Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

The Story of Count Prozor

Marty Bax – the Netherlands

On January 1, 1915, the Theosophical Society registered its 57,762-nd. member at the headquarters in Adyar, India. The popularity of the Society had increased immensely. More people joined the society in the 1910s than in the 30-year period 1875-1905.

A list of those members includes a colorful bunch of people: Karl Wolfskehl, Piet Mondrian, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Christian Morgenstern, Fritz von Herzmanovsky, Ada Fuller, Emily Lutyens, Ely Star, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Marie Langen-von Strachwitz, Countess Maria Radziwill, Henri Soubeyran de Saint-Prix, and Prince Mohamed Riza Khan. Behind every name is a story, sometimes with a surprising twist.

Read more: The Story of Count Prozor

Blavatsky: Mystic and Occultist

Public Eye 2 Blavatsky-Mystic and Occultist

A review of Divine Fury: A History of Genius, by Darrin McMahon, in The New York Review of Books, 56.15 (October 9, 2014), comments about H.B.P.: “In McMahon’s story the part played by Romaticism is chiefly that of mystification (he even at one point compares Romantic claims about the realm of Idea or Spirit made by such writers as Schelling, Novalis, and Friedrich Schlegel to the obscure and rambling occultist Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society). But in fact at the foundation of much Romantic thought was an attempt at demystification, at clarifying the relationship between mind and world.”

That comment betrays a common but all too frequent view of H.P.B. and Theosophy. To be sure, “obscure and rambling” H.P.B. often was. But she was also extraordinarily well-informed about the subjects she dealt with. She was certainly romantic in the sense of being “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized” (Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary). But she was also practical in applying her ideals in the everyday world. As I have pointed out elsewhere: “In her book The Key to Theosophy, Blavatsky said, ‘Theosophist is who Theosophy does.’ Theosophy is not something to believe; it is something to do — that is, to live by” (Theosophy — An Introductory Study Course, chapter 12).

Hilma and the Enigmatic Mathilde N.

Marty Bax – The Netherlands

Public Eye 2In 2013, I went to Sweden twice for the retrospective exhibition on Hilma af Klint. The invitation came through the Ax:son Johnson Foundation, founded in 1947 by the late Consul General Axel Ax:son Johnson together with his wife Margaret, owner of the Nordstjernan group. The foundation, led by the highly amiable Kurt Almqvist, facilitates scientific research in general, but in particular the liberal arts and the social sciences. I was deeply impressed by their hospitality and professionalism. The foundation has clearly thought very deeply and constructively about how to inform a wider public about pressing issues in society. Conferences with scholars from all over the world, a website, a magazine, even their own TV channel with the top-Swedish interviewer Thomas Gür, who courteously and tongue-in-cheek said it was his fun ‘to ask stupid questions and get intelligent answers’. All in all, amazing. I wish we had such an institution in my country!

Public Eye 3 Engelsberg 2013The adventure started in February, when an expert meeting was organized at the opening of the exhibition. The meeting was held in Engelsberg, a top-list Unesco heritage site own by the Ax:son group. Mid-winter, snow-covered landscape in the middle of the woods, paths at night lighted with candles along the sides, in the typically Swedish manner; a truly romantic setting. And a relaxed place to meet many international colleagues from other disciplines. For me personally, my acquaintance with Hilma’s work came full circle, when I met Maurice Tuchman again, who in 1986 organized “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985”. Its venue at The Hague constituted my first job as a curator. That exhibition showed Hilma’s work in public for the first time after World War II.

In May, at the closing of the exhibition, some of the scholars travelled to Stockholm again to lecture at a public conference in the Moderna Museet. The main objective of the conference was to publicly discuss how Hilma af Klint and her art could be understood better and how it should be positioned in her time between the other pioneers of abstract art. The debate intended also to point towards the future. Where does Hilma advance from here? Where should her position be within art history? All of the proceedings and the interviews circling around these basic questions are now on the Axess website. But I want to add a little more to the discussion.

Read more: Hilma and the Enigmatic Mathilde N.

Edwin Lutyens, Charles Bressey and My Mother

Marty Bax – The Netherlands

Public Eye 2 lutyens-model

In one of my previous articles I mentioned the suffragist Lady Emily Lutyens. Emily was the daughter of Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton, the Viceroy of India and the wife of one of the most prominent architects of her time, Edwin Lutyens. Edwin became famous as a country-house architect, but even more so as the architect of New Delhi, a job which he got through his father-in-law of course. Emily became a member of the Theosophical Society in 1910. As an upper-class lady she became a pillar in the financial and social support of the Society.

Read more: Edwin Lutyens, Charles Bressey and My Mother

The Suffragette and the Dodge Heiress

Marty Bax – The Netherlands

Public Eye Bax  b  Muriel and Gilbert
Muriel and Gilbert on their honeymoon, 1891

Countess Muriel De La Warr (née Brassey 1872-1930), became a member of the Theosophical Society as an active suffragette. According to her close friend, the Christian Socialist George Lansbury, Muriel did not pride herself on her progressive work and her financing of the movement. Lansbury was one of the founders of the Daily Herald and a fervent supporter of women’s rights, and his campaigns were largely funded by Muriel. Before his political career, Lansbury had been a railway contractor, just as Muriel’s grandfather, Thomas Brassey (1805-1870) had been. Brassey was responsible for laying the railways throughout the whole of the British Empire, and became unfathomably rich. But wealth was not enough for Muriel, she wanted to have the title of a countess. Therefore Muriel married Gilbert Sackville, Eighth Earl De La Warr (pronounced Delaware) in 1891. Gilbert belonged to the oldest of English upper-class families. However, his family’s fortunes had dwindled and he needed money. Muriel had plenty of it.

Read more: The Suffragette and the Dodge Heiress

Hilma af Klint

Kathleen Hall – Canada

Public Eye Hilma af Klint 2
Hilma af Klint

No form can come into objective existence — from the highest to the lowest — before the abstract ideal of this form — or, as Aristotle would call it, the privation of this form — is called forth. Before an artist paints a picture every feature of it exists already in his imagination; to have enabled us to discern a watch, this particular watch must have existed in its abstract form in the watchmaker’s mind. So with future men. (Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled 1:310)

The world is often not ready to accept what pioneers working on the spiritual plane have discovered in their lifetime, and therefore some things must wait to be revealed. In 1986, 42 years after her passing, a small collection of Hilma af Klint’s remarkable paintings were publically shown in “The Spiritual in Art,” Maurice Tuchman’s ground breaking exhibit held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Prior to her death in 1944, all of Hilma af Klint’s works were given in trust to her nephew, requesting that they not be publically revealed until at least 20 years after her passing.

Read more: Hilma af Klint

Theosophy in Constance:The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde

Moyle, Franny. Constance:The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde. New York: Pegasus Books, 2012. © 2011.

They found themselves seated next to the exotic Russian émigré Madame Blavatsky and her disciple Annie Besant. . . . Smoking . . . heavily . . . she held court talking about the position of women in Russia. . . . Blavatsky had acquired huge fame at the time as one of the founders of the Theosophical Society. This society, which was created in New York in the mid-1870s . . . had become a phenomenon across the Western world” (p. 165).

The Theosophical Society represented an intellectual response to spiritualism. It sought to provide credibility to spiritualism by grounding it in a system of belief. At the very core of Theosophy was the concept that the material world cannot be separated from its spiritual counterpart . . . based on the idea of a constant flow and relationship between the material and spiritual dimensions” (p. 166).

Constance, growing disenchanted with the conventional church, explored Theosophy . . . as a genuine alternative to conventional religious practice” (p. 174).

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