“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
– Charles Darwin, 1859
In 1888, the painter Paul Gauguin wrote to his friend about some progress he had made on a self-portrait that Vincent Van Gogh had requested of him.
He was especially excited about the mini-portrait he included of fellow painter Emile Bernard:
“The design is absolutely special, a complete abstraction. All the reds, violets, striped by flashes of fire like a furnace radiating from the eyes, seat of the struggles of the painter’s thought. …The Impressionist is pure, still unsullied by the putrid kiss of the Ecole des Beaux Arts.”
Gauguin was excited by how abstract his friend’s likeness had become.
But why? What’s so special about abstraction?
And why would he describe his own fine arts training as a “putrid kiss” that would sully his ability to create Bernard’s likeness rather than elevate it?
Let’s first acknowledge that all visual representations are abstractions to some extent.
No matter how realistic a painting may be, it still flattens and simplifies its subject to some extent. Photographs are typically much more faithful representations, given the right lighting and development, but even the best photograph loses its resemblance at the granular level.
And anyway, ever since photography ousted painting and sculpture from the throne of faithful representation, artists began to paint for other reasons.
Gauguin’s formal training in the arts may have made him an expert in creating realistic likenesses, but his ability to channel emotion, beauty, and spiritual power?
That came from within.
That was the profundity of the invisible transmuted into spectacle.
Such is the magic of abstraction.
The earlier artists may have been record keepers or storytellers, but the new ones felt a calling to serve as mediums.
The Swedish painter Hilma af Klint made such a realization in the early 1900s. She had spent her early career painting landscapes, and also sketched plants and animals she observed in her free time. Like Ernst Haeckel before her, Af Klint gloried in the intricate shapes, symmetries, and colors of the natural world. And yet one day, she decided she needed to make a change. She wrote as much in her diary:
“In order to create work that is strong and powerful, I have been forced to renounce the dearest wish of my youth: to be able to reproduce outer form and color.”
“Those granted the gift of seeing more deeply can see beyond form and concentrate on the wondrous aspect hiding behind every form, which is called life.”
She thus began a series of works that revealed true essences via abstract patterns.
The Russian painter Wasilly Kandinsky was more gradual with his move into abstraction. He started with Expressionist paintings along the lines of Van Gogh, then began to put less and less emphasis on the details of his objects, and more emphasis on color, and on the overall assemblage of his piece.
By 1910, he was making images that were still technically based on discernible scenes, but just barely:
Around the same time, Kandinsky published a treatise on spirituality in art. In it, he longed for visual art to become more like music than pictures:
“A painter who finds no satisfaction in the mere representation of natural phenomena, however artistic, who strives to create his inner life, enviously observes the simplicity and ease with which such an aim is already achieved in the non-material art of music.“
“It is easily understandable that he will turn to this art and will attempt to reciprocate it with his own medium.
From this derives some of the modern search in painting for rhythm, mathematical abstract construction, colour repetition, and manner of setting colour into motion.”
What type of music do you hear when you see this painting? I for one hear Thelonious Monk’s cracked bebop, which wouldn’t exist for another few decades.
But here is the quote that really makes clear for me what Kandinsky was getting at:
“Technically, every work of art comes into being in the same way as the cosmos—by means of catastrophes, which ultimately create out of the cacophony of the various instruments that symphony we call the music of the spheres. The creation of the work of art is the creation of the world.”Wasilly Kandinsky , 1913
Kandinsky more directly references what Gauguin was only hinting at.
The phrase “music of the spheres” comes from an old idea, first articulated in ancient Greece, then revived by the mystical Enlightenment astronomer Johannes Kepler. It was the idea that the movements of the planets and heavenly bodies created a resonance, a music that could be heard by the soul.
Those who found spiritual power in abstraction were trying to hear this music of the soul. And as such, they were tapping into Neoplatonism, which regarded geometric shapes, ideas, and pure potential as sacred.
In fact, abstract shapes were believed to be objective divine truth, whereas the forms that humans perceived were distortions of the true essence, mere shadows on the wall.
In the 19th century, Neoplatonism was primarily preserved via occult movements like the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Hilma af Klint was an active Theosophist, and most of her paintings attempted to transfer the ancient truths she absorbed from founder Madame Blavatsky’s written works to the visual medium.
Kandinsky reserved a bit of skepticism toward the movement, but nevertheless praised their spiritual universalism, and would sometimes incorporate esoteric signifiers into his work.
I imagine most people will see some planets and moons in this piece below:
But will they see the reference to Kabbalah, the medieval Jewish mysticism that became one of the foundations of European occultism?
The nodes in the Kabbalah tree of life can represent planets, God’s celestial creations.
But they also represent the knowable aspects of God that are discernible through one’s inner spirit, like an early precursor to a theory of mind. Just as the legendary figure Hermes Trismegistus is believed to have said: “As above, so below.”
And as within, so without. All are God’s creations. All contribute to the music of the spheres.
Paul Klee, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Piet Mondrian, Frantisek Kupka:
Virtually every painter associated with pioneering abstract art was deeply interested in theosophy, seances, and occultism.
Given the chaos of daily life, the materialism and crass commercialism, and the erosion of trust in established institutions, it’s not surprising that some artists found peace by turning inward and contemplating a grand order that organized the world as they knew it, from the largest galaxies to the atoms they’re made of.
Madame Blavatsky’s theosophical society was the first of its kind to mix Hindu and Buddhist philosophy into the syncretic, colonial Neoplatonist stew of Hermetic occultism. The movement also took an interest in the science of the day, translating findings about natural laws into supernatural truths. And unlike the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the theosophists spread their messages far and wide.
For all these reasons, theosophy sowed the seeds of what we now considered to be New Age spirituality: a grab bag of Neo-pagan spiritual wisdom that individuals can pick and choose and synthesize as they like.
It’s an outlook that more and more young people these days turn to, or can at least appreciate.
Interestingly, one scientific theory that Madame Blavatsky did not agree with was Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
The notion of evolution being unguided by a knowable divine plan disturbed her, which is understandable, as it had disturbed Darwin himself. Yet she also did not like his implication that all humans are basically the same, save for differences in individual traits like height or hairiness.
She believed in spiritual and racial hierarchies, with descendants of the so-called Aryan race being the most spiritually gifted.
As such, theosophy didn’t just help to give birth to New Age spirituality. Some of its assumptions and symbols were used to form Ariosophy, a nationalistic occultism which was subsequently incorporated into Nazism. Hence the Nazis’ use of Indian swastikas and Nordic runes.
The line between tuning into what others are missing and tuning out what you simply don’t want to hear is hard to distinguish sometimes, and selfish desires are easily rendered as ancient wisdom.
But overall, the employment of occult mysticism by the abstract artists is a heartening chapter in our story of modernism. It’s a brand of art that’s sometimes scoffed as empty, meaningless, cynical decoration. Yet in fact they were carefully considered works of serious spiritual import.
They were an attempt to bring meaning and peace of mind in a hectic modern world.
Music to my eyes. There is grandeur in this view of life.