The Occult Roots of Modernism: Joséphin Péladan’s mystical a

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The Occult Roots of Modernism: Joséphin Péladan’s mystical a

Postby admin » Fri Apr 12, 2019 10:43 pm

The Occult Roots of Modernism: Joséphin Péladan’s mystical art exhibitions, in Paris, set the stage for everything from Kandinsky’s abstractions to Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker
June 19, 2017



Photograph by Walter Damry / RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

In the Paris of the early eighteen-nineties, at the height of the Decadence, the man of the moment was the novelist, art critic, and would-be guru Joséphin Péladan, who named himself Le Sâr, after the ancient Akkadian word for “king.” He went about in a flowing white cloak, an azure jacket, a lace ruff, and an Astrakhan hat, which, in conjunction with his bushy head of hair and double-pointed beard, gave him the aspect of a Middle Eastern potentate.

About Rules of the Salon de la Rose+Croix by Joséphin Péladan

He was in the midst of writing a twenty-one-volume cycle of novels, titled “La Décadence Latine,” which follows the fantastical adventures of various enchanters, adepts, femmes fatales, androgynes, and other enemies of the ordinary. His bibliography also includes literary tracts, explications of Wagnerian mythology, and a self-help tome called “How One Becomes a Magus.” He let it be known that he had completed the syllabus. He informed Félix Faure, the President of the Republic, that he had the gift of “seeing and hearing at the greatest distances, useful in controlling enemy councils and suppressing espionage.” He began one lecture by saying, “People of Nîmes, I have only to pronounce a certain formula for the earth to open and swallow you all.” In 1890, he established the Order of the Catholic Rose + Croix of the Temple and the Grail, one of a number of end-of-century sects that purported to revive lost arts of magic. The peak of his fame arrived in 1892, when he launched an annual art exhibition called the Salon de la Rose + Croix, which embraced the Symbolist movement, with an emphasis on its more eldritch guises. Thousands of visitors passed through, uncertain whether they were witnessing a colossal breakthrough or a monumental joke.

The spell wore off quickly. At the time of Péladan’s death, in 1918, he was already seen as an absurd relic of a receding age. He is now known mainly to scholars of Symbolism, connoisseurs of the occult, and devotees of the music of Erik Satie. (I first encountered Péladan in connection with Satie’s unearthly 1891 score “Le Fils des Étoiles,” or “The Son of the Stars”; it was written for Péladan’s play of that title, which is set in Chaldea in 3500 B.C.)

-- Erik Satie - Du fils des étoiles: Satie's music for Le Fils des étoiles (The Son of the Stars) comes from about the same period as his most famous work, the Three Gymnopédies. It shares with it the same modal flavour, sense of timelessness, and static quality. The music originated in a brief friendship with Joséphin Péladan, founder of a mystic organization called Rose + Croix du Temple et du Graal (Rose + Cross of the Temple and of the Grail). Péladan sought to effect a reconciliation between Catholicism and Rosicrucianism and was also affected by Wagnerian mysticism, particularly that of the opera Parsifal. Péladan appointed Satie the "official composer" of the Temple. It is likely that Péladan was attracted to the antique, mystic, and ritual quality of Satie's music. As such, Satie composed music for Le Fils des étoiles, a mystery-play. The original version was for flute and harp, but Satie published it as three preludes for piano. The music had elements of radicalism -- the harmonies were free-flowing, with no sense of a cadence. The lack of direction throughout the music suggests an eternal music that goes on outside the bounds of the composition as performed. Moreover, the music was notated without bar lines.

His contemporary Joris-Karl Huysmans remains a cult figure—“Against the Grain,” Huysmans’s 1884 novel, is still read as a primer of the Decadent aesthetic—but none of Péladan’s novels have been translated into English. So when an exhibition entitled “Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris, 1892-1897” opens at the Guggenheim Museum, on June 30th, most visitors will be entering unknown territory. The show occupies one of the tower galleries, in rooms painted oxblood red, with furniture of midnight-blue velvet. On the walls, the Holy Grail glows, demonic angels hover, women radiate saintliness or lust. The dark kitsch of the fin de siècle beckons.

For all the faded creepiness, the moment is worth revisiting, because mystics like Péladan prepared the ground for the modernist revolution of the early twentieth century. John Bramble, in his 2015 book, “Modernism and the Occult,” writes that the Salon de la Rose + Croix was the “first attempt at a (semi-)internationalist ‘religion of modern art’ ”—an aesthetic order with Péladan as high priest. In the years that followed, radical artistic thinking and obscure spiritual strivings intersected in everything from Kandinsky’s abstractions to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and the atonal music of Schoenberg. In Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” the “rough beast” that slouches toward Bethlehem, half man and half lion, is no metaphor. Classic accounts of modernism tended to repress such influences, often out of intellectual discomfort. In recent decades, though, fin-de-siècle mysticism has returned to scholarly vogue. In 1917, Max Weber said that the rationalization of Western society had brought about the “disenchantment of the world.” Péladan, and those who took up his mantle, wished to enchant it once again.

The occult mania that crested in the decades before the First World War had been intensifying throughout the nineteenth century. Its manifestations included Theosophy, Spiritism, Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism, Martinism, and Kabbalism—elaborations of arcane rituals that had been cast aside in a secular, materialist age. Reinventions or fabrications of medieval sects proliferated: the Knights Templar, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (the habitat of Yeats), and various Rosicrucian orders. Péladan belonged to the Rosicrucians, who, following sixteenth-century tracts of dubious authenticity, believed in alchemy, necromancy, and other dark arts. The more élite these groups became, the more they were prone to furious doctrinal disputes. In 1887, a feud broke out in Paris between Stanislas de Guaïta, of the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose + Croix, and Joseph Boullan, a defrocked priest who was rumored to have sacrificed his own child during a Black Mass. When Boullan died, in 1893, Huysmans accused Guaïta and Péladan of having killed him with black magic. In Huysmans’s 1891 novel, “Là-bas,” a character observes, “From exalted mysticism to raging Satanism is but a step.”

Péladan was born in Lyon, in 1858, into a family steeped in esoteric tendencies. His father, Louis-Adrien, was a conservative Catholic writer who tried to start a Cult of the Wound of the Left Shoulder of Our Saviour Jesus Christ. Péladan’s older brother, Adrien, was the author of a medical text proposing that the brain subsists on unused sperm that takes the form of vital fluid. When Adrien died prematurely, of accidental strychnine poisoning, his brother perpetuated his ideas, suggesting that the intellect can thrive only when the sexual impulse is suppressed. The political views of the Péladans were thoroughly reactionary; they disdained democracy and called for the restoration of the monarchy. Péladan differed from many other occultists in insisting that his Rosicrucian rhetoric was an extension of authentic Catholic doctrine, which Church institutions had neglected.

He made his name first as an art critic, railing against naturalism and Impressionism, both of which he considered banal. “I believe in the Ideal, in Tradition, in Hierarchy,” he declared. His model artist was Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, who rendered neoclassical subjects in a self-consciously archaic style, flattening perspectives and whitening colors. “What he paints has neither place nor time,” Péladan wrote. “It is from everywhere and always.” Yet he also had a taste for lurid, graphic imagery: the eerily glittering Salomé pictures of Gustave Moreau, the diabolical caricatures of Félicien Rops. Péladan singled out for praise Rops’s “Les Sataniques,” a series of etchings depicting visibly aroused demons penetrating and killing women.

Félicien Rops - "Le Calvaire".

Félicien Rops - "L'Enlèvement"

Péladan’s pendulum swings between piety and depravity were characteristic of his milieu, although in his case the oscillation was particularly extreme.

Rops provided frontispieces for several of the “Décadence Latine” novels, which began appearing in 1884. “The Victory of the Husband,” from 1889, is typical of the cycle, alternating between the lascivious and the ludicrous. The novel recounts the love of Izel and Adar: she, the adopted daughter of a wealthy Avignon priest; he, a young genius who defies the stupidity of the age. They are married, and honeymoon at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth. (Péladan had gone there in 1888, and was overwhelmed.) At a performance of “Tristan und Isolde,” Izel and Adar cannot restrain themselves and begin making love—a feat that will impress anyone who has endured Bayreuth’s hard-backed seats. “Tristan! Isolde!” the lovers cry onstage. “Adar! Izel!” the lovers murmur in the audience, possibly to the irritation of their neighbors. But they clash on the question of “Parsifal,” Wagner’s final opera. For Izel, it is too “chaste, sweet, and calm”; for Adar, it opens the door to a new mystic consciousness, to the realm of the Holy Grail. He goes to study with a sinister Nuremberg sorcerer named Doctor Sexthental, and drifts away from his bride. Sexthental, sensing an opportunity, projects himself astrally into Izel’s chambers, in the form of an incubus. The initiate defeats this incursion, but marital strife persists. Adar must renounce his powers—“I resign the august pentacle of the macrocosm”—to regain Izel’s love.

That tale is tame next to “The Androgyne” and “The Gynander,” both from 1891, in which Péladan delves into the world of same-sex love. The first depicts the coming-of-age of a feminine boy who seems destined to be gay—male classmates vie for him—but who escapes those desires by engaging in bouts of mutual exhibitionism with a mannish maiden. In the second novel, another androgyne, Tammuz, explores the lesbian underworld. He converts dozens of “gynanders”—Péladan’s preferred term for lesbians—to heterosexuality after he magically generates replicas of himself. As an orchestra plays Wagner, the women fall to worshipping a giant phallus. Even as gender roles are subverted, the dominance of the male is maintained: like so many male artists of his day, Péladan was profoundly misogynist. “Man puppet of woman, woman puppet of the devil” was one of his most widely quoted slogans.

Félicien Rops - "L'Idole"

In any other society, such material would have been unpublishable, but Péladan sparked little outrage in an environment that had assimilated Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Huysmans. Among impressionable youth, he had an appeal somewhat comparable to that of H. P. Lovecraft. Writers as various as Paul Valéry, André Gide, André Breton, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline read him with fascination, as did Le Corbusier. Verlaine generously summarized him as a “man of considerable talent, eloquent, often profound . . . bizarre but of great distinction.” Max Nordau, in his 1892 book, “Degeneration,” a mocking survey of fin-de-siècle culture, shows a soft spot for Péladan, declaring that “the conscious factor in him knows that [mysticism] is all nonsense, but it finds artistic pleasure in it, and permits the unconscious life to do as it pleases.” This is probably as strong a defense of Péladan’s writing as can be mounted.

The catalogue for the Guggenheim’s “Mystical Symbolism” show, which was curated by Vivien Greene, spends little time on Péladan’s literary career, focussing instead on his activities as an impresario. In the lead essay, Greene argues that Péladan’s flamboyant manifestos and mixed-media happenings anticipated avant-garde trends of the following century—notably, the “conception of the exhibition venue as a space for multidisciplinary performance and as an immersive aesthetic environment.” The Salons de la Rose + Croix, which unfolded in various galleries and halls around Paris, were designed less to present a coherent group of artists than to demonstrate art’s ability to transform the daily world. What Péladan took from Wagner, above all, was the idea that art could assume the functions of religion. “The artist is a priest, a king, a magus,” he proclaimed.

Péladan complicated his task by freighting the salons with often nonsensical regulations. He forbade history paintings, still-lifes, seascapes, “all humorous things,” and “all representations of contemporary life, private or public.” (Lest anyone miss the ban on naturalism, one poster for the salons showed a Perseus-like hero holding up the severed head of Zola.) Female artists were ostensibly excluded, “following Magical law,” although at least five women exhibited under pseudonyms—among them the poet and novelist Judith Gautier, who contributed a relief sculpture entitled “Kundry, Rose of Hell. Furthermore, Péladan alienated several leading figures, including Puvis de Chavannes, by prematurely announcing their participation.

Still, a number of significant Symbolists joined Péladan’s solemn circus, because many of his principles accorded with their own. Back in the mid-eighteen-eighties, the Greek-born poet Jean Moréas, who coined the term Symbolism, had renounced the depiction of concrete phenomena; Symbolist writers, he declared, gestured instead toward a primordial Idea, which could be conjured by “pure sounds,” “densely convoluted sentences,” and “knowingly organized disorder.” Michelle Facos and Thor Mednick, in their recent anthology “The Symbolist Roots of Modern Art,” observe that the Symbolists undermined conventional modes of representation in an effort to “access the divine directly.”

The most renowned member of the Rose + Croix group was the Belgian painter Fernand Khnopff, whom Péladan hailed as “the great argument of my thesis, in defense of the ideal.” Khnopff was an artist of exacting technique who emulated the severity of the old Flemish masters and the cool sensualism of the Pre-Raphaelites. In the eighties, he fell under Péladan’s sway and gravitated toward Symbolist fantasy. His best-known work, “The Caresses,” is inspired by Péladan’s play “Oedipus and the Sphinx”: a lithe, androgynous lad snuggles with a creature who has a Pre-Raphaelite head and a cheetah’s body. The Sphinx clearly is in control, yet her domination is gentle: femme-fatale imagery is edging into a more nuanced mode.

Fernand Khnopff - The Caresses

The Guggenheim is displaying Khnopff’s “I Lock My Door Upon Myself,” which takes its title from Christina Rossetti’s poem “Who Shall Deliver Me?” A pale, auburn-haired woman gazes fixedly at the viewer, surrounded by a proto-Surrealist array of objects: stalks of orange daylilies in the foreground; an arrow resting on a draped table; a bust of Hypnos on a shelf; a window giving a view of a black-shrouded figure on an empty street—an image that could itself be mistaken for a painting. At first glance, the work gives a feeling of confinement: the woman appears to be trapped in the artist’s cluster of symbols. But Khnopff seems more sympathetic to his female subject than is usually the case in Symbolist art. This cryptic space may be a room of her own, a private world of the imagination.

Péladan also deserves credit for giving early attention to the great Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler. “The Disappointed Souls,” a Hodler canvas included in the Guggenheim show, is a study in male dejection: five weathered, barefoot men stare downward, two with their heads buried in their hands, the middle one with his emaciated upper body exposed. The hieratic manner and pale color scheme recall Puvis de Chavannes, yet the imagery is rougher and starker, hinting at the interior desolation of Expressionism.

Perhaps the ultimate Rose + Croix painter is another Belgian, Jean Delville, who shared the diseased opulence of Péladan’s aesthetic. A drawing titled “The Idol of Perversity” offers a narrow-eyed Medusa-like woman with a snake writhing out of her breasts. In “The Death of Orpheus,” the musician’s severed head rests on his lyre, floating down a greenish river in which the twinkling of stars is reflected. When I first saw this canvas, on a visit to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, in Brussels, it sent me into an uncomfortable trance: the serenity of the painted surface pulled me in as the horror of the subject pushed me away. Precisely because so much Symbolist art seems dated at first glance, it retains its capacity to shock.

Music was integral to the multimedia conception of the Rose + Croix, although several performances that Péladan planned in conjunction with the inaugural salon ran into difficulties. The opening ceremonies were to have included a Solemn Mass of the Holy Spirit, at St.-Germain l’Auxerrois, with excerpts from “Parsifal” on the organ. Wary clerics withheld permission, on the ground that Wagner was Protestant. A later Wagner concert fell victim to a fracas between Péladan and his former financial supporter, Antoine de La Rochefoucauld. While an orchestra was playing the “Siegfried Idyll,” an ally of Péladan’s, ineffectively disguised by a fake beard, shouted that La Rochefoucauld was “a felon, a coward, a thief.” The heckler was ejected, causing a glass door to shatter and the musicians to fall silent.

Antoine La Rochefoucauld financially supported Rosicrucian salons in Paris in the 1890s and was Grand Prior of the movement from 1892-1897. These salons were a focal point for mystical studies and promoted the idea of gestes esthétiques, a synthesis of the visual arts, literature and music. The third of Erik Satie's Sonneries de la Rose+Croix was composed in his honor.[2]

-- Antoine de La Rochefoucauld (1862–1959), by Wikipedia

Péladan’s collaboration with Satie, who was then in his twenties, was rooted in the bohemia of Montmartre, where both men cut vivid profiles. Satie was best known as a pianist at the Chat Noir and the Auberge de Clou cabarets; in 1888, he composed his trio of pensively dancing “Gymnopédies.” He heralded a new simplicity—music “without sauerkraut”—in defiance of Wagnerian grandeur. He was also an incorrigible ironist who festooned his scores with unperformable instructions. (“Arm yourself with clairvoyance,” “Open your head.”) Such exquisite pranks seem far removed from the dark-velvet world of Péladan, yet Satie, too, shared in the mystical preoccupations of his generation. His unadorned sonic textures, often based on Greek modes and Gregorian chant, can have the quality of cryptic icons.

The play “Le Fils des Étoiles,” which elicited Satie’s most striking Rosicrucian score, follows a young shepherd-poet as he is initiated as a magus. The prelude to Act I begins with an astonishing sequence of six-note chords, consisting of stacked intervals of the fourth, with a tritone thrown in for good measure. Although these chords are built on a simple chantlike melody, they are essentially atonal. Satie’s score, written more than fifteen years in advance of Schoenberg’s first atonal works, subsequently reverts to a more conventional language, but the fabric of harmony has been rent. This time, the composer gives no sign that he is joking: the opening is marked “white and motionless.”

“The Dawn of Labor (L’Aurore du Travail),” by Charles Maurin, circa 1891.Courtesy Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Saint Étienne Métropole

After the first salon, Satie broke with Péladan and, in the schismatic fashion of the day, established a private cult, the Metropolitan Church of the Art of Jésus Conducteur, from whose pulpit he issued edicts and anathemas in an apparent parody of Péladan’s style. (“I must raise My hand to overthrow the oppressors of the Church and the Art.”) The reasons for the split are unknown; perhaps Satie’s score for “Le Fils des Étoiles” was too peculiar even for Péladan’s recondite taste, or, possibly, Satie decided that his reputation would be better served if he suspended ties with such a controversial figure. Whatever Satie’s calculations, he soon sank back into obscurity; only in the second decade of the twentieth century would Maurice Ravel spark a Satie revival by hailing him as a model of anti-Romantic style.

In the mid-twentieth century, Satie’s music mesmerized John Cage, who saw it as a challenge not merely to extant harmony but to the very idea of musical form. Cage took a special liking to a short, gnomic, harmonically directionless 1893 piece called “Vexations,” at the beginning of which Satie wrote, “To play this motif eight hundred forty times in a row, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, through serious immobilities.” In 1963, Cage took that instruction at face value, organizing an epic performance in which a rotating team of pianists repeated “Vexations” for nearly nineteen hours. Because “Vexations” belongs to Satie’s Rosicrucian period, the Guggenheim will stage its own daylong marathon, in September. Having attended a “Vexations” event some years back, I can advise prospective listeners that they may experience hallucinations of the Sphinx before the performance is done.

Erik Satie - Vexations

Before Péladan vanished from cultural memory, he received a couple of respectful nods from rising giants of modernism. In 1906, Ezra Pound embraced Péladan’s idea that the medieval troubadour tradition was a repository of hermetic wisdom. And in 1910 Vasily Kandinsky cited Péladan in his manifesto “On the Spiritual in Art”: “The artist is a king, as Péladan says, not only because he has great power, but also because his responsibility is great.” That sentence, oddly prophetic of the “Spider-Man” comic books, is evidence of occultism’s lingering reverberations. Kenneth Silver expands on the connection in a thought-provoking essay in the “Mystical Symbolism” catalogue, entitled “Afterlife: The Important and Sometimes Embarrassing Links between Occultism and the Development of Abstract Art, ca. 1909-13.” The word “embarrassing” is taken from the art theorist Rosalind Krauss, who wrote, in 1979, that “now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” Yet in the early twentieth century Kandinsky, Pound, and other modernists absorbed what Silver calls “an amalgam of spiritual sources—Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, kabbalistic, alchemical, and just plain wacky.” Assuming the pose of a sorcerer or guru emboldened more than a few artists and writers in their quest to explode tradition and create a new order.

Péladan had little direct impact on early modernism: instead, the dominant force was Theosophy, the half-visionary, half-spurious movement that Helena Blavatsky and others launched in New York in 1875. Blavatsky devoured Rosicrucian texts and related Christian esoterica, and combined their ideas with influences from the East. She notoriously claimed to be communicating with eternal Indian Masters. Such hocus-pocus did not prevent the likes of Kandinsky from appreciating the vigor of Theosophy’s assault on materialism in the name of higher truth. Kandinsky’s controlled explosions of color bear a striking resemblance to images that appear in “Thought-Forms,” a standard Theosophical text. His paintings can be viewed as opaque sacred emblems, conduits of spiritual revolution. Silver sees similar tendencies in the work of Marcel Duchamp, Kazimir Malevich, Hilma af Klint, and Piet Mondrian. “I got everything from the ‘Secret Doctrine’ (Blavatsky),” Mondrian wrote, in 1918.

Although Yeats is the exemplary case among occult-oriented modernist writers, T. S. Eliot also deserves a glance. After Eliot converted to Anglo-Catholicism, in the late twenties, he chastised Yeats for having resorted to a “highly sophisticated lower mythology” of supernatural lore. Yet “The Waste Land” begins with a clutter of Decadent elements: quotations from “Tristan und Isolde,” allusions to Verlaine and Mallarmé, chatter about tarot cards and séances, intimations of vegetation cults. The poem ends with an Easternized version of a Grail Quest, culminating in a final chant of “shantih shantih shantih.” Latter-day readings of the poem tend to see Eliot’s intent as satirical, but, as Leon Surette has suggested, the poem has the feeling of an initiation ritual, in the course of which the poet attains mastery of all religious traditions.

Fin-de-siècle spiritualism also had a radicalizing effect on music: “Le Fils des Étoiles” was only the beginning. In the first decade of the century, Alexander Scriabin reached the border of atonality under the influence of Theosophy; he devised an ear-burning, six-note “mystic chord” that voices a hitherto ineffable divine presence. Jean Delville supplied an image of a sun deity for the cover of Scriabin’s sumptuously dissonant score “Prometheus, Poem of Fire.”

Alexander Scriabin - Prometheus, Poem of Fire

Jean Delville - Death of Orpheus

As for Schoenberg, he was immersed in mystical texts at the time of his atonal leap: in terminology reminiscent of Péladan, he explained that whereas conventional major and minor chords resembled the opposition of the two genders his new chords could be compared to androgynous angels. Even the cool intellect of Igor Stravinsky was touched by theurgic energies: the neo-pagan scenario of “The Rite of Spring” was co-created by the Russian Symbolist painter Nicholas Roerich, who went on to have a spectacularly strange career as a Theosophical sage.

In the wake of two catastrophic world wars, mysticism lost its lustre. The ecstatic liturgies of the fin de siècle rang false, and a rite of objectivity took hold. The supernatural was all but expunged from modernism’s origin story: the great Irish-literature scholar Richard Ellmann insisted that Yeats employed arcane symbols “for their artistic, not their occult, utility.” In the narrative that so many of us learned in school, the upheavals of the modernist epoch were, above all, formal developments, autonomous events within each discipline. Clement Greenberg spoke of painting’s “progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium”; Theodor W. Adorno, of the “inherent tendency of the musical material.” Such sober formulas fail to capture the roiling transcendental longings of a Kandinsky or a Schoenberg.

Hence the disreputable allure of Péladan, who dared to speak aloud what usually remains implicit in the aesthetic sphere: belief in the artist’s alchemical power, in the godlike nature of creation, in the oracular quality of genius. (Think of how often prewar Expressionism is said to have anticipated the horrors to come, as if artists were clairvoyant.) The question we want to ask a figure like Péladan is whether or not he meant what he said—whether, in essence, he was a lunatic or a charlatan. Robert Duncan wrote a poem about the relationship between Satie and the “silly old man” Péladan, in which he imagines the composer asking:

Is there a place for such posing
to be containd? for even
fakes of God to touch
some youthful trembling at the edge of God?

Such questions presuppose a clean line of demarcation between the real and the fake, and in matters of the spirit that line can never be fixed. In a sublimely daft portrait by Delville, Péladan hovers before us in priestly white garb, his eyes rolled back, his index finger pointing heavenward. He is the failed prophet of a nonexistent faith. Nonetheless, his conviction is unnerving. Entire religions, entire empires, have been founded on much less.

This article appears in the print edition of the June 26, 2017, issue, with the headline “The Magus of Paris.”
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Re: The Occult Roots of Modernism: Joséphin Péladan’s mystic

Postby admin » Sat Apr 13, 2019 12:06 am

Kandinsky's Thought Forms and the Occult Roots of Modern Art
by Gary Lachman
MARCH-APRIL 2008 issue of Quest magazine.



IN RECENT YEARS, the contribution that occult or mystical ideas have made to the evolution of art—or to culture in general—has been increasingly recognized. But this was not always the case. For a long time, the notion that belief systems like Theosophy, founded in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky and her companion Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, were anything more than a disreputable side-show to the mainstream of cultural development was scandalous. Critics and biographers hemmed and hawed over the attention eminent figures like W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and others paid to a variety of "charlatans" and "mountebanks"—in Yeats' case it was Blavatsky herself; for Eliot, it was the Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky. Thankfully, those days are over and much credit is due to a group of historians, critics, and researchers for uncovering what in my subtitle I call "the occult roots of modern art."

I have even made a small contribution to this effort myself. In The Dedalus Book of the Occult: A Dark Muse, I sketch an overview of how a collection of occult ideas and insights fed the European and American post-Enlightenment literary imagination. I remark that, although I focused on writers and poets, another book could easily be written about the occult interests of composers and painters. In music, seminal figures like Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, and Debussy all have dipped, at one time or another, into the magical grab bag. (For a brief account of this history, see my article "Concerto for Magic and Mysticism: Esotericism and Western Music" in The Quest magazine's online archives.)

The best book I know for making clear exactly how much modern art owes the occult is The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890—1985 by Maurice Tuchman, a massive catalogue from an exhaustive exhibition I had the good fortune to see many years ago. While recently re-reading some of the catalogue's articles, I came upon a few names with considerable frequency. Certainly, the history of the occult's influence on art is filled with many illustrious figures, including Jacob Boehme, Swedenborg, Paracelsus, and Eliphas Levi, for example. The roll call of artists so influenced reads like a who's who of the cutting edge: Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, Frantisek Kupka, and Joseph Beuys, to name a few. However, as I said, certain names kept turning up, especially in the period preceding the birth of abstract art. These were the Theosophists Annie Besant, C. W. Leadbeater, and Rudolf Steiner.

The artist upon whom these leading Theosophists made the strongest imprint was the one most associated with creating non-representational art, Wassily Kandinsky. Just when the first abstract painting was made is still a matter of debate. Some say it was Kandinsky's First Abstract Water Colour in 1910; others give the honor to the Czech Frantisek Kupka. But Kandinsky is the name most associated with the new approach to painting.

As Sixten Ringbom made clear in his seminal study, "The Sounding Cosmos," Kandinsky was deeply interested in a number of occult, mystical, and paranormal pursuits and, at times, was a practitioner of various spiritual disciplines, specifically some forms of meditation and visualization. His interest was wide and his reading eclectic; one form of paranormal phenomena that particularly intrigued him was "thought photography," the idea that thoughts could be captured on sensitive plates.

Kandinsky's interest in the occult, and Theosophy in particular, was most evident during the years 1904—1912, which roughly coincide with the attempts of various psychic investigators to use scientific methods to prove the reality of the spiritual world. Sadly, most of these efforts proved fruitless and later examples, like the Cottingley Fairies, did little more than reinforce the suspicions of an already skeptical public. These were the famous fairy photographs of 1920 that earned Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who expressed belief in their veracity, much criticism, including suspicion of senility. Kandinsky's interest in thought photography, however, had a deeper impetus than to prove that the wee folk existed. Thought photography was, for Kandinsky, linked to a more important issue: the advent of a new age in human evolution, which he called "the Epoch of the Great Spiritual."

Along with many other artists and thinkers of the time, Kandinsky believed that by the beginning of the twentieth century, western civilization had reached a crisis and was sinking under a crushing materialism. It was the artist's task to lead society out of this impasse and to open new avenues of meaning and significance. One vehicle for achieving this was Theosophy. The influence Kandinsky's occult reading had on his ideas of the coming "Epoch of the Great Spiritual" is clear in his influential manifesto Ãœber das Geistige in der Kunst, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), one of the most important theoretical works in the history of modern art.

Kandinsky's occult library was considerable, but certain books in particular fuelled his speculation. Three key works were Man, Visible and Invisible (1902) by C. W. Leadbeater, Thought-Forms (1905) by Annie Besant and Leadbeater, and Rudolf Steiner's Theosophy (1904). Kandinsky was very interested in Steiner, and attended some of his lectures in Munich and Berlin. He was also a keen reader of Steiner's theosophical journal, Luzifer-Gnosis, and in his notebooks Kandinsky copied out several passages from a series of articles Steiner had written entitled "Von der Aura des Menschen" (On Man's Aura). Kandinsky was interested in a great deal of Steiner's thought. The interested reader might look to Ringbom's study or the internet for material about Kandinsky's interest in the occult, as well as informa-tion on his friend Arnold Schoenberg, who combined an interest in Steiner with one in the Swedish religious thinker Emanuel Swedenborg.

Besant, Leadbeater, and Steiner's writings concern the human aura. In the theosophical view, we possess four different kinds of bodies. There is the physical body we all know, but we also possess an astral body, a mental body, and a buddhic body. In fact, we really possess seven bodies, but the three higher bodies—nirvanic, para-nirvanic, and mahaparanirvanic—are beyond our present level of comprehension and discussion of them now is not relevant. In his early writings, Steiner used this theosophical concept; in later years, he retained the notion of seven bodies, but his terminology changed.

The astral body reflects our emotions and desires; the mental body is concerned with our thoughts; and the buddhic body with our spirituality. There is also an etheric body, which is a kind of life force animating our physical shells. I should point out that the aura that Besant, Leadbeater, and Steiner speak of is not the same as that revealed in Kirlian photography or in Harold Burr's "life fields," from Blueprint for Immortality, which are much more of a physical phenomenon. In Theosophy, Steiner, a profound critic of materialism, made clear that the aura referred to by him and other theosophical writers was purely spiritual; that is, it was an inner phenomenon. It was not seen with the eyes but with the soul. For all his interest in thought photography, it was precisely this distinction of Steiner's that appealed to Kandinsky.

Kandinsky believed that by the beginning of the twentieth century, whatever artistic and spiritual meaning the external world had possessed had been hollowed out and emptied. He was not alone in this; the "artist's journey into the interior," as the literary critic Erich Heller called it in the title of one of his books, had been set in motion at least a century before with the Romantic Movement. Contemporary with Kandinsky, in his Duino Elegies, the poet Rilke had declared that "No-where will the world exist but within." The novelist Hermann Hesse had mapped out der Weg nach innen, the Way within. Many poets and writers suffered the "crisis of the word," acknowledging that a language based on describing the external world was inadequate to convey the depth and subtlety of their insights and perceptions. And painters like Kandinsky's fellow Russian Kasimir Malevich contemplated a blank canvas as the purest portrait of the real.

Like the "primitives" of earlier times described in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky believed the artist sought to portray "only internal truths, renouncing in consequence all consideration of external form" (1). Like many artists of the time, Kandinsky saw in music the non-material art par excellence, and he wanted to achieve in painting what he felt composers had already accomplished: liberation from the material world. In this need to map out the cartography of the inner realms, Kandinsky found a parallel in Theosophy.

Although the aura was a spiritual phenomenon, Besant, Leadbeater, and Steiner believed it could be approximated. To the sensitive soul, a person's aura appeared as a kind of cloud or egg, enveloping their physical body. This appeared in different colors, depending upon the character and thoughts of the person. In both Thought-Forms and Man Visible and Invisible the authors provide a "Key to the Meanings of Colors." This informs us that, for example, pure religious feeling appears as a deep blue, while anger is a fiery red. Bright yellow corresponds with highest intellect and malice with black. An attentive reader of Kandinsky's manifesto will note that on the subject of yellow, he differs from Besant and Leadbeater, linking it with feelings of aggression. although he drew on theosophical ideas, Kandinsky, like any person of genius, inevitably thought for himself.

Whatever we think of the aura, it is clear that in our everyday speech we associate certain colors with certain moods or feelings. We are green with envy. If we are sad, we are blue. We speak of being red with rage, and if we are healthy, we are in the pink. Yellow is associated with cowardice, white with innocence. We all have black moods. These and other examples show that synaesthesia—the substitution or coincidence of one sense with another, as in the phenomenon of "hearing colors" or "seeing sounds"—is much more common than we think. Synesthesia was one of the central concerns of the Romantic and Symbolist movements, and was most concisely expressed in Arthur Rimbaud's poem "Vowels," which links specific colors to the vowels: A-black, E-white, I-red, O-blue, U-green. Kandinsky emerged from the latter days of these aesthetic movements, and students of Rudolf Steiner's teachings will remember that synesthesia is one of the signs of advance on the spiritual path. Steiner's Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and its Attainment explains more on this topic.

The central maxim of Thought-Forms is that "thoughts are things" (16). In addition to the aura, the seer can detect emanations proceeding from it. These appear as "radiating vibrations" and "floating forms." The idea of floating forms raises the link between thought forms and hypnagogic phenomena, the various shapes, forms, faces, and landscapes, etc. seen on the point of sleep. Hypnagogia and synaesthesia are often linked; the interested reader may want to consult the chapter "Hypnagogia" in my Secret History of Consciousness.

These radiations and forms are the spiritual reflection of the person's thoughts, and they are things, not only in the sense of having a real effect on the world (in the sense that bad thoughts can actually, and not only meta-phorically, hurt someone), but even more so in the sense that to the seer, thoughts appear as definite shapes. Again, space does not allow me to pursue this, but in his Arcana Coelestia, Swedenborg spoke of "seeing thought." And in Emanuel Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision by Robin Larsen, he is quoted as saying, "I could see solid concepts of thought as though they were surrounded by a kind of wave, and I noticed that this wave was nothing other than the kinds of things associated with the matter in my memory, and that in this way spirits could see the full thought" (447).

Besant and Leadbeater point out that the character of our thought forms is linked to our astral (desire) and mental (thought) bodies, and that the more refined our desires and thoughts, the more radiant and beautiful are the thought forms we create. Given, however, that the desire body "is the most prominent part of the aura of an undeveloped man" (19), what the seer most often detects are forms of a crude nature. It may be a blessing, then, that we all are not yet able to perceive the subtle shapes of our thoughts.

The character of a thought form depends on two things: what the thought is about, and the quality of the thought itself. Vague, indefinite thoughts appear as a kind of mist or cloud. Clear, definite thoughts take on more robust shapes, sharp triangles, cones, tentacles, and starbursts, for example. Thoughts of a greedy, lustful, or malicious character appear differently from those of a noble, selfless, loving nature. So, for instance, figure 28 in Thought-Forms, "Selfish Greed " appears like muddy green tentacles. This thought form emanates from someone "ready to employ deceit to obtain her desire," and is associated with "people gathered in front of a shop window" (56—57). "Sudden Fright ," figure 27, appears as a series of grey and red crescent shapes bursting out of the aura. "Explosive Anger ," figure 24, is a red and orange starburst. The "Upward Rush of Devotion," figure 15, is seen as a blue cone, and "Vague Pure Affection," figure 8, is a pinkish cloud, which "frequently surrounds a gently purring cat" (41). "Intellectual Aspiration," figure 43, is a fine spearhead of yellow, with a greyish centre, and implies "much advanced development of the part of the thinker" (72).

Besant and Leadbeater suggest that these thought forms are analogous to those of the " Chladni figures" formed by vibrating a brass or glass plate on which fine sand has been spread. Bowing the plate, the vibrations arrange the sand into remarkably beautiful geometric designs. They also see an analogy with the intricate designs formed by a pendulum on which a pen has been attached, and the illustrations they provide from Frederick Bligh Bond's book Vibration Figures, have, like the Chladni figures, a beauty not unlike that found in fractals. (Frederick Bligh Bond, we might remember, was an archaeologist involved in early excavations at Glastonbury Abbey, but was sacked after it was discovered that his methods included channeling medieval monks who had lived there.) The common element is vibrations: just as vibrations in fine matter form the Chladni figures, so too, do vibrations create thought forms. In this case, the fine matter is the aura, and the vibrations are our thoughts.

Besant and Leadbeater were assiduous collectors of thought forms and to the unknowing eye, the illustrations of these by John Varley, a Mr. Prince, and a Miss Macfarlane are very reminiscent of much abstract and surrealistic painting. Some of the most striking are the illustrations for the synaesthetic forms created by music: a mountain range of reds, blues, greens, and yellows rises above a church in which Wagner is being played. My own favorite is figure 32, "The Gamblers," whose eerie red and black eye and strange crescent shape figures remind me of Miro's weird dreamscapes.

Rather than sticking to single-thoughts such as love, hate, sadness, etc., the authors sought out the forms created by a number of experiences. Figure 33 "At a Street Accident," figure 34 "At a Funeral," figure 35 "On Meeting a Friend," and others give us some idea of the kinds of unseen thought forms hovering about us in the astral. The bright colors against the black void are particularly striking, and readers may be interested to compare these to the remarkable blackboard chalk drawings that Rudolf Steiner used in his lectures, a collection of which can be seen in Rudolf Steiner: Blackboard Drawings 1919—1924. Steiner's blackboard drawings have been recognized as works of art themselves, and they, coupled with Besant and Leadbeater's thought forms, give us some idea of what we may one day be able to see, given there is, as both Steiner and the Theosophists believe, an evolution of consciousness.

But until then, another glimpse of these astral shapes is available through Kandinsky's art. Although compared to Kandinsky's floating amoebas and other amorphous forms, the actual shapes of, say, figures 37 and 38, "Sympathy and Love for All," and "An Aspiration to Enfold All" respectively, are simple and unsophisticated, we can yet see their influence in his canvases. Space does not allow more than a mention, but one work in which the influence of Thought-Forms is quite visible is, I think, Kandinsky's enigmatic Woman in Moscow (1912), a representational work in which the non-representational begins to appear.

Kandinsky was particularly interested in this figure, as he did three versions of the work. An attractive oversized woman in her thirties stands in the foreground and behind her stretches a multi-colored Moscow. Her right hand rests on a table, and is wrapped around a small dog; in her left hand she holds a red, cloud-like rose. A bluish-green aura seems to surround her and to her left appears a glowing reddish ball with a heart-shaped center. Above this, a black cloud shape, seemingly very dense, threatens to obscure the sun, while to her lower right, a sharp spike of dark blue juts into a yellow street. Several figures float around her: a horse and carriage with a coachman and passenger, and a quasi-oriental character who seems to balance on the edge of the table. The red ball and black shape seem to suggest a struggle between malice and the heart, but as there is so much here, the interested reader should really see for him or herself.

Clearly, the black spot held much meaning for Kandinsky, as it appears center-stage in Black Spot I (1912), in which the representational figures of people, houses, and a cart are beginning to dissolve, perhaps into the astral forms that lie behind our sensory perceptions. Kandinsky's "Epoch of the Great Spiritual" may have been put on hold—at least that is the impression I get, judging by most post-modern art today. But to the open eye, his work, I believe, can still introduce us to the soul.



Besant, Annie and C. W. Leadbeater. Thought-Forms. London and Benares: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1901.
Burr, Harold Saxton. Blueprint for Immortality. London: Neville Spearman, 1972.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover Books, 1977.
Lachman, Gary. "Concerto for Magic and Mysticism: Esotericism and Western Music"
———. The Dedalus Book of the Occult: A Dark Muse. London: Dedalus, 2003.
———. In Search of P. D. Ouspensky. Wheaton: Quest Books, 2004.
———. Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2007.
Larsen, Robin, ed. Emanuel Swedenborg: A Continuing Vision. New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1988.
Ringbom, Sixten. "The Sounding Cosmos." Acta Academiae Aboensis, Ser. A. Vol.38 No.2. Abo Akademi, 1970.
Steiner, Rudolf. Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1947.
———. Rudolf Steiner: Blackboard Drawings 1919—1924. New York: Rudolf Steiner Press, 2003.
Tuchman, Maurice. The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890—1985. New York: LA County Museum of Art and the Abbeville Press, 1986.

Gary Lachman is the author of several books on the link between consciousness, culture and the western esoteric tradition, including Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Penguin 2007). Other books include Into the Interior: Discovering Swedenborg (2006), In Search of P. D. Ouspensky (Quest, 2004), and Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (2001). A founding member of the rock group Blondie, Lachman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. He is a regular contributor to the Independent on Sunday and Fortean Times, and Quest magazine. He lives in London where he is currently working on Politics and The Occult: Unknown Superiors and the Retreat from the Modern World , to be published in 2008.
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