Originally printed in the May - June 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Hall, Kathleen. "Theosophy and the Emergence of Modern Abstract Art." Quest 90.3 (MAY - JUNE 2002):
By Kathleen Hall
At the turn of the nineteenth century, a movement in art emerged that was a response to higher awareness of cosmic truth. Modern abstract art was the visible manifestation of spiritual ideals professed through the teachings of Theosophy and other wisdom lore. The artists of this movement were scribes who painted what words could not say.
Spirituality in abstract art began around 1890 and ran in parallel with a growing interest in mysticism and the occult. Many artists were becoming intrigued with spiritual writings, in particular with Madame Blavatsky’s major work, The Secret Doctrine. Undoubtedly there were other influences, such as the works of Édouard Schuré, Jakob Böhme, and Emmanuel Swedenborg. But it was Theosophy that had the most profound effect on the emergence of modern abstract art and specifically on the founding fathers of the movement, Wassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimer Malevich.
Theosophy gave these artists a vista that became the fundamental groundwork of their spirituality. From this viewpoint, they believed they were able to see beyond and into the natural world, as well as gaining an understanding of the ancient wisdom and cosmic principles of our existence. This lofty vantage point elevated all four beyond this-worldly concerns and gave them a sense of divine sight into otherworldly realms. They stood in the doorway between two worlds, they were the messengers, and communicating this knowledge became the objective of their art.
The language with which these artists translated their vision of one world into terms of the other was abstraction. To be successfully understood, that vision had to be presented in simple, relevant terms that could later develop and expand into complex structuring as it became more familiar to both the artist as teacher and the viewer as student. In its final form, it is outwardly simplistic, while intrinsically complex in its reduction of the divinely enigmatic.
It seems more than coincidental that four distinct artists, at about the same time in history, were all influenced by the teachings of Theosophy and manifested their spirituality through their art, which almost had no choice but to be abstract. The context of their work was not a familiar picture of visible reality, but a faith in things unseen. Visionary, prophetic, mystical, and deeply spiritual, Kandinsky, Kupka, Mondrian, and Malevich can be considered as initiates who came from ages past to teach the ancient wisdom in our time and in images appropriate to us. What they produced was a seam in the universe through which they were able to make the unseen visible so that we can catch a glimpse of the great mysteries of the cosmos.
All four artists first began in the Symbolist style. Their early work expressed representations of cosmic ideals in forms that were familiar and recognizable. However, the iconography of Symbolism limited the manifestation of universal concepts, and Kandinsky, Kupka, Mondrian, and Malevich all became increasingly aware of this limitation. Having experienced the extent of the Symbolist voice, they began to dig deeper into their Theosophical ideals and surfaced with new ways to say things.
The language that emerged was abstraction. Abstraction was a formless voice that dissolved the boundaries of the concrete object to allow the flow of cosmic light to spill forth onto an awaiting canvas, the site where the inner and outer realms of spirituality began a new creative evolution. Each artist was painting the canvas with their own particular brush, but all were dipping from the same paint pots of spiritual awareness.
Wassily Kandinsky was an avid student of occult and mystical teachings. Theosophy provided the main structure for his lessons in spirituality, but he certainly enriched his studies with other material. As his spiritual awareness evolved, so too did his art. Ideals that he was previously content to express in Symbolist form, later shed their casings as they expanded through abstraction. As Theosophical teachings on thought forms and the correlation between vibrations, color, and sound influenced his work, he began to rely very little on form. Shape, line, and color became his main tools for creating a visible image of unseen events in the astral world.
Frantisek Kupka approached the realm of the spiritual in art from a similar direction. He too began as a Symbolist painter and presented concepts found in the Theosophical teachings on esoteric Eastern religions and philosophies. As a Symbolist, these ideas seemed to be a representation rather than a manifestation of his spiritual knowledge. When he began to make the connection between the forces acting in this world as a microcosm of the macrocosmic forces in the universe, his work began to communicate a divine message. This is also when his paintings became more abstracted, evolving into works of sacred geometry.
Piet Mondrian, like Kandinsky, read extensively on spiritual concepts. His endorsement of Theosophy was distinctly acknowledged and he frequently made reference to it in regard to the content of his work. His ideas were first expressed as Symbolist art, then as he began to explore the use of color as a means to project the inner being of an outwardly visible object, his work started to change. His sole objective became the reduction of form to simple contrasts of line and color to signify the unity between opposites: male and female, static and dynamic, spirit and matter. Geometric shapes and primary colors were to become his trademark, representing in simple terms the immensely complex spiritual structuring of the universe.
Kazimir Malevich was originally involved with the Russian Symbolist movement, but then began exploring Zaumism and the fourth dimension. In particular, the time and space concepts he studied came from his readings on P. D. Ouspensky, the Russian Theosophist. Eventually his work evolved into a greater manifestation of the fourth dimension and his Suprematist works began to follow a path that saw the dissolution of form into sacred geometry and Absolute “nothingness.”
The effects of Theosophy on the founding fathers of modern abstract art are unmistakable. Each artist— Wassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich—manifested in his own particular style varying aspects of Theosophical ideals. All began with the symbolic representation of spiritual concepts, then out of necessity evolved into abstraction. It was an inevitable process. The familiar forms of the visible world were not able to express the cosmic realm. Only line, shape, and color were of use to the artist as a language through which the voice of the universe could be communicated. It was perhaps an experimental translation of Divine concepts.
Theosophy was perhaps the most important spiritual philosophy to emerge in the latter half of the nineteenth century, especially in regard to the profound impact it had on the direction of modern art. Its doctrine of universal “brotherhood,” the study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies, and sciences, and the investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers latent in humankind were not only timely in terms of a changing world, but unequivocally compelling to the artist as a seeker of Truth.
It was inevitable that some artists would turn their attention to spirituality at the dawn of the materialistic age of the twentieth century. That change came about, first, because the further humanity is removed from the natural environment, the greater is its need for a spiritual replacement and, second, because everything is as it should be.
Kathleen Hall studied the modern abstractionists and their Theosophical connections while working onthe thesis for her master’s degree. In connection with that work she corresponded with a number of contemporary Theosophical artists, particularly Burton Callicott, Don Kruse, and Pamela Lowrie. She is a resident of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and became a member of the Canadian Federation of the Theosophical Society as a result of her study.