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 initiation, then the Evolution triptych transports us to more exalted realms of occult knowledge. Above all, it is the title of this composition 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 regeneration. 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. 1  More to the point, this conceptual polarity was universally accepted as a cardinal doctrine throughout the Theosophic and other intellectually 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. 2 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.

Read more: Mondrian and Theosophy – Part two

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

[from HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement, by Sylvia Cranston and Carey Williams, research assistant, 3rd rev. ed. (Santa Barbara, CA: Path Publishing House, 1999; c. 1993), pp. 495-6.]


Gustav Mahler

Until his death in 1911, Mahler received little attention as a composer. It was as a conductor that he was renowned in Europe and later in America. His symphonies and other compositions were in advance of their time and were received with puzzlement rather than acclaim. He prophesied, “My time will come,” and so it has. He is now regarded as a great master.

Read more: Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Theosophy, Fantasy, and Mary Poppins

John Algeo – USA

Chapter 2: The First Book of the Series: Mary Poppins

Travers, Pamela L. Mary Poppins. London: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1998, c. 1934.

Mary Poppins, the first book of the series (with 161 pages of text), begins in the house at Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane, the home of the Banks family, consisting of Mr. Banks (appropriately a bank officer), his harassed wife, their four children (Jane, Michael, and the twins John and Barbara), a cook, a serving girl, and a general-work man who avoids work as much as he can. There was a nanny also, but she has left without notice, leaving Mrs. Banks frantic about how to replace her.

Read more: Theosophy, Fantasy, and Mary Poppins

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

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