Kandinsky's Thought Forms and the Occult Roots of Modern Art
By Gary Lachman
Originally printed in the MARCH-APRIL 2008 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Lachman, Gary. “Kandinsky's Thought Forms and the Occult Roots of Modern Art.” Quest 96.2 (MARCH-APRIL 2008): 57-61.
IN RECENT YEARS, the contribution that occult or mystical ideas have made to the evolution of art—or to culture in general—has been increasingly recognized. But this was not always the case. For a long time, the notion that belief systems like Theosophy, founded in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky and her companion Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, were anything more than a disreputable side-show to the mainstream of cultural development was scandalous. Critics and biographers hemmed and hawed over the attention eminent figures like W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and others paid to a variety of “charlatans” and “mountebanks”—in Yeats’ case it was Blavatsky herself; for Eliot, it was the Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky. Thankfully, those days are over and much credit is due to a group of historians, critics, and researchers for uncovering what in my subtitle I call “the occult roots of modern art.”
I have even made a small contribution to this effort myself. In The Dedalus Book of the Occult: A Dark Muse, I sketch an overview of how a collection of occult ideas and insights fed the European and American post-Enlightenment literary imagination. I remark that, although I focused on writers and poets, another book could easily be written about the occult interests of composers and painters. In music, seminal figures like Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, and Debussy all have dipped, at one time or another, into the magical grab bag. (For a brief account of this history, see my article “Concerto for Magic and Mysticism: Esotericism and Western Music” in The Quest magazine’s online archives.)
The best book I know for making clear exactly how much modern art owes the occult is The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 by Maurice Tuchman, a massive catalogue from an exhaustive exhibition I had the good fortune to see many years ago. While recently re-reading some of the catalogue’s articles, I came upon a few names with considerable frequency. Certainly, the history of the occult’s influence on art is filled with many illustrious figures, including Jacob Boehme, Swedenborg, Paracelsus, and Eliphas Levi, for example. The roll call of artists so influenced reads like a who’s who of the cutting edge: Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, Frantisek Kupka, and Joseph Beuys, to name a few. However, as I said, certain names kept turning up, especially in the period preceding the birth of abstract art. These were the Theosophists Annie Besant, C. W. Leadbeater, and Rudolf Steiner.
The artist upon whom these leading Theosophists made the strongest imprint was the one most associated with creating non-representational art, Wassily Kandinsky. Just when the first abstract painting was made is still a matter of debate. Some say it was Kandinsky’s First Abstract Water Colour in 1910; others give the honor to the Czech Frantisek Kupka. But Kandinsky is the name most associated with the new approach to painting.
As Sixten Ringbom made clear in his seminal study, “The Sounding Cosmos,” Kandinsky was deeply interested in a number of occult, mystical, and paranormal pursuits and, at times, was a practitioner of various spiritual disciplines, specifically some forms of meditation and visualization. His interest was wide and his reading eclectic; one form of paranormal phenomena that particularly intrigued him was “thought photography,” the idea that thoughts could be captured on sensitive plates.
Kandinsky’s interest in the occult, and Theosophy in particular, was most evident during the years 1904–1912, which roughly coincide with the attempts of various psychic investigators to use scientific methods to prove the reality of the spiritual world. Sadly, most of these efforts proved fruitless and later examples, like the Cottingley Fairies, did little more than reinforce the suspicions of an already skeptical public. These were the famous fairy photographs of 1920 that earned Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who expressed belief in their veracity, much criticism, including suspicion of senility. Kandinsky’s interest in thought photography, however, had a deeper impetus than to prove that the wee folk existed. Thought photography was, for Kandinsky, linked to a more important issue: the advent of a new age in human evolution, which he called “the Epoch of the Great Spiritual.”
Along with many other artists and thinkers of the time, Kandinsky believed that by the beginning of the twentieth century, western civilization had reached a crisis and was sinking under a crushing materialism. It was the artist’s task to lead society out of this impasse and to open new avenues of meaning and significance. One vehicle for achieving this was Theosophy. The influence Kandinsky’s occult reading had on his ideas of the coming “Epoch of the Great Spiritual” is clear in his influential manifesto Über das Geistige in der Kunst, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), one of the most important theoretical works in the history of modern art.
Kandinsky’s occult library was considerable, but certain books in particular fuelled his speculation. Three key works were Man, Visible and Invisible (1902) by C. W. Leadbeater, Thought-Forms (1905) by Annie Besant and Leadbeater, and Rudolf Steiner’s Theosophy (1904). Kandinsky was very interested in Steiner, and attended some of his lectures in Munich and Berlin. He was also a keen reader of Steiner’s theosophical journal, Luzifer-Gnosis, and in his notebooks Kandinsky copied out several passages from a series of articles Steiner had written entitled “Von der Aura des Menschen” (On Man’s Aura). Kandinsky was interested in a great deal of Steiner’s thought. The interested reader might look to Ringbom’s study or the internet for material about Kandinsky’s interest in the occult, as well as informa-tion on his friend Arnold Schoenberg, who combined an interest in Steiner with one in the Swedish religious thinker Emanuel Swedenborg.
Besant, Leadbeater, and Steiner’s writings concern the human aura. In the theosophical view, we possess four different kinds of bodies. There is the physical body we all know, but we also possess an astral body, a mental body, and a buddhic body. In fact, we really possess seven bodies, but the three higher bodies—nirvanic, para-nirvanic, and mahaparanirvanic—are beyond our present level of comprehension and discussion of them now is not relevant. In his early writings, Steiner used this theosophical concept; in later years, he retained the notion of seven bodies, but his terminology changed.
The astral body reflects our emotions and desires; the mental body is concerned with our thoughts; and the buddhic body with our spirituality. There is also an etheric body, which is a kind of life force animating our physical shells. I should point out that the aura that Besant, Leadbeater, and Steiner speak of is not the same as that revealed in Kirlian photography or in Harold Burr’s “life fields,” from Blueprint for Immortality, which are much more of a physical phenomenon. In Theosophy, Steiner, a profound critic of materialism, made clear that the aura referred to by him and other theosophical writers was purely spiritual; that is, it was an inner phenomenon. It was not seen with the eyes but with the soul. For all his interest in thought photography, it was precisely this distinction of Steiner’s that appealed to Kandinsky.
Kandinsky believed that by the beginning of the twentieth century, whatever artistic and spiritual meaning the external world had possessed had been hollowed out and emptied. He was not alone in this; the “artist’s journey into the interior,” as the literary critic Erich Heller called it in the title of one of his books, had been set in motion at least a century before with the Romantic Movement. Contemporary with Kandinsky, in his Duino Elegies, the poet Rilke had declared that “No-where will the world exist but within.” The novelist Hermann Hesse had mapped out der Weg nach innen, the Way within. Many poets and writers suffered the “crisis of the word,” acknowledging that a language based on describing the external world was inadequate to convey the depth and subtlety of their insights and perceptions. And painters like Kandinsky’s fellow Russian Kasimir Malevich contemplated a blank canvas as the purest portrait of the real.
Like the “primitives” of earlier times described in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky believed the artist sought to portray “only internal truths, renouncing in consequence all consideration of external form” (1). Like many artists of the time, Kandinsky saw in music the non-material art par excellence, and he wanted to achieve in painting what he felt composers had already accomplished: liberation from the material world. In this need to map out the cartography of the inner realms, Kandinsky found a parallel in Theosophy.
Although the aura was a spiritual phenomenon, Besant, Leadbeater, and Steiner believed it could be approximated. To the sensitive soul, a person’s aura appeared as a kind of cloud or egg, enveloping their physical body. This appeared in different colors, depending upon the character and thoughts of the person. In both Thought-Forms and Man Visible and Invisible the authors provide a “Key to the Meanings of Colors.” This informs us that, for example, pure religious feeling appears as a deep blue, while anger is a fiery red. Bright yellow corresponds with highest intellect and malice with black. An attentive reader of Kandinsky’s manifesto will note that on the subject of yellow, he differs from Besant and Leadbeater, linking it with feelings of aggression. although he drew on theosophical ideas, Kandinsky, like any person of genius, inevitably thought for himself.
Whatever we think of the aura, it is clear that in our everyday speech we associate certain colors with certain moods or feelings. We are green with envy. If we are sad, we are blue. We speak of being red with rage, and if we are healthy, we are in the pink. Yellow is associated with cowardice, white with innocence. We all have black moods. These and other examples show that synaesthesia—the substitution or coincidence of one sense with another, as in the phenomenon of “hearing colors” or “seeing sounds”—is much more common than we think. Synesthesia was one of the central concerns of the Romantic and Symbolist movements, and was most concisely expressed in Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “Vowels,” which links specific colors to the vowels: A-black, E-white, I-red, O-blue, U-green. Kandinsky emerged from the latter days of these aesthetic movements, and students of Rudolf Steiner’s teachings will remember that synesthesia is one of the signs of advance on the spiritual path. Steiner’s Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment explains more on this topic.
The central maxim of Thought-Forms is that “thoughts are things” (16). In addition to the aura, the seer can detect emanations proceeding from it. These appear as “radiating vibrations” and “floating forms.” The idea of floating forms raises the link between thought forms and hypnagogic phenomena, the various shapes, forms, faces, and landscapes, etc. seen on the point of sleep. Hypnagogia and synaesthesia are often linked; the interested reader may want to consult the chapter “Hypnagogia” in my Secret History of Consciousness.
These radiations and forms are the spiritual reflection of the person’s thoughts, and they are things, not only in the sense of having a real effect on the world (in the sense that bad thoughts can actually, and not only meta-phorically, hurt someone), but even more so in the sense that to the seer, thoughts appear as definite shapes. Again, space does not allow me to pursue this, but in his Arcana Coelestia, Swedenborg spoke of “seeing thought.” And in Emanuel Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision by Robin Larsen, he is quoted as saying, “I could see solid concepts of thought as though they were surrounded by a kind of wave, and I noticed that this wave was nothing other than the kinds of things associated with the matter in my memory, and that in this way spirits could see the full thought” (447).
Besant and Leadbeater point out that the character of our thought forms is linked to our astral (desire) and mental (thought) bodies, and that the more refined our desires and thoughts, the more radiant and beautiful are the thought forms we create. Given, however, that the desire body “is the most prominent part of the aura of an undeveloped man” (19), what the seer most often detects are forms of a crude nature. It may be a blessing, then, that we all are not yet able to perceive the subtle shapes of our thoughts.
The character of a thought form depends on two things: what the thought is about, and the quality of the thought itself. Vague, indefinite thoughts appear as a kind of mist or cloud. Clear, definite thoughts take on more robust shapes, sharp triangles, cones, tentacles, and starbursts, for example. Thoughts of a greedy, lustful, or malicious character appear differently from those of a noble, selfless, loving nature. So, for instance, figure 28 in Thought-Forms, “Selfish Greed ” appears like muddy green tentacles. This thought form emanates from someone “ready to employ deceit to obtain her desire,” and is associated with “people gathered in front of a shop window” (56–57). “Sudden Fright ,” figure 27, appears as a series of grey and red crescent shapes bursting out of the aura. “Explosive Anger ,” figure 24, is a red and orange starburst. The “Upward Rush of Devotion,” figure 15, is seen as a blue cone, and “Vague Pure Affection,” figure 8, is a pinkish cloud, which “frequently surrounds a gently purring cat” (41). “Intellectual Aspiration,” figure 43, is a fine spearhead of yellow, with a greyish centre, and implies “much advanced development of the part of the thinker” (72).
Besant and Leadbeater suggest that these thought forms are analogous to those of the “ Chladni figures” formed by vibrating a brass or glass plate on which fine sand has been spread. Bowing the plate, the vibrations arrange the sand into remarkably beautiful geometric designs. They also see an analogy with the intricate designs formed by a pendulum on which a pen has been attached, and the illustrations they provide from Frederick Bligh Bond’s book Vibration Figures, have, like the Chladni figures, a beauty not unlike that found in fractals. (Frederick Bligh Bond, we might remember, was an archaeologist involved in early excavations at Glastonbury Abbey, but was sacked after it was discovered that his methods included channeling medieval monks who had lived there.) The common element is vibrations: just as vibrations in fine matter form the Chladni figures, so too, do vibrations create thought forms. In this case, the fine matter is the aura, and the vibrations are our thoughts.
Besant and Leadbeater were assiduous collectors of thought forms and to the unknowing eye, the illustrations of these by John Varley, a Mr. Prince, and a Miss Macfarlane are very reminiscent of much abstract and surrealistic painting. Some of the most striking are the illustrations for the synaesthetic forms created by music: a mountain range of reds, blues, greens, and yellows rises above a church in which Wagner is being played. My own favorite is figure 32, “The Gamblers,” whose eerie red and black eye and strange crescent shape figures remind me of Miro’s weird dreamscapes.
Rather than sticking to single-thoughts such as love, hate, sadness, etc., the authors sought out the forms created by a number of experiences. Figure 33 “At a Street Accident,” figure 34 “At a Funeral,” figure 35 “On Meeting a Friend,” and others give us some idea of the kinds of unseen thought forms hovering about us in the astral. The bright colors against the black void are particularly striking, and readers may be interested to compare these to the remarkable blackboard chalk drawings that Rudolf Steiner used in his lectures, a collection of which can be seen in Rudolf Steiner: Blackboard Drawings 1919–1924. Steiner’s blackboard drawings have been recognized as works of art themselves, and they, coupled with Besant and Leadbeater’s thought forms, give us some idea of what we may one day be able to see, given there is, as both Steiner and the Theosophists believe, an evolution of consciousness.
But until then, another glimpse of these astral shapes is available through Kandinsky’s art. Although compared to Kandinsky’s floating amoebas and other amorphous forms, the actual shapes of, say, figures 37 and 38, “Sympathy and Love for All,” and “An Aspiration to Enfold All” respectively, are simple and unsophisticated, we can yet see their influence in his canvases. Space does not allow more than a mention, but one work in which the influence of Thought-Forms is quite visible is, I think, Kandinsky’s enigmatic Woman in Moscow (1912), a representational work in which the non-representational begins to appear.
Kandinsky was particularly interested in this figure, as he did three versions of the work. An attractive oversized woman in her thirties stands in the foreground and behind her stretches a multi-colored Moscow. Her right hand rests on a table, and is wrapped around a small dog; in her left hand she holds a red, cloud-like rose. A bluish-green aura seems to surround her and to her left appears a glowing reddish ball with a heart-shaped center. Above this, a black cloud shape, seemingly very dense, threatens to obscure the sun, while to her lower right, a sharp spike of dark blue juts into a yellow street. Several figures float around her: a horse and carriage with a coachman and passenger, and a quasi-oriental character who seems to balance on the edge of the table. The red ball and black shape seem to suggest a struggle between malice and the heart, but as there is so much here, the interested reader should really see for him or herself.
Clearly, the black spot held much meaning for Kandinsky, as it appears center-stage in Black Spot I (1912), in which the representational figures of people, houses, and a cart are beginning to dissolve, perhaps into the astral forms that lie behind our sensory perceptions. Kandinsky’s “Epoch of the Great Spiritual” may have been put on hold—at least that is the impression I get, judging by most post-modern art today. But to the open eye, his work, I believe, can still introduce us to the soul.
Besant, Annie and C. W. Leadbeater. Thought-Forms. London and Benares: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1901.
Burr, Harold Saxton. Blueprint for Immortality. London: Neville Spearman, 1972.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover Books, 1977.
Lachman, Gary. “Concerto for Magic and Mysticism: Esotericism and Western Music"
———. The Dedalus Book of the Occult: A Dark Muse. London: Dedalus, 2003.
———. In Search of P. D. Ouspensky. Wheaton: Quest Books, 2004.
———. Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2007.
Larsen, Robin, ed. Emanuel Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision. New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1988.
Ringbom, Sixten. “The Sounding Cosmos.” Acta Academiae Aboensis, Ser. A. Vol.38 No.2. Abo Akademi, 1970.
Steiner, Rudolf. Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1947.
———. Rudolf Steiner: Blackboard Drawings 1919–1924. New York: Rudolf Steiner Press, 2003.
Tuchman, Maurice. The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985. New York: LA County Museum of Art and the Abbeville Press, 1986.
Gary Lachman is the author of several books on the link between consciousness, culture and the western esoteric tradition, including Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Penguin 2007). Other books include Into the Interior: Discovering Swedenborg (2006), In Search of P. D. Ouspensky (Quest, 2004), and Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (2001). A founding member of the rock group Blondie, Lachman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. He is a regular contributor to the Independent on Sunday and Fortean Times, and Quest magazine. He lives in London where he is currently working on Politics and The Occult: Unknown Superiors and the Retreat from the Modern World , to be published in 2008.