John Algeo – USA
The influence of Theosophy on modern culture is a well-kept secret, even from many Theosophists. To be sure, certain influences have been exaggerated. For example, the story that Albert Einstein kept a copy of The Secret Doctrine on his desk, though often repeated, is not supported by reliable documentation. Nevertheless, certain influences are beyond question, for example, those that Theosophy had on modern art, notable that of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century and the founder of modern abstract art.
Art historians sometimes assert that abstract art is nonrepresentational—depicting nothing, being just a pattern of colors and shapes. That, however, was not Kandinsky view. He believed that his art was esoteric. His abstract paintings certainly did not represent the outer or exoteric form of things; they were intended to represent in inner side of reality. Kandinsky thought such art is a way to transform oneself—both the artist who produces it and the viewer who contemplates it. In arriving at that conclusion, Kandinsky was greatly influenced by Theosophy.
Kandinsky set forth his views in a book that is a manifesto for abstract art: Concerning the Spiritual in Art (a translation of its original German title, Über das Geistige in der Kunst). In this book, he referred to Theosophy and H. P. Blavatsky: “Mme. Blavatsky was the first person, after a life of many years in India, to see a connection between these ‘savages’ and our ‘civilization.’ From that moment there began a tremendous spiritual movement which today includes a large number of people and has even assumed a material form in the Theosophical Society. This society consists of groups who seek to approach the problem of the spirit by way of inner knowledge. The theory of Theosophy which serves as the basis to this movement was set out by Blavatsky in the form of a catechism in which the pupil receives definite answers to his questions from the theosophical point of view [The Key to Theosophy, 1889]. Theosophy, according to Blavatsky, is synonymous with eternal truth.” Kandinsky went on, in his book, to state a number of Theosophical ideas, such as the following:
1. Behind the outer reality available to our senses are inner worlds of spirit. Those who recognize only outer reality are beset with the “nightmare of materialism,” leading to despair, “lack of purpose and aim,” atheism, positivism in science, and naturalism or realism in art. Inner reality is “conscious, aware, purposeful, meaningful.” That inner reality consists of special forms of matter, in which feelings and thoughts have form as subtle material entities: “Thought . . ., although a product of the spirit, can be defined with positive science, as matter, but of fine and not coarse substance.” Abstract art depicts that inner reality.
2. Everything in the universe has meaning and purpose, although that meaning may not be obvious and its comprehension may require effort: “It is never literally true that any form is meaningless and ‘says nothing.’ Every form in the world says something. But its message often fails to reach us, and even if it does, full understanding is often withheld from us.”
3. All forms, even those of “dead” matter, are really alive. Kandinsky admired the French painter Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) for recognizing that truth: “Cezanne made a living thing out of a teacup, or rather in a teacup he realized the existence of something alive. He raised still life to such a point that it ceased to be inanimate. He painted these things as he painted human beings, because he was endowed with the gift of divining the inner life in everything.” As Kandinsky wrote in another place: “Even dead matter is living spirit.”
4. Kandinsky was Theosophical in his view of history as a cyclical process, in which everything is evolving toward greater consciousness. During that process, he wrote, some human beings have developed “a deep and powerful prophetic strength” and “a secret power of vision” (that is, clairvoyance); they have become advanced souls or Masters, who point the way to others.
5. Because of the labors of those Master human beings, all humanity is evolving, and all of us can look forward to a better future. Kandinsky quoted H. P. Blavatsky’s vision at the end of her book The Key to Theosophy: “The earth will be a heaven in the twenty-first century in comparison with what it is now.” Kandinsky believed that the purpose of art is to help to improve the world and human beings by increasing our self-awareness and spirituality.
6. Kandinsky also believed that each person has an inner Notwendigkeit (German for “necessity,” or in Sanskrit, swadharma, “essence or raison d’etre”). The Secret Doctrine refers to the same thing in these words: “The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards.” We evolve toward a goal that expresses our inmost nature. We transform ourselves outwardly so that we become what we truly are inwardly.
7. Art is consequently a form of Yoga, assisting us to reach conscious union with our own deepest nature. Kandinsky believed that art leads to increased self-awareness. He wrote of “an epoch of the great spiritual,” which is the time when humans will go beyond ordinary mental activity to achieve buddhic or intuitional consciousness. In The Secret Doctrine, maha-buddhi (literally, “the great spiritual”) is another term for mahat, divine mind, the cosmic equivalent of self-consciousness in a human being. Kandinsky looked forward to a time when maha-buddhi, spiritual enlightenment, will be the normal state of consciousness. Art can help us to reach that state: “Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul.”
Kandinsky was clearly a Theosophical artist. He read Theosophical books, particularly those of H. P. Blavatsky and also those of Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, whose book Thought Forms influenced his painting. His motive for producing art was to help its viewers to achieve self-realization. That is the essence of Theosophy.
References and further reading:
Algeo, John. “Art, Kandinsky, and Self-Transformation.” Theosophist 125 (September 2004): 447–50 (which is the basis for this TF article).
Algeo, John. “Kandinsky and Theosophy.” In H. P. Blavatsky and “The Secret Doctrine”, ed. Virginia Hanson, 217–35. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 1988.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Trans. M. T. H. Sadler. New York: Dover, 1977. Reprint of the first English translation, 1914.
Motherwell, Robert, ed. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1947. Revision of the first English translation with changes supplied by Wassily’s wife, Nina Kandinsky.
Ringbom, Sixten. “Art in ‘The Epoch of the Great Spiritual’: Occult Elements in the Early Theory of Abstract Painting.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 29 (1966): 386–418.
Ringbom, Sixten. The Sounding Cosmos. Acta Academiae Aboensis, ser. A, 38. Abo, Finland: Abo Academy, 1970.