Het Web der Schepping: Theosofie en Kunst in Nederland van Lauweriks tot Mondrian [The Web of Creation: Theosophy and Art in the Netherlands from Lauweriks to Mondrian]

Marty Bax
Amsterdam: SUN, 2006. — 42.90 607, pages.

A genuine work of art encompasses an artist's whole being in the inspiration, ideas, and feelings that it expresses. What prevails of the greatest value in art is the spiritual dimension. Paul Klee said it succinctly: "Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible."

The major exhibition by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986-87 titled The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890—1985, proved that, even in modern times, the spiritual is very much a part of art. Both the exhibition and its catalogue showed that while much of modern art has become so abstract that it appears to be lost in pure form rather than (as we commonly expect) representing our ideas of the physical world, this abstraction reveals a search for the spiritual. The exhibition pointed to Theosophy (and other strains of esoteric wisdom) as a leading impulse for this search, particularly for artists such as Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, who are considered the fathers of abstract art. The essential idea was that if the search in art was to express the spiritual, which is formless, only abstract forms could serve that purpose by avoiding the distractions and limitations of concrete objects. This kind of art tried to make visible what cannot be seen, although it can be experienced. Since the time of Mondrian and Kandinsky in the early twentieth century, the Theosophical influence has become more dispersed in a variety of currents from New Age to Zen.

With notable exceptions such as the Los Angeles exhibition, the absence of spiritual study is the norm in milieus where art is usually taught and practiced. (I can testify to this, having taught in such environments for over forty years and found that the subject is virtually taboo.) A sense of the spiritual is absent from the social establishment of collectors, critics, and museums that is responsible for formulating the public perception of "good art." The establishment's valuation mostly reflects a materialistic view of artists and artifacts, focused on their market value. Academic art history, on the other hand, generally examines its subject through visual analysis of form and style rather than through the ideas that lie behind them. Since they tend to overlook the spiritual interests of artists, scholars and historians who have discussed this relationship generally prove to have only a superficial knowledge of Theosophy and similar currents. Therefore they can offer no insight into the phenomenon, nor can they understand the values and controversies that surround this material.

At last we have a book that looks into the fusion of Theosophy and art from an author who has substantial knowledge of both. Marty Bax's work is presently available only in Dutch [redundant, as already included at the beginning]. This scholarly 600-page work examines the complex web of factors in the relationship between art and spirituality. Bax saw a real need to study the ideas that generated this interest, the social context in which it took place, and the various effects it had on individuals and groups in Theosophy, art, and culture. Her methodology underscores the need for other art historians to use a similar approach if they are to offer any genuine understanding of the subject.

Rather than limiting her discussion to "fine art" (painting and sculpture), Bax also includes architecture and design on the premise that these disciplines not only have equal value but influence one another, especially from an esoteric perspective. The unfortunate intellectual tendency to separate design from fine art represents a gross misunderstanding that ignores the intention behind the artifact. Instead it imposes value based on function in society, implying that "fine art" is the "highest" way to practice art, while architecture or "applied" or "decorative" art (metal and ceramic work, furniture and product design, book and graphic design, etc.) is "lower" because of its commercial or functional intent. But spirituality does not limit its perspective to a single mode of expression. From a Theosophical perspective, both the creative artifact and the artist himself are vahanas ("vehicle" for the spiritual in Sanskrit)—an idea that comes to light in this book and which was a major theme for some of the figures discussed here.

Although this book focuses on Dutch artists and their culture in the first half of the twentieth century, one can draw further inferences from it about how esotericism has affected art in general. Because I am of Dutch origin, I felt that I could relate more easily than the non-Dutch to the social, geographic, and historical issues described here, and was at first somewhat critical of portions in the study that appeared too detailed for a non-Dutch audience. However, the more I read, the more I valued such details, which enable even non-Dutch readers to understand the larger context of the ideas and insights discussed. In any event, the picture goes far past Dutch art as such, if only because Dutch artists played such a preeminent international role in this period, especially in design.

The author has tried not only to understand Theosophy but to grasp how Theosophists think and live, as well as how this has influenced the practice of art and its social environment. The book presents the underpinnings of ideas that led up to the interest in Theosophy: the social and ideological context; connections to freethinkers such as Baruch Spinoza; the Freemasons; and parallel trends in art in other countries (especially French Symbolism).

Bax goes on to show how artists shared Theosophical ideas among themselves and how these ideas manifested through individuals and groups. A main example of the latter is the Vahana Lodge of the Dutch TS, created specifically (though not exclusively) for those interested in art, design, and architecture. Mathieu Lauweriks, a principal advocate of both Theosophy and Theosophical theory in art, taught ideas ranging from cell and geometric systems (especially sacred geometry) to asymmetry and organics as vitalizing principles (Fohat, kundalini) for creation and unity. These esoteric elements influenced design styles, including the famous Amsterdam School of architecture and its creator, H. P. Berlage, who is generally considered the father of Dutch modern architecture, but whose Theosophical influence is usually overlooked.

Bax goes into some detail about three painters and their Theosophical interests: Herman Heijenbroek saw the blue-collar worker as a Promethean transformer of raw matter and sought to inspire this social group through his paintings; Janus de Winter saw his work as a visionary vehicle derived from the astral perspective; and Piet Mondrian, utilizing the underlying principles of cosmo/anthropogenisis, offered a glimpse of this ultimately invisible cosmic web. Bax does not, however, limit her study to those recognized by the art establishment but includes lesser-known artists, whose influences were nonetheless considerable, and describes how their work was accepted or rejected socially. She does the same for architecture and design, and how these affected each other.

Ultimately, this study reveals how a Theosophical orientation, based on freethinking and diversity, produced many different forms of expression, making it difficult to speak of "Theosophical art," since no iconography, form, or style entirely fits such categorization. Frequently artists were active in multiple disciplines (one reason Bax was compelled to cover the full panorama of art). This diversity becomes apparent through her case studies—an approach that also makes it easier to understand the influence of Theosophy on specific artists.

I found this to be an absorbing and insightful book that should be of value to all who want to understand the interface between Theosophy and art, and how this phenomenon helped shape the social environment and affected the future of modern art. The book's clarity, thoroughness, and cohesion are exemplary. They make me hope that this work, which deserves the attention of Theosophists, artists, and art experts alike, will become available in English soon.

Thomas Ockerse

This reviewer is professor of graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design, a third generation Theosophist, and Life Member of the Theosophical Society. He served as Eastern Regional Director and on the Pumpkin Hollow board, and lectured at various centers here and abroad on the relationship of Theosophy and art.