy tales, to use an older designation for the genre). Fantasy fiction consists of stories that are not about the world we know through our physical senses, but about an archetypal world we access through our imagination. Their truth is not literal and limited, but metaphorical and expansive. Because fantasy is archetypal, it is a form particularly adaptable to Theosophical interpretations. Adults will be more likely than children to puzzle out — either consciously or subconsciously — the archetypal metaphors and to expand the meaning of fantasy stories in more sophisticated ways. However, children will appreciate the stories and may absorb the meanings they embody on a subconscious level, which is more powerful than a conscious intellectual understanding.

Read more: Theosophy, Fantasy, and Mary Poppins


London Review of Books, July 5, 2012, has a long and detailed article on Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) by Perry Anderson, entitled “Gandhi Centre Stage.” It includes the following allusion:

“The composition of Gandhi’s faith, [Kathryn] Tidrick [author of Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life (2007)] has shown, was born of a cross between a Jain-inflected Hindu orthodoxy and late Victorian psychomancy [‘occult communication between souls’], the world of Madame Blavatsky, theosophy, the planchette and the Esoteric Christian Union. The two were not unconnected, as garbled ideas from the former — karma, reincarnation, ascetic self-perfection, fusion of the soul with the divine — found occult form in the latter. Little acquainted with the Hindu canon itself in his early years, Gandhi reshaped it through the medium of Western spiritualisms of the period.”

Read more: Gandhi

Cultural Diversity

In Praise of the Clash of Cultures

Carlos Fraenkel – Canada

[Carlos Fraenkel is an associate professor of philosophy and Jewish studies at McGill University in Montreal, and the author of the forthcoming book, “Teaching Plato in Palestine.”]

On September 2 a fascinating article appeared in The New York Times and the compilers of Theosophy Forward recommend readers to follow the link underneath the introduction.

Read more: Cultural Diversity

Evidence in Science and Religion

A note from the compiler:

The New York Times of April 9, 2012, has an article by Stanley Fish, who is described in Wikipedia as a “Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, as well as Dean Emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the author of 12 books.” The article is part 2 on its subject, but it begins by summarizing part 1, so can be read independently. It does not mention Theosophy, but it is a contribution to the activity prescribed by the Theosophical Society’s second object (which I slightly paraphrase to clarify what I believe is its meaning: “To encourage the comparative study of religion, philosophy, and science.”

Stanley Fish

Evidence in Science and Religion, Part Two

Stanley Fish – USA

In the post previous to this one, I revisited the question of the place of evidence in the discourses and practices of science and religion. I was prompted by a discussion on the show “Up w/ Chris Hayes” (MSNBC, March 25) in which Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins stated with great force and confidence that a key difference between science and religion is that the conclusions of the former are based on evidence that has emerged in the course of rigorous rational inquiry publicly conducted, while the conclusions of the latter are based on dogma, faith, unexamined authority, subjectivity and mere trust.

Read more: Evidence in Science and Religion

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