After Hilma af Klint: the influence of Theosophy on contemporary art

Thought-Forms -Fig. 30. At a Shipwreck. Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater - Wiki Creative Commons
Over a century after its inception, the central tenets of Theosophy continue to resurface in art created today.
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Starting from the late 1960s, and especially since the publication of the ground­ breaking book by Sixten Ringbom, The Sounding Cosmos (1970), there has been a considerable amount of research on the relationship between Theosophy, or more generally alternative spirituality, and modern art. Important books and essays have been published, major retrospectives have been held, and large research projects such as ‘Enchanted Modernities’ have been funded. Although there may still be differen­ces of opinion regarding the extent of Theosophy’s influence on the origins of abstract art, and on the development of the early twentieth­ century avant­garde, it would be naïve for an art historian today to deny that such an influence existed at all. Hilma af Klint has played a paradigmatic role in this story. Whereas it had been possible for some critics and art historians to minimise the extent of the influence of Theosophy on other early representatives of abstract or non­mimetic art, such as Kandinsky and Mondrian, things were different with af Klint. Given that her work was ‘discovered’ more recently, it has always been clear that esoteric ideas were crucial in her artistic output. Evidently, without considering this, it would be impos­sible to fully understand what she was doing or why she was doing it. The context of her ‘discovery’ was quite indicative of this, since it happened on the occasion of the groundbreaking 1986 exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The growing appreciation of af Klint as a key figure for early twentieth ­century art has perhaps helped indirectly to better understand the importance of Theosophy and alternative spirituality for the artists who were her contemporaries and who had always received most attention from critics and historians.

However, if the picture for the first half of the twentieth century is now clearer, much less research has been done on the influence of Theosophy on the arts after the Second World War, and more particularly on contemporary art. This may be due to a number of factors. Firstly, there is the idea that, whereas Theosophy was a very progressive, innovative, and dynamic movement at the turn of the twentieth cen­tury, it lost much of its momentum – and therefore its broad cultural impact – after the Second World War. And secondly, contemporary art has been perceived as being essentially secular and uninterested in religion or spirituality. There might be a certain amount of truth in both assumptions, but an observation of recent develop­ments and trends shows they cannot be accepted without some serious qualification. In the post­war period, the Theosophical movement may have lost some of the appeal it previously had for high­profile intellectuals, artists, and writers, but, in recent years, it has received renewed attention from scholars. In recent years, it has also become clear that alternative spirituality, esotericism, and other forms of religi­osity have become attractive sources of inspiration for contemporary artists. A deeper retrospective look would show this was already happening in earlier periods after the Second World War, but these influences were simply ignored or neglected because they were considered irrelevant or not in line with a certain ‘progressive’ image of art.

Not only is it easy to find contemporary artists deeply interested in spirituality, it is also possible to find specific references to Theosophy in the works of some of them – certainly an interesting phenomenon in itself. What I will do in this essay is to examine what contemporary artists are doing with concepts and visual materials that are similar and closely related – if not identical – to the ones af Klint was dealing with in her own time. What kind of presence do these materials have in contempo­rary art? And what is their function? I will present some examples of contemporary artists and curators working with themes related to Theosophy, and I will discuss the main implications of their influence. But before I do that, it is necessary to offer some preliminary clarifications about the framework of my analysis and its concepts.

The first point concerns the kind of contemporary art I am referring to. It is important to be aware that the concept of ‘contemporary art’ has been defined in a variety of ways, especially when it comes to its chronological boundaries. In a very general sense, it would be logical to understand ‘contemporary art’ as all the art produced now, anywhere in the world. But this would be too restrictive and too broad at the same time. Too restrictive, because with such a narrow understanding of ‘contemporary’, the same artist who was producing art twenty years ago and is still alive today would be contemporary and not contemporary at the same time. Too broad, because not all art produced today becomes part of what we can call the system, or the establishment, of contemporary art.

With respect to the first problem, some have suggested a starting point in the 1960s. Others have proposed 1989 as a better chronological landmark, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War era. We do not need to solve the matter here. For the purpose of this essay, we can simply refer to artists active today, aged between thirty and sixty. They are typically in mid­-career and have already enjoyed a significant degree of recognition.

With respect to the second problem, it is important to keep in mind that ‘contem­porary art’ does not refer here only to the purely material production of an artistic work, but also to an establishment – one that is not centralised or vertical, but rather looks like a global network. It is made of places (public and private galleries, muse­ums), persons (gallery directors, critics, curators, collectors), and publications (journals, catalogues, monographs). This establishment is extremely selective, in the sense that it discriminates – sometimes on the basis of explicit criteria and categories, sometimes more mysteriously – between art that is recognised as such, and is worthy of being exhibited and discussed in that context, and art that has less or no relevance, therefore falling outside the radar of established critics and curators. This establish­ment produces what we can define here as ‘fine art’, as opposed to, for instance, religious art, commercial art, or tourist art.

The establishment of ‘contemporary art’ possesses an enormous social capital. It is a system in which prestige and economic resources are in a constant relationship of mutual reinforcement. This is of course a broad generalisation, and it is important to realise there are different artistic networks that coexist, often with a significant degree of overlap. The case of art brut is a typical example of this, if not even of an intentional blurring of boundaries from art critics and curators. But in any case, the artists I will be discussing in this essay can all be said to belong to the establishment of contemporary art, in the sense that they have been exhibited in prestigious public or private galleries, have been invited to participate in world­ famous art events such as the Venice Biennale or Documenta, and have been talked or written about by reputed art critics.

It is in this sense that I refer to these artists as being representative of a particular trend in contemporary art. There is an important distinction to be made here between the presence of Theosophical themes in contemporary art on the one hand, and ‘Theosophical art’ on the other, the latter being art produced by members or sympathisers of the movement, typically illustrative of Theosophical teachings, and usually displayed in a Theosophical context. A good example of this are the paintings of the Italian Theosophist Bernardino Del Boca recently displayed in a retrospective exhibition in the Italian city of Novara.

I should add that the distinction does not necessarily imply a value judgment, although the establishment of contemporary art subsists on the assumption that being successful within it, with all that it entails in terms of visibility, social prestige, and economic value, is in itself indicative of artistic quality. Art’s boundaries, inclu­ ding those between art and non­art, and those between good art and bad art, can shift significantly over time. The reason I will focus on establishment artists is because their status within the establishment can tell us something about the way in which Theosophical ideas and practices can be influential today in such a highly competitive and culturally significant context.

Another point that needs to be clarified is how strict we want to be when we talk about the Theosophical movement. The history of the Theosophical movement is full of schisms, with the parent tree of the society founded in 1875 dividing itself into several branches and splinter groups. It thus makes more sense, in this context, to talk about the Theosophical movement in general, rather than more specifically of a single Theosophical Society. I use here therefore a rather broad concept of the movement, which ties in with that of ‘Theosophical current’ as used in the recent handbook on Theosophy edited by Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein.

A final point concerns the kind of influence to take into consideration: are we going to look at artists who refer explicitly to some aspect of Theosophy in their works, or also artists who do not refer explicitly to Theosophy, but are known to have an interest in it? This distinction does not make sense only for contemporary art, of course. With Hilma af Klint we have the example of an artist whose works are often quite explicit about their esoteric meaning, both from a visual point of view, and from the titles assigned to them. On the other hand, if we take the case of Piet Mondrian, we know he was deeply immersed in Theosophy, but explicit references to it in his art are very rare, and limited to his pre-­abstract, figurative works. It makes sense of course to interpret these works in the light of his interest in Theosophy, but we know about this interest primarily through his biography, not through the works themselves. Since this a first foray into the influence of Theosophy on contemporary art, I think it is more useful to focus on cases where references to Theosophy are explicit.

Although I would like to focus here on artists who are in their mid­-career today, it would be quite easy to think of earlier examples of well­-known artists, already active in the 1950s or 1960s, known to have had an interest in Theosophy or Anthroposophy. A few names will suffice: the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, the experimental film­maker Harry Smith, the Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys, and the pain­ter and architect Paul Laffoley. Laffoley is particularly interesting; not only has he obtained recognition from the art establishment in recent years, he also, unlike the aforementioned artists, refers explicitly to Theosophy in his work. For instance, in 1993 he used the concept of thought forms for an installation (A Maquette for a Thought Form). A retrospective of his work held in 1999 at the Austin Museum of Art and Design was also significantly titled Architectonic Thought Forms: A Survey of the Art of Paul Laffoley, 1968–1999. This shows he was using the Theosophical concept of thought forms already in the 1990s, well before the concept was rediscovered by a younger generation of artists.

Moving on to more recent times, we find the UK­based artist Goshka Macuga, born in Poland in 1967. Macuga’s practice is based, among other things, on histori­cal archive research, and on a critical re­reading of particular episodes in the history of art. In 2007 she produced a life­-size sculpture titled Madame Blavatsky. It shows the founder of the Theosophical Society in New York in a deep trance, suspended over the back of two chairs. For the historian of western esotericism the image is puzzling, because even if Blavatsky was believed by her followers to possess real psychic powers – and was suspected by her detractors to use stage magic tricks – there is no evidence she ever engaged in such spectacular practices. Perhaps the intention of the artist is to convey a sense of ambiguity between a display of real mental power and the use of a trivial stage magic trick. The work does not refer to particular teachings or ideas; it simply presents Blavatsky as an icon, recognising the complexity of her charismatic, but also controversial, personality. I have not found any statement of the artist in relation to this particular work, so it is difficult to know what was her thinking in choosing Blavatsky as a subject.

We find another direct reference to Blavatsky in one of the works of Mexican architect and artist Santiago Borja (b. 1970). In 2015, Borja produced a site­specific installation called AMental Image– Blavatsky Observatory on the rooftop of Sonneveld House in Rotterdam, a classic example of Dutch modernist architecture, now a museum. Borja’s intention was to create a quiet space for meditation, with an astro­ logical chart on the surface of the terrace and an open wooden structure on top of it. The reference to Blavatsky, and more generally to Theosophy, in this particular context was far from being casual. Rather, Borja’s interest in the early development of architectural modernism and functionalism in the Netherlands is connected to the deep influence that Theosophy had on them. Sonneveld House was designed in 1933 by Dutch architects Johannes Andreas Brinkman and Leendert Cornelis van der Vlugt, whose profound interest in Theosophy has been documented. They also designed the main building of the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Amsterdam. For Borja, the intervention on Sonneveld House was a way to explore some lesser­known aspects in the history of modernist architecture.

In Borja’s own words:

Blavatsky was a strong advocate of a modern universalist brotherhood and the Theosophical Society was an inclusive group, where everybody was accepted regardless of gender, political and religious affiliation. […] Maybe this is too good to be true, but if it was really true, for me this is quite a revolutionary thing, and it planted the seed, not only for social utopias but also for modern universalist app­ roaches in art and design […]. I have the feeling that this kind of idea allowed certain architects such as those involved in the Bauhaus or even Le Corbusier, to try to find a way for architecture that could solve, for example, the housing problem all over the planet without considering climate or socio­political or even economic differences.

For Borja, the reference to Theosophy finds its justification in the desire, as a practi­cing architect and artist, to appreciate the historical role it has had in addressing social problems and developing new forms of expression.

The other three artists I would like to discuss are the Dane Lea Porsager (b. 1981), the Swede Christine Ödlund (b. 1963), and the Dutch Jennifer Tee (b. 1973). Like Hilma af Klint, all three are women, all three are from northern Europe, and all three have referred to Theosophy in their work, particularly the concept of thought forms, which seems to have become fashionable again in recent years.

Porsager studied art at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen and at the Städtelschule in Frankfurt. For her participation in Documenta 13, in Kassel in 2012, she prepared a work titled Anatta Experiment, based on a retreat of a week with a group of female friends at Casa Anatta, on Monte Verità near Ascona, Switzerland. This is a place that hosted a diverse community of pacifists, vegetarians, nudists, anarchists, mystics, and more generally, lebensreformers [life reformers] in the first decades of the twentieth century. Porsager’s experiences served as the basis for a video and an installation. The interest in the fascinating story of Monte Verità already brought Porsager close to the Theosophical movement. But in her sub­ sequent work, How to Program and Use T-F, in 2013, references to Theosophy become even more explicit. The exhibition, held at the Fotografisk Center in Copenhagen, consisted of an installation, where several objects were presented as ‘T­F’, which stands for ‘thought forms.’ It was Porsager’s interest in this concept that led the curator Carolyn Christov­-Bakargiev to invite her to participate in the 14th Istanbul Biennale in 2015, with the special task of recreating, or in fact channelling, the original drawings of thought forms. We will return to Christov­-Bakargiev and her Istanbul Biennale later.

Christine Ödlund is another artist who has worked consistently over a long period on themes related to western esotericism, and particularly Theosophy. She works with sound, installations, and drawings. It is interesting to note that she is quite familiar with af Klint’s work, and has participated in a collective art project produ­ced by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, consisting of nine responses to af Klint’s art made by contemporary artists.

Like Porsager, Ödlund also produced an installation based on thought forms, but in her case we see the intention of being more faithful to the original images from Besant and Leadbeater’s book. Her installation is clearly inspired by the thought form of Charles Gounod’s music, one of the most famous images from the book. Her other works include a very interesting piece of music made with water glasses called Astral Bells. This is a clear reference to Blavatsky, and to the sound her followers (such as A.P. Sinnett) claimed was sometimes heard in her presence.

According to Ödlund:

[My work] is a homage to Madame Blavatsky and refers to the sounds of astral bells, sounds that were somehow connected to the process of Blavatsky’s creative thinking. This acoustic phenomena resembling the sound made when stroking the rim of a glass was something Blavatsky could not explain, although she was confident that it had a yet not explored scientific reason.

The Dutch artist Jennifer Tee also works with various media, such as installations and performances, and has often included references to western and eastern spirituality in her works. Around 2013 she produced a series of ceramic urns. According to the exhibition brochure, these ‘coiled ceramic totems recall flower forms while resembling the bodily interior, and some contain small cavities filled with sands, spices, corporeal matter, or nothing at all. Fraught with associations, they stand like monuments to grave ideas and imply the conduction of a mystical force.’ Each of these urns carries a specific name impressed on it, and forms a couple with another, so that the two names can be read in combination with each other. The names are quite suggestive: ‘Heart Ferment’, ‘Love Spells’, ‘Oracle Bones’, ‘Practical Magic’, ‘Pickled Ovaries’, ‘Wild Patience’, ‘Spirit Matter’, ‘Occult Geometry’. And we also find ‘Thought Forms’ among them, a clear reference to the Theosophical concept, even if, to my knowledge at least, the artist has not explicitly expressed an interest in Theosophy.

With both Macuga and Borja – and Macuga in particular – we perceive a desire to explore a neglected history, even with its own ambiguities and fractures. But whe­ reas with Macuga, and perhaps also with Tee, we remain on an apparent level of irony and playfulness, with Borja, the positive appreciation of the cultural legacy of Theosophy leads him to create a new space in the modernist architecture of Sonneveld House, revitalising its link to Theosophical principles. His installation could simply have been a means to awaken the curiosity of visitors to the relevance of Theosophy to modern architecture; but it could also be used as a space for medita­tion, while its astrological symbolism might have referred to the attraction of posi­tive cosmic energies.

With Porsager, Ödlund, and Tee the concept of thought forms also seems to be a reference to a particular history, which can take on its full meaning only if viewers are also aware of it, and are able to situate the reference in its particular, original context. The reference seems to be an implicit message of appreciation for the role Theosophy has had in fostering artistic creativity in the early twentieth century. At the same time, these three artists do not consider thought forms as purely archival material: they are willing to play creatively with possible new aspects of them.

An investigation of the presence of Theosophy in contemporary art cannot limit itself to the work of artists, but should look also at the role of curators. This is a significant difference to the examination of the influence of Theosophy on early twentieth­-century art, because the curator did not have then the central role it has in the art world today. For this reason, it is important to realise that the renewed atten­tion towards alternative spirituality and esotericism that has emerged in recent years is also the result of the interest of influential curators. We find a very signifi­cant example of this as early as 1978, when one of the most celebrated art curators of the twentieth century, the German Harald Szeemann, produced a ground­breaking exhibition, Le mammelle della verità [The breasts of truth], based on the history of the Monte Verità Lebensreform community.

More recently, large collective exhibitions such as Documenta 13 (2012) and the 55th Venice Biennale (2013) showed, even in their concepts, an interest in alternative forms of knowledge, including esotericism and Theosophy. As mentioned, the cura­tor of Documenta 13 was Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who is now the director of one of the two major institutions for contemporary art in Turin, Italy: the Castello di Rivoli. In 2015 Christov-Bakargiev curated the 14th Istanbul Biennale, which refer­ red to the concept of thought forms in its very title: Salt Water: A Theory of Thought Forms. This is how she explained the reference to Theosophy in the exhibition:

Theosophist Annie Besant saw ‘thought forms’ as embodied entities of the imagi­nal realm, visible and vibrating states of what remains generally invisible – forms of the real world that can be apprehended through intense awareness, meditation and attention. A number of drawings, paintings, installations, films, objects, books, collaborations, and research­-based events will be viewable as thought forms – waves or oscillating patterns of repeating and differing lines that structure and enfold all forms of transference of energy – from brain waves to shockwaves after an explosion, from sound waves and waves of water to electromagnetic waves of different lengths and frequencies, including radio waves and light.

For this exhibition Christov­Bakargiev asked Lea Porsager to produce a new set of thought forms inspired by the original ones included in the 1905 book by Besant and Leadbeater.

Another relevant exhibition is A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of Occultism in Dublin, curated by the Irish curator and artist Pádraic Moore at the Dublin City Gallery in 2014. Here again, the reference to Theosophy is already clear in the title, since A Modern Panarion is none other than the title of a posthumous anthology of writings by Blavatsky, first published in 1895. For his exhibition, Moore put together works that for him had some affinity with the preoccupations and interests of late nine­teenth and early twentieth­-century Theosophists. It was in that sense an opportu­nity to reflect on the forgotten history of the Theosophical Society in Ireland, and to become aware of its relevance for understanding not only artistic, but also social, cultural, and political developments in that period.

What is interesting about both Salt Water and A Modern Panarion, is that, with a few exceptions (such as Porsager’s notable one), the featured artists do not refer explicitly to Theosophy in their work. The connection is therefore mostly concep­ tual, and depends on the curator’s sensitivity or vision. This shows how an examina­ tion of the presence of Theosophy in contemporary art cannot be limited by considering only single artworks, or even single artists.

What can we conclude from this only too brief survey of the presence of Theosophy in contemporary art? A few considerations are in order. The first is that there seems to be a predominance of women contemporary artists who refer to Theosophy. This may be a first impression, given by an insufficient sample of cases. However, it seems quite likely that this apparent predominance is probably significant. It is not so diffi­cult to imagine why this would be so. One of the Theosophical movement so interes­ting and relevant is precisely its role in fostering and promoting social and cultural emancipation for women. The example not only of charismatic leaders such as Blavatsky and Besant, but also of extraordinarily creative women artists such as Hilma af Klint, can be extremely inspirational for women artists today.

A second point is that contemporary artists tend to use Theosophical material derived from the early history of the movement, that is, directly from Blavatsky or from Besant and Leadbeater’s 1905 book Thought-Forms. This is understandable, in the sense that this is the period in which the cultural and social influence of the movement was at its zenith. This influence never disappeared completely in later periods, but after the affirmation of the artistic avant­gardes in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the power of attraction of Theosophy on artists seems to gradually lower its voltage. As I have mentioned, a significant amount of literature and several major exhibitions have focused on this period, which means that know­ ledge about it is easily available to contemporary artists.

A further point, related to the previous one, concerns the way in which Theosoph­ical material is handled by contemporary artists. Here we notice that painting, which was so important to the reception of Theosophical ideas during the early his­ tory of the movement, has been mostly replaced by other media, such as installations and performances, which are typical of the new languages or media of contemporary art. This can lead us to an interesting comparison to the way in which Theosophy influenced artists at the time of the early twentieth­-century avant­-gardes. For many artists at the time Theosophy acted as a very powerful stimulus to revolutionise the language of art, especially the creation of abstraction. This does not seem to be the case in contemporary art. Installations and performances may be seen as new media with respect to more traditional forms of art, but they have been legitimised and institutionalised by the art establishment throughout the twentieth century, and certainly cannot be seen as revolutionary or innovative today. Contemporary artists using them, even when they make reference to Theosophy or other forms of alterna­tive spirituality, are not doing something comparable to the early painters of abstraction in the early years of the twentieth century. They are rather inscribing themselves into what has become a solid, recognised tradition of artistic expression. If we want to find a meaning for the use of Theosophy in contemporary art, we need to find it somewhere else. It is the desire to reenact a story that is perceived as extremely significant, because of its social, cultural, psychological, and even political implications. There is therefore a historical consciousness that tries to reactivate certain meaningful moments of the past, possibly as part of an implicit criticism of the present. This seems to be evident not only for the work of individual artists, but also, and perhaps even more, in the work of the art curators who are creating Theosophically­-inspired frameworks for their exhibitions.

Furthermore, it appears that some contemporary artists engage with Theosoph­ical material not out of purely artistic or aesthetic concerns, but also as part of a personal search for meaning. This goes beyond seeing Theosophy as a significant historical episode worthy of exploration for its cultural or social influence, but also offers methods for experimenting with the self or with the perception of reality. This does not mean, however, that artists perceive this material, and the work related to it, as ‘religious’. The establishment of contemporary art is notoriously reluctant to use such a concept, and it is rare to see established artists presenting themselves as committed religionists. However, the rhetoric of esotericism is less of a problem, because it insists very much on the need to experience things by oneself rather than believing in anything validated by an institutional authority. In this sense, the spiri­tual seeker fits the contemporary art establishment much better than the religionist, because a search for the spiritual side of reality can be easily translated into a philo­sophical search for meaning. And, if there is one thing that our post­-secular, liquid societies seem to crave today, it is indeed meaning.

The role of academic research should also be mentioned here. If the presence of Theosophical motifs in contemporary art could be said to be mainly motivated by a desire to reactivate the cultural, social, and aesthetic energy emanating from the Theosophical movement in the early decades of the twentieth century, we can also draw conclusions about the awareness of the same. It is clear that the renewed inte­rest in Theosophy depends to a significant extent on the recent formation of an academic field focusing on western esotericism, and more particularly on Theosophy. In other words, if contemporary artists find it meaningful to refer to Theosophy in their work, it is probably also because a new perception of the historical relevance of the Theosophical movement has emerged, both in academia and in large retro­spective exhibitions. In this sense, the presence of Theosophy in contemporary art today is part of a broader desire to question fundamental aspects of western culture, by referring to alternative options, and more generally esotericism.

In conclusion, we can find perhaps fewer traces of revolutionary or ‘pioneering’ approaches in contemporary art inspired by Theosophy than in the early twentieth century. But, especially in the case of artists such as Porsager, Ödlund, and Borja, there is at least what I would call, with Ernst Bloch, the ‘principle of hope’. That principle that pushes human beings towards evolution, change and improvement. It is not a rational impulse, because it often works through utopia, inspiration and sudden illumination. But to the principle of hope I would add another principle, that of resistance, based on the subjective feeling of not being able to accept what is given in sensible, perceptible reality; and on the idea that a jump towards other forms of reality is necessary to nourish and fulfil hope. Thirdly, I would add that these prin­ciples, as they can be observed in contemporary art, whether inspired by Theosophy or not, are usually found in combination with a desire for continuity. This is the subjective feeling of being part of a larger story, which has begun in the past and will continue in the future through and thanks to us. This is the historical awareness that can be seen in explicit references to the past history of Theosophy, especially when this history has mixed so creatively and energetically with that of modern art.

This essay originally appeared under the title Afterthought forms: Theosophy in Modern and Contemporary Art, in Hilma Af Klint: Visionary, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in association with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit, 2020.

Marco Pasi

Marco Pasi is Associate Professor in the History of Hermetic philosophy and related currents at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). He has published extensively on modern Western esotericism, especially in relation to art, sexuality, and politics, and is the author of Aleister Crow­ley and the Temptation of Politics (Routledge, 2014).

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