Mediumship, Eastern philosophy, and ancient healing rituals are practices that left their mark on many modern artworks. The influence of occultism and spiritualism on the development of modern art was especially significant. Here are 10 modern artists who took inspiration from the otherworldly realms including Wassily Kandinsky, Hilma af Klint, and Piet Mondrian.
1. Modern Artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944)
Kandinsky is perhaps the first artist that comes to mind when we think about abstract art. We now know that he was definitely not the first abstract artist, but nevertheless, he became one of the leading theoreticians of abstract art and spirituality. His most widely known book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, was an elaborate study of the connections between line, color, emotion, and the spiritual state of an artist. Kandinsky further disconnected art from tangible reality, placing it within its own realm.
The artist studied Russian folk tradition and beliefs, as well as Eastern philosophy and religious practices. Another aspect that contributed to his explorations of the spiritual was his synesthesia. Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon that triggers a mixed perception of different senses. This meant that Kandinsky was able to literally hear colors, lines, and textures.
2. Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944)
Mondrian is best known for his geometric abstractions. Still, the famous modern artist was also working on figurative art that was heavily inspired by the occult ideas circulating in Europe. Spirituality was important for Mondrian in all stages of his life. Mondrian was raised in a Protestant family, but during his time at the Amsterdam Art Academy, he became interested in theosophy, yoga, and meditation. One of the core concepts for theosophists was evolution. However, they applied it not only to the physical development of species but to the spiritual development of the human race. Mondrian’s 1911 painting titled Evolution illustrated that concept. It represents humanity surpassing the limits of the physical body, race, and gender.
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3. Hilma af Klint (1962 – 1944)
Hilma af Klint was forgotten for years until her art finally reached the audience. She created her astonishing art in solitude, guided by Higher Masters called Amaliel and Ananda. According to af Klint, these beings contacted her during a spiritual seance, telling her that she had a mission of bringing sacred knowledge to the people of her world. Her paintings were part of coded messages and she explained their meanings in her numerous notebooks. Her works were meant to serve as diagrams of intangible and otherworldly processes.
Hilma af Klint’s most famous project was called Paintings for the Temple. Almost two hundred paintings were supposed to hang in a spiral-structured building that she designed. However, she never got to build it. In the end, her wish came true in a way when her works were exhibited in the famous spiral-shaped temple-like building of the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2018.
4. František Kupka (1871 – 1957)
Czech artist František Kupka was another important figure for the genesis of abstract art. His spiritualist path started way earlier than his artistic career. In his early teens, Kupka worked as an apprentice for a saddle maker. The older man was a devoted spiritualist and impressed young Kupka with stories about the cosmos and sacred geometry. Starting his career as a figurative artist, Kupka gradually moved towards total abstraction. He called his paintings color symphonies and explored the ways of expressing his inner state and turbulence through the harmonies of lines and colors. Just like many others on this list, Kupka experimented with mediumship and trance, seeking contact with the higher worlds.
5. Jeanne Jacquemin (1863 – 1938)
There is not much information on this mysterious French artist, but the remaining evidence about her life, work, and recognition is truly intriguing. The figures on her pastels can be seen as self-portraits, but also represent bodies that are quite androgynous. Androgyny was a concept popular among Symbolist artists, representing the next level of the development of the human soul, allowing it to surpass the biological and societal restrictions of sex and gender. Jacquemin even went as far as to implement her features into the drawing of the head of Jesus Christ which could have been understood as an outrageous act.
Although Jacquemin’s interest in various forms of occultism such as Occult Christianity and Rosicrucianism partially fueled her artistic progress and success, it could have harmed her as well. Some art historians believe Jacquemin’s art was deliberately swept under the rug because of her questionable occult alliances. In many sources, contemporaries described Jacquemin as a devoted Satanist who lived in a Satanic commune for a period of time.
6. Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967)
Johannes Itten was one of the main figures of the Bauhaus movement. He was the person behind many ideas on color theory that are still taught in art schools today. However, Itten thought that mysticism and exploration of the spiritual were as important for an artist as proper education and constant practice. Itten was a member of the Mazdaznan, a Zoroastrianism-based fire cult. During his Bauhaus years, Itten implemented Mazdaznan breathing exercises, gymnastics, and even a special diet to his teaching. There was, however, a darker side to it. Being a brand-new teaching originating in America, despite its disguise as an ancient Asian cult, Mazdaznan relied heavily on racism and directly proclaimed the spiritual superiority of people who were white. This idea did not sit well with many Bauhaus teachers and students, who were deeply interested in African and Asian art.
7. Nicholas Roerich (1874 – 1947)
Born in Saint Petersburg to a well-off German father and a Russian mother, Nicholas Roerich became interested in archaeology, Russian history, and folktales in his early years. Later on, his interest in religion and history would lead him away from Russia to the United States and then to India.
Already an accomplished artist, Roerich became widely known after his travels to India and explorations of Eastern philosophies and religions. Roerich went deep enough to found his own highly controversial spiritual teaching Agni Yoga, which combined Hindu philosophy with Western occult tradition. His most famous paintings show images of Buddhist and Hindu sacred sites, as well as scenes from Hindu mythology. Spiritual explorations aside, Roerich is also remembered as the person behind the so-called Roerich Pact, the treaty on the protection of cultural heritage during military conflicts.
8. Emma Kunz (1892 – 1963)
Emma Kunz considered herself a healer and medical practitioner. Her works were not supposed to be seen as artworks per se but as medical instruments and diagrams of spiritual knowledge. Kunz had no education or training apart from her time at a village school. She directly refused to read any other books other than a book on herbalism, however, she had an intelligent approach to her explorations of the spiritual. Kunz made most of her drawings using two pendulums, jade, and silver, which marked the trajectories and intersection points on the drawings. She then connected the marked areas, creating brightly-colored geometric patterns. While Kunz was open to explaining the meanings of her drawings to others, she never allowed anyone to take notes of these explanations.
9. Paul Ranson (1861 – 1909)
The French artist Paul Ranson was an educated skeptic and that is precisely the reason why he made it to this list. He was openly anti-clerical, being radically opposed to any religious authority, while at the same time studying religious texts and keeping a library that consisted of esoteric literature. Although it is unlikely that he was ever truly a believer, at different stages of his life he took inspiration from various spiritual and occult sources. He was interested in witchcraft, Christianity, Theosophy, and Satanism.
Ranson’s paintings were full of ancient Egyptian symbols, characters from Indian mythology, and nude witches. They were often decorative. Ranson used occult visuals as brightly-covered theater backdrops for exciting stories. In fact, he also made theater puppets.
10. Modern Artist Georgiana Houghton (1814 – 1884)
Just like Hilma af Klint decades later, Georgiana Houghton created automatic drawings, claiming that she was led by a spirit called Lenny along with seventy Archangels. As a result, she produced abstract compositions of interwoven lights decades before the word abstraction was ever applied to art.
Houghton’s reputation was spoiled by her association with the notorious photographer Frederick Hudson. Together with Houghton, Hudson made the so-called spirit photographs of deceased people lurking behind their living relatives. Both Hudson and Houghton were soon exposed as frauds. It became known that they were using double exposure or even appearing in photographs themselves to create an impression of another figure looming over their clients’ shoulders.