The Spiritual Origins of Early 20th Century Abstract Art

The pioneers of abstract art shared an engagement in modern esotericism, especially Theosophy, founding a new movement rooted in spirituality.

Feb 12, 2022By Adam J. Sacks, MA & PhD History, MS (High Honors), Phi Beta Kappa
abstract art origins theosophy hilma klint tree knowledge

 

The origins of abstract art are elusive and difficult to pinpoint, as this phenomenon spanned multiple artists working in different countries in approximately the same historical time period. (In a real-life instance of Jungian synchronicity, three of the crucial figures here to be discussed, af Klint, Kandinsky, and Mondrian, all died in the same year, 1944). Heavily influenced by modern esotericism to a degree not fully realized by informed observers, this mode of art marks a radical break from previous modernist innovations of both Impressionism and Expressionism. The origins of abstract art may be found not in a coherent movement, coordinated via manifesto, but rather due to the permeation of and engagement with spiritual concepts and discourses that had spread throughout the fin-de-siècle European bourgeoisie.

 

Parsifal as Spiritual Quest

parsifal series hilma klint opera illustration
Parsifal Series by Hilma Af Klint, 1913, via the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; with Parsifal A L’Opera, L’illustration,  Saturday, January 3, 1914, via monsalvat.no

 

Hilma Af Klint’s Parsifal series literally illustrates the progressive stages of a spiritual quest in the form of abstract, chromatic geometric shapes. The titular reference to Parsifal is revealing as that name is synonymous with the Arthurian legend and Wagner’s hybrid remix of this legend in this final opera, deemed a “play for the consecration of the stage,” (Bühnenweihfestspiel), premiered in 1883. The Holy Grail is, of course, the sine qua non of spiritual quest in West Christian tradition, and Wagner’s update controversially fused modern biopolitics, racial pseudo-science, and neo-paganism, along with a more traditional crusader logic in a manner that profoundly influenced the modern spiritual revival that took hold in the decades after his death and ultimately led to the advent of abstract art.

 

(Here is a full Parsifal performance)

(And here is a film about Parsifal and the Grail Quest)

 

Kandinsky, Theosophy, and Modernist Art

 

Are you enjoying this article?

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Vassily Kandinsky was long considered to be the pioneer of abstraction in modernist art. As one may observe in his early oeuvre, there is a clear transition from an expressionistic realism to a largely geometric and abstract style. Experts in the field have specifically focused upon the transition from his Improvisation XIV in 1910 to his Composition V in 1911. The latter work, for which Kandinsky used the term “absolute art,” appeared in the first Blaue Reiter exhibition of 1915. In these works, one may perceive the last remnants of readily identifiable figuration, e.g., horses or trees, and instead an entry into a visual world which at first glance appears entirely other and imaginary.

 

Kandinsky moved into the role of self-appointed apostle for abstract art, writing Concerning the Spiritual in Art, originally published in 1912. Using the logic of “lost and found,” Kandinsky wrote of a “spiritual revolution,” and a “spiritual food” of a “newly awakened spiritual life,” which no longer has a “material objective,” but rather “internal truth.”

 

wassily kandisky improvization xiv
Improvisation XIV by Vassily Kandinsky, 1910, via Centre Pompidou, Paris

 

He conceded that this large spiritual movement had taken material form in the Theosophical Society, which he presents as an inner knowledge-based spiritual movement. It is no coincidence that the “rediscovery” and development of these unseen spiritual realms occurred at the time of the marvelous scientific discoveries of radioactivity as well as the quantum/subatomic realms. Founded by his compatriot Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Theosophy purported to unveil sources of universal primeval wisdom, which had been later on channeled into the various world religious traditions (this notion is often mistakenly confused with the idea of perennialism, namely, that all religions teach the same truths).

 

Blavatsky authored two major works: Isis Unveiled of 1877 and Secret Doctrine of 1888. The foundations of this wisdom both predate human civilization and had remained hidden, hence esoteric. Applying a Darwinian logic of evolution, albeit in an inverted manner, Theosophy did incorporate the Atlantean and Lemurian myths with the corresponding notion that in previous eras, the antecedents of modern humans had been ethereal beings of almost pure spirit. Theosophy is rightly known for its appeal in a wide-ranging universalism, bringing spiritual notions of Asian religions such as karma and reincarnation to a wide audience in the West. Less known, however, is the direct link between Theosophy and the rise of abstract art.

 

Theosophy also served as an important vehicle for female emancipation, as evidenced in Af Klint’s engagement, and Blavatsky’s successor as movement leader was Anne Besant. She had been a major figure in Britain’s movement for suffrage and birth control. Finally, Theosophy subsequently gave rise to at least one hundred different esoteric movements in the twentieth century, all relying upon and making rather carefree use of the concept of “ascended masters.”

 

wassily kandisky composition v
Composition V by Vassiliy Kandinsky, 1911, via Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

In a concrete sense for the work of art itself, Kandinsky reimagined the entire basis for and interaction with the work of art for the human subject. He seized upon the notion of psychic effects and the spiritual vibrations emitted by the canvas. This was further embedded in a complex color schema, which linked colors and shades to specific psychic effects and associations, e.g. red as a flame, etc. Drawing a clear distinction with Impressionism, Kandinsky conceived of the spiritual in art as the process not of pure inspiration, but of conscious creation, wherein artists could serve as spiritual leaders. Thus for Kandinsky, as well as Af Klint, abstraction was not based on notions of the “void” or a cultural re-start, but rather an incredibly rich otherworldly spiritual architecture.

 

Spiritualism as a Forerunner of Abstract Art

klint auto drawing abstract spiritualism
A collective automatic drawing by The Five, Hilma af Klint’s spiritualist group, via the New York Times

 

Even before Kandinsky’s exposure to Theosophy, the earliest Russian society for which was founded in St Petersburg in 1908, Hilma af Klint in Sweden had already been steeped in a spiritualist circle in Sweden. Called The Five, the group engaged in automatic drawing via psychic transmission. Notable in these early works is the prevalence of organic and botanical forms. An early forerunner of Theosophy, spiritualism, begun in the first half of the 19th Century in upstate New York, was largely based around communing with the spirits of the dead via séances. This movement was heavily criticized by later spiritual movements like Theosophy and Christian Science as primitive, less evolved, and less enlightened. Indeed, spiritualism attracted several major artists. The Czech master of Art Nouveau, Alphonse Mucha, who was also a mason, did take some steps toward proto-abstraction in the fin-de-siècle. However, unlike Theosophy, spiritualism did not convey a concrete engagement with either world historical textual lineages or culturally legitimizing spirituality via specific wisdom traditions.

 

alphonse mucha le pater theosophy
Le Pater by Alphonse Mucha, 1899, via Google Arts & Culture

 

Anthroposophy 

 

A historical convergence point for Af Klint and Kandinsky was the association with Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical movement, an offshoot of Theosophy. Steiner, who had been the head of the German section of Theosophy, broke with the wider movement to redouble his focus on culturally specific European Christian symbols and discourses. Steiner was by no means the only Central European thinker wary of “Asiatic tendencies.” Writing about the female leaders of Theosophy in the early 1930s, Carl Jung himself compared such manifestations of Asiatic thought that appear to be “tiny, scattered islands in the oceans of mankind,” to “peaks of submarine mountain ranges of considerable size.”  (This break with the more original universalizing impulses has been later linked with proto-fascist tendencies in Central Europe.) Steiner’s methodical focus in Anthroposophy turned out to be much more practical than the textual bent in Theosophy. His movement gave rise to a series of innovations in a diverse set of fields, such as education (Waldorf Schools), dance (Eurythmics), and farming (biodynamic).

 

Af Klint had actually appealed to Steiner directly to provide the paintings for his soon to be constructed Anthroposophical world headquarters, the Goetheanum, in Dornach, Switzerland, completed in 1925. Though he refused this offer, one may notice a striking similarity between Steiner’s foundation stone for this building, and Af Klint’s paintings of this period, such as her Tree of Knowledge Series beginning in 1913.

 

foundation stone parchment steiner with tree knowledge klint
Tree of Knowledge, No. 1 by Hilma Af Klint, 1913, via the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; with Foundation Stone parchment by Rudolf Steiner, 20th September 1913, via fourhares.com

 

The reference to Christian motifs is self-evident, as is the approximation to scientific diagrams, a conceit of scientism is present in virtually all modern spiritual movements (in fact in what is thought to have been the only public exhibition of her works in her lifetime, occurred in the context of the World Conference on Spiritual Science in London, 1928). Though Af Klint would ultimately not serve as the house artist of Anthroposophy, she did hurl forth her efforts at the aesthetic adornment of a virtual, never-to-be-built temple in her Group X Altarpieces Series of 1915. Reminiscent of her Parsifal series, the pyramid icon clearly reflects spiritual evolution and elevation.

 

Hartley, Mondrian, and the Spirituality of Abstract Art

 

In almost the same time period, another artist, a lesser-known American, Madison Hartley, produced a strikingly similar work of spiritual exaltation, Raptus of 1913. The artist claimed the American philosopher of spiritual experience, William James, as a direct influence. Kandinsky’s color schematics may have inspired James in his text Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Similar to Af Klint, though, is that trinity-evoking use of the triangle, as well as an elevated canvas center point reflecting spiritual transcendence.

 

hartley marsden raptus abstract spiritualism mondrian title
Raptus by Marsden Hartley, 1913, via Currier Museum of Art, Manchester; with Composition in Colour A by Piet Mondrian, 1917, via Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo

 

A final artist to mention, universally recognized as both a pioneering abstractionist and Theosophist, is Piet Mondrian. He lived at the Theosophical headquarters in Paris in 1911, and upon his death in 1944, all the books and documents found around him related in some way to Theosophy. Like Kandinsky, he wrote and issued a kind of Theosophically-inspired manifesto entitled Le Néoplasticisme, and, like Af Klint, he directly reached out to Steiner for guidance and support. Found in Mondrian’s writings are familiar Theosophical themes such as evolutionism and the rapport between the macrocosm and the microcosm. By the second decade of the twentieth century, he was firmly convinced at the limitation of the symbol and the need to move into an aesthetic of an equally non-natural and non-man-made realm of greater balance, which we now casually refer to under the heading of “abstraction.”



Author Image

By Adam J. SacksMA & PhD History, MS (High Honors), Phi Beta KappaAdam J Sacks holds an MA, PhD from Brown University Department of History, an MS in Education from the City College of the City of New York, High Honors, and a College Scholar Bachelor of Arts from Cornell University, Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa. Adam is a cultural historian of Modern Europe with a passion for the politics of aesthetics, secularization and religious energies, cultural differences, and cultural crisis. A classical guitarist, part-time classical music reviewer and avid language learner (on his fifth), Adam publishes widely in a variety of platforms largely on matters pertaining to the politics of memory, public history, and cultural interpretation and criticism.