Innocence and Decadence: Flowers in Northern European Art 1880-1914

Innocence and Decadence: Flowers in Northern European Art 1880-1914

Chichester: Pallant House Gallery 1999. Paperback, 116 pages.

This catalog of an exhibit shown in the Netherlands, England, and France (kindly called to our attention by Paul Zwollo) reproduces stunning works of art in several media with accompanying text and background essays. The works depicted in this volume are especially noteworthy for their symbolic and specifically Theosophical associations. The introductory essay "Flowering Symbols," by Mary Bax, comments (13-6):

Between 1888 and 1891 artists developed a complex and revolutionary theory of art as a result of ideological skirmishes with one of the most important new esoteric movements of their time, Theosophy….

Because of its exoticism and universalism, the Theosophical Society, which was particularly active in France between 1883 and 1890, became a melting pot of various esoteric currents that already existed in France but which under the influence of the new Theosophical movement's dynamism gained new elan, emancipated itself and subsequently exerted great attraction on artists. These movements included Rosicrucianism, Swedenborgianism, Cabbalism and Freemasonry, and even all sorts of manifestations of the Christian faith. The mutual interchangeability of the ideas that were circulating can only be explained when one realises that they all belonged to the age-old tradition of Theosophy, which the Theosophical Society was trying to breathe new lifeinto.

As a result of the resurgence of esotericism, forms of "primitive Christianity" also gained recognition. Not only did this include Byzantine Christianity (the first, institutionalized form of Christianity), but also ecumenicism, such as was originally meant by the word "katholikos" (in other words, Christian "universal brotherhood").

Among the typical Theosophical characteristics that Bax identifies as relevant to the art of this period are the unity of all existence, the impersonality of ultimate Reality, the law of analogies or correspondences, simplicity as the earmark of truth, an emphasis on personal mystical experience of spiritual reality, an esoteric doctrine or "inner learning," and an emphasis on Eastern, Neoplatonic, ancient, and primitive cultures. In the Netherlands, a group of artists including Frans Zwollo founded the Theosophical Vahana Lodge for artists, which taught courses in design and esthetics and eventually developed a variant of Art Nouveau called "New Art," which emphasized geometrical representations of nature.

Working within this tradition of Theosophical metaphysics and nature were Jan Toorop, Pier Mondrian, Vincent van Gogh, and a great many less well known artists. Indeed, Bax reports that Theosophists dominated the various Netherlandic schools of applied arts, constituting more than half of their faculties.

This catalog depicts important examples of floral art from the movement, illustrated in full color, with commentary on the works symbolism and Theosophical significance.


March/April 2000