The mystery of abstract art: abstract artists and their interests in Theosophy

February 4, 2012 under ART

by Pavlina Chakarova


Wassily Kandinsky, “Untitled (First Abstract Watercolor)”, 1910

The transcendental searches of abstract artists, although frequently misunderstood or ignored, are an indelible part of the history of art. Abstract art originates back to Europe between 1910 and 1920. Nowadays, it is more or less described as a modern movement which distinguishes itself with the non-objective approach to reality. The emphasis is on reaching harmony by combining colors and geometric shapes that are able to evoke different emotions and associations. But they hardly mention the prerequisites for its formation, which are an ancient metaphysical knowledge, gained from Eastern religions and the Theosophical writings of Blavatsky and Steiner. It was this fact that urged me to expand the conventional idea of abstract art. Shifting the focus on to its occult essence via this article I aim to a different light on the movement, which, I think, reveals its true nature – to cast the spiritual. To trace its deep philosophical roots, I consider it necessary to make a closer examination of the notions of metaphysics and theosophy.

Metaphysics and theosophy

The best way to get the core of the metaphysics would be to take a look at Aristotle’s writings, which were the first to be labelled “metaphysics” and are still denoted in this way. According to Aristotle the metaphysics is equal to the Philosophy as a whole, because it includes all the prerequisites for knowledge of life. He names it “the first philosophy”, “universal wisdom” or “theology”, because according to him, God is the foundation of all and should be explored closely by this science. It studies both the visible, sensuous reality and transcendental matters such as the world’s nature and genesis, in order to gain an entire and complete view of life. The questions, which the metaphysics seeks to answer, are why does the world exist, who is God and how is the body related to the soul? The greatest philosophers through the ages Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel, despite the differences in their perceptions, are all metaphysicians. They all examine the world as a whole and seek to determine the position and the importance of the human in it. The influence the German idealism has on the German literature is historically significant. The works of art of Goethe, Lessing, Novalis, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse are artistic interpretations of those philosophical ideas manifested in the mystical crawing for communion and engagement with God.

The Theosophical society has existed since antiquity and is based onmetaphysical ideas for the unity of the immortal soul with the divine source. In the late 19th century the Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky entitles her philosophical doctrine Theosophy and together with the Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, they become a main source of inspiration for the abstract artists. Their ideology views art as a opportunity for direct interaction with immaterial world, as a form of spiritual existence. They see the human being as an entirety of a mortal Body, an evolving Soul and an immortal Spirit. Art creativity originates exactly from this connection with the spiritual world. The soul comes down to earth and enters the body. Then the intuitive sensual aspiration of portraying human astral essence, which human possess before the psychical birth, arises. While being on earth, the human is constantly involved in the eternal matters by means of the variations of art. In a spiritual sense we are present in the colors and shapes and seek a contact with the immaterial dimensions, which we feel subconsciously connected with. This perception of the world in colors enables us to turn to our own divine nature, which embodies an old cosmic memory. For that reason it is wrong to consider creativity aspiration a theoretically staging issue. Self-expression should be associated with the self-discovery of our cosmic identity, which is unique and can be reached only through our own intuition. Each work of art is unique by itself and is an outcome of peculiarity of an artist with its own style and aesthetics.

True creativity depicts the great human struggle for achieving harmony between the divine and the physical world. Then it imports the feeling of eternity to the moment through handling of the colour perspective and the space dimensions. That is how works of art, with their sublime elements, transport the viewer into the cosmic realms. They become a physical footprint of the otherworldly reality.

I think this is the right place to expand the notion of religious art, as well. If we assume that religion is a self-knowledge and the fact that we express this self-knowledge in art, then each form of it should be regarded as spiritual.  Each work of art should be an expression of our divine essence. Religion is inside us, it’s not an abstract notion. That’s why I would like to view art as inner religious experience. Existing since the dawn of mankind, art has always been spiritual. With the beginning of the abstract movement it only became more exposed and people began to realize it as such.

Abstract artists and the colour Bauhaus

Goethe, whose works Steiner truly admires, first examines the colour. Just like Aristotle he is a philosopher, enlightened in filed of the metaphysics and his “Theory of Colors” contains some of the earliest published descriptions of color effect. Goethe regards art as revelation of the innermost secrets of the world and according to him a dominating role for its creation plays the intuition. His writings combine the purity of style with deep philosophical ideas; his book devoted to colors has a huge impact on the realm of art. Wassily Kandinsky, the founder of abstract art, defines it as “one of the most fundamental scientific researches”.

Kandinsky is a Russian painter who creates his first abstract works in 1910 in Munich. Highly inspired by the Theosophy of Blavatsky and Steiner’s Anthroposophy, he began to preach the interconnection between colors and feelings. He talks about the impact of art and the dialogue between the viewer and the artist’s work. Kandinsky puts forward the thesis that certain colors respond to certain emotions. He views the shape and the color as means of expressing our spiritual life. In compliance with the spirit of the theosophy, the colors and the shape for him are material states of the soul that can be intuitively sensed by the spectator. According to him, every phenomenon can be experienced in two ways: externally or inwardly. The mere physical effect of a colour is ephemeral and easy to forget once we take our eyes of it. But the superficial impression can develop and evoke series of psychic experiences. During a process of a further development, they acquire inner value and sounding, triggering a strong spiritual excitement. That is when the color reaches the soul. The color possesses its own inner life. “Color is the key. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many chords. The artist is the hand that, by touching this or that key, sets the soul vibrating automatically.”, Harmony of colors should be based solely on the principle of properly human soul approaching therefore. This basis he calls principle of inner necessity. The inner necessity, according to Kandinsky, is inevitable desire for self-expression and is intuitive by nature. The intuitive wisdom is the only direct knowledge, which can enlighten the human to see the truth. By listening to his inner necessity, the artist interacts with his divine nature. And the circle closes. The internal picturesque thing, that we call work of art becomes an expression and finds a reason to exist. It announces the truth and unveils the otherworld. Kandinsky publishes his ideas in the book “Concerning the Spiritual in art”.

In 1913 another emblematic art figure in the field of pure abstract painting – Kazimir Malevich creates his first painting in abstract-geometric style, which he calls “suprematism” (from the Latin supremus, which stands for the superior). It’s a new system of non-objective elements that expresses pure emotions – the only source of all creation. According to him, materialness and corporealness should be minimized. The main motifs of Malevich’s suprematic compositions are geometric combinations of squares, crosses, circles and triangles.

Meanwhile the abstractionists establish a group, named “The Blue Rider”. The name is derived from Franz Marc and Kandinsky’s love for horses and the blue color. For them the blue is the symbol of spirituality, the darker the hue, the the stronger human aspiration for the infinity. Its members shared the common interest for the revelation of spiritual truths by means of art. Unfortunately, due to the outbreak of the WW I, the group doesn’t last long.

Nevertheless the abstract movement continues its development and in 1919 Walter Gropius founds the innovatory art school Bauhaus in Germany. With artists such as Wassily Kandinsky at the forefront, it quickly engages the attention of artists interested in spirituality. His lectures about the interaction of form and color are of great importance, a topic that everybody in the school takes intense interest in. I would like to mention just some of the lecturers, who I believe, will expand, add and acknowledge the aforementioned different interpretation of the theory of colors and their transcendental mission.

Johannes Itten, the tutor with the most eccentric clothing, includes his spiritual practices in his teaching methods aiming at improving them. At Bauhaus he provides his students with an insight into the subject of to the Mazdaznan – a study for the breathing, health, nutrition and proper thinking. Itten’s classes started with meditative exercises, similar to the yoga asanas for concentration. He is a vegetarian and meditates regularly to develop his intuition, which he considers to be the main source of inspiration that awakens our senses. For that purpose he uses color diagrams, trying to get into the core of spiritual message. He is learning from the works of Goethe about the impact of the colors on people and is convinced that people react to colors individually.

The class that Oscar Schlemmer teaches in Bauhaus is called “Human being”. The focus is put on the geometric forms of the human body such as chin’s square, the circle of the belly, the cylinder of the neck and arms, the sphere of the head, the triangle of the nose and the line connecting the heart with the brain. These abstractions of the human body, which direct us to our cosmic identity, Schlemmer calls “figurines”. Making use of costumes of different shapes and various colors, he stages abstract dance performances at Bauhaus. The dancers create different geometric shapes like spheres, spirals and squares that make the performance more effective.

Paul Klee is the teacher who stays in Bauhaus for the longest period of time. He has been initiated into the mystics of art due to the German metaphysical idealism. Klee regards the material world as one of the many existing realities. “I don’t reflect the superficial; I’m exploring the depths of the human soul. The faces of the people I paint are more reliable than the real ones. The man in my works is a macro element of the microcosm.” he says. Paul Klee plays the violin and meditates with classical music. It helps him to focus before starting to paint. In his lessons he visualizes the musical compositions of famous composers, associating the sounds with different colors. That is why the fact that he finds inspiration for most of his abstract forms in the music comes as a surprise to nobody.  This simultaneous perception of different senses is called synesthesia (from the ancient Greek σύν (syn), “together,” and αἴσθησις (aisthēsis), “sensation”) and has been known to mankind for millennia. The synesthesia is directly linked to creativity. Synesthets are many famous artists, writers and musicians. The list with the artists, who believed in it, includes Wassily Kandinsky, Vladimir Nabokov and Franz Liszt. Though less consciously sought, we come across the same approach in Robert Delaunay paintings.

The interaction between colour, shape and movement is a research subject for the music teacher Gertrud Grunau. She composes her own melodies and like her other colleagues believes that all the senses should be harmonized before the process of self-expression and that one’s ability of self-expression depends entirely on laws deeply rooted in its own sense of colour, shape and sound.

The Universal unity and the androgyny

The term androgyny, like the one of abstract art, is quite underexposed nowadays. The universal unity of male and female, placed above all philosophies, is present as a symbol in all kind of religions through the double structures of Yin and Yang (in Taoism), Shiva and Shakti (in Hinduism), Yb-Hume (in Buddhism), the star of David (in Judaism), the crescent and star (as in Islam) and the Christian cross. One of the most common symbols is the mandala – a square containing a circle in it. The least known is the one of the human body unifying the origin of masculine and feminine spirituality, and embodying the knowledge of cosmic unity. Since ancient times many deities are depicted precisely as half a man, half a woman.

Dualism is the main topic in the art of many authors. The struggle between the male and female power is the sign of the Creation, and they believe that it lies in the basis of the creative impulse. One of them is Piet Mondrian, the Dane famous with his perpendicular abstract structures. He is also a follower of the Theosophy of Blavatsky and his works depict the constant struggle for harmonization of the male and female eternal inception, represented via the visual balance between color and shape. In his paintings we come across again the idea of the artist’s vocation as a channel. He creates his grid works without any calculations, led entirely by his intuition and the desire to fuse with the utopian ideal of universal harmony.

The theme of the Androgyny has aroused Marcel Duchamp interest for a long time. His works are often associated with Dadaism and surrealism. The main basis for these movements is the idea of the unconscious, developed by Sigmund Freud, who believes that significant psychic events take place “under the surface” in the unconscious. Duchamp avoids describing his work of art; in one interview he defines it as metaphysical. Art for him is a gateway leading to a dimension that is beyond space and time and that can be reached, relying solely on your own intuition. He considers Dada movement to be a protest against the physical side of painting, that doesn’t suppose the involvement of any feelings at all. Duchamp pointed out that self-centeredness can be removed from the artistic process, or at least moved aside. He achieves that by his “ready-mades” objects by anonymous author. With them he puts away the concept of the “self” from the object and implements the idea for the selection as an act of art.   The unification of self and not-self is the aim of the metaphysical philosophy. According to it our conscious, burdened by precursory attitudes and expectations, deters us from reaching the wisdom of our innerself. The liberation from all our engagements and attitudes leads to an overcoming the restrictions of the ego-mind and thus gaining the intuitive wisdom. It draws us closer to the concept of the androgyny, to the universal harmony, which exists due to the balance between the two opposing elements.

The subject of the energy balance and the supernatural excites many more authors, working during the Dada-Surrealist era. The “Barbarian’s Venus” by Paul Klee is a Venus with a penis. The lower part of Miro’s “Dawn Perfumed by a Shower of Gold” is quite female, while the upper part is quite male.  “Princess X”ofBrancusi, the “Demeter” and the “Idol” of Arp are remarkable androgynies transporting the viewer into the transcendental dimensions. Salvador Dali is a great alchemist who takes an intense interest in occult and abstract geometry. Giorgio de Chirico with his striking contrasts and fantastic works introduces the term “metaphysical painting” in art. Just like Kandinsky, Ives Klein uses the blue color in his works of art to take the viewer into the void – the “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility” where the spirit, free form delusions, reflects the infinite universe.”

Guggenheim Museum and the Abstract Expressionism in America

The political instability in Europe at the end of the 30’s of the 20th century and the wartime force many of the abstract artists to emigrate to the States.  There they lay the foundations of the Abstract Expressionism, which can be considered a natural extension of the metaphysical figurative painting.

In 1939 the first Museum of Non-Objective Paintings is established on 54th Street in New York (renamed to “The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum” in 1952). Its director and curator is Hilla Rebay. Hilla arrives in U.S. in 1927, where she meets the American magnate Solomon Guggenheim; an event that has changed the history of modern art. As a prominent theosophist Rebay believes that art is a vehicle, which transports both the artist and the viewer in the spiritual realms. While still in Europe she herself is devoted to the non-objective art and takes active part in many vanguard exhibitions. Hilla mingles in the circle of the abstract artists and collects paintings of Bauer and Kandinsky. She quickly convinces Guggenheim to start a collection of his own. This is the beginning of the abstract art collection of Guggenheim. In 1959 the Museum moves to its current building on 5th Avenue, built by Frank Lloyd Wright.The dream of Hilla Rebay is to establish a museum of contemporary art, which will serve both as a temple of the abstract art and a temple of the soul. This leads her to Wright, an American architect, who designs buildings in harmony with the surrounding environment, which he calls organic architecture. The concept of the museum as a temple comes from Ancient Greece. „Mouseion” was a sacred temple dedicated to the Muses, the goddesses of the arts in the Greek mythology. The erection of the spiral rotonda took 16 years. Neither Guggenheim, nor Wright lived to see its opening. Unfortunately, when the museum was completed, a number of the initial plans of Wright’s design like the interior to be painted off-white and the viewing of artworks to start downwards from the top level were ignored.

Active artists during this period of time are Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who also consider contemplation of a painting to be a spiritual experience. Rothko uses the color as a tool of an expression of human emotions and believes that art is a key to the subconscious.  There is a profound influence of Native American culture that can be seen in the works of Pollock. He studies the Indian sand painting, which symbolizes the interconnection and the dynamic network of spiritual powers. He borrows their “drip art technique” via which, similar to a shamanistic ritual he sinks into the depths of his sub-consciousness and expresses his feelings, associating himself with the primal source.

The differentiation of the Abstract Expressionism at the beginning of the 60’s leads to new styles of art that gradually move away from his original ideas. Though they are still perceptible in the kinetic mobiles of Alexander Calder and in the circles of Kenneth Noland, but the geometric abstraction has started more and more frequently to be viewed as an academic form of art with old fashioned understanding of composition. Movements like Pop art, Hard edge, Minimalism and Conceptual art start a distinctive tendency for an alienation from the expressive qualities of the figurative art. The minimalists deny the need of self-expression, the symbolism of colors and shapes and the art’s connection with the transcendental. The emphasis is placed entirely on physical appearance of the object and its aesthetic values. The return to the ideas of abstract art comes with the Post-Minimalist period. Many of the artists oppose against the present depersonalization and put the focus on the inner life of the work again. The vivid expressive color combinations of the Neo-Expressionism are a protest against the Conceptual and Minimal art. In the current era, when the evolution has reached the independently thinking person, the transcendental continues to arouse the interest of contemporary artists like Anish Kapoor and Alex Grey. Art is eternal, it changes its forms at times, but the connection with the spiritual world is constant. I would unify them as one universal style of self-expression, style of truth.




Kandinsky, Wassily, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, Sofia: LIK, 1998

Steiner, Rudolf, “The Arts and Their Mission”, Stara Zagora: DASKALOV, 2004

Graham, Lanier, “Duchamp and Androgyny: Art, Gender, and Metaphysics”, NO-THING PRESS, 2003

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