“Art is a language that speaks to the soul of things” – Wassily Kandinsky
As Europe was blooming with the post Theosophy era of the Avant-garde in art, the North American nations were not far behind. The region’s economic boom in the last decades of the nineteenth century saw a vibrant interest in spirituality, art, music and the New Age mind set. Theosophists had gradually begun to influence mainstream thought process in the West. The establishment of the Theosophical Society on 17th November 1875 in New York had drawn the attention of the intellectual milieu and many from the ‘cultured and honorable’ joined the Society. (Hartman, Times, 30 Nov 1878) The Society itself was co-founded by an American national, an agricultural scientist of high social standing, Col. Henry Steel Olcott. The New York Times (Lili Kappel, 19 Feb 2009) describes Theosophy as ‘a New Age approach to old origins.’ Further, in Kappel’s description of Madam Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (HPB) – “her head wrapped in a dark shawl that accentuated her piercing blue eyes” – she was seen as a visionary. The visual art journey from the Realism of the early 19th century, had evolved through various phases such as Impressionism, Symbolism, Fauvism, Suprematism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Art and so on up to Pop Art and finally to Neo Expressionism in the late 20th century. The impact of spirituality mainly through Theosophy had taken art on a new trajectory.
The first of the four Theosophists who can be regarded as agents of change that triggered a new consciousness in art was Madam Blavatsky, a co-founder of the Theosophical Society. Her Secret Doctrine published in 1888 was an occult work of science, philosophy and religion. It impacted artistic expression and stirred a new wave in art. The publication of Thought Forms was another important contributor to the emerging Abstract school. Authored by C.W. Leadbeater and Dr. Annie Besant, the book is reference material for artists up to this day. A recent high-end edition was released through a successful kickstarter campaign, and the book was published by Mitch Horowitz as recently as 2020. Some of the original paintings that were unearthed in 2016 from the ‘Thought form’ series were exhibited in the 2019 Varanasi, India, Theosophical Annual convention. Brother Tim Boyd, President of the Theosophical Society released yet another edition of the book, which was published by TPH, Adyar, Chennai.
Rudolf Steiner was an extraordinary Austrian Theosophist from Germany. He had a huge span of influence on many areas of human activity in continental Europe – architecture, art, spirituality, education, design etc. He narrates that when he was a young boy HPB appeared in a dream and asked him to continue her work in Europe, which he accomplished.
Many of the prominent artists went on to stay and live with him in Dornach in Switzerland. He toured and wrote extensively across Europe, on a wide variety of subjects based on the Theosophical principle of Unity. In 1913, he started the German Anthroposophical Society and severed connections with the Adyar Society whose president at that time was Dr. Annie Besant. He took away 90% of the German members with him. The fourth critical element in the link between spirituality and art was Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (AKC) who joined the Theosophical Society in England in 1907.
In the words of William Wilson Quinn “It is fair to say that AKC was one of the greatest expositors of the philosophia perennis in the 20th century.” It was this underlying principle which AKC emphasized in his writings that influenced art on both sides of the Atlantic.
Artists and theorists influenced by Theosophy moved to America and brought the winds of change in visual art and sculpture to the New World. Nicholas Roerich, Frantisek Kupka and most importantly AKC had shifted base to America later in their lives. America was getting ready for the New Age of Aquarius.
Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (1887-1947) Ceylon/England/India/America
AKC was born in Colombo, in what was then Ceylon on 27 August 1877, to a Tamil aristocrat Mutu Coomaraswamy and his English wife Elizabeth Beeby. Mutu Coomaraswamy was the first non-white barrister at law and a good friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. AKC having lost his father at a very young age, his mother settled down in Kent, where he did his schooling. It was after graduating in geology in England that he became a member of the Theosophical Society in the English section. He became a close associate of Annie Besant and Bhagwan Das, a Theosophist and prominent Gandhian. Throughout his life Theosophy remained a bulwark of his philosophy as much as the philosophia perennis. He discontinued his membership but remained staunch to the Society, up to the end of his life. Returning to Colombo with his famous English photographer wife, Ethel Mary Partridge, was a turning point in his life. Together with her dedicated support, he documented and showcased the rich and symbolic art and sculpture of Ceylon and India. Until then, most of these objects of art were relegated as archaeological debris. He repeated this rediscovery of ethnic art in Indonesia, Japan and Persian art in his later years. Moreover, he was able to explain the metaphysics and the spiritual symbolism of oriental sculptures, his foremost being on the dancing Shiva-Nataraja.
Subsequent to his divorce from his first wife, he married Alice Richardson, an English lady alias Ratan Devi, a professionally trained Indian classical singer. It was at that time he did a great amount of research on Rajasthani miniature paintings, living on a houseboat in Northern India.
He co-authored a book on Indian music with his wife, with a foreword by Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. He was closely associated with the Tagore family in Calcutta inspiring Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s nephew, to develop the Bengal School of Art.
He co-authored a critique of Hinduism and Buddhism with the Irish disciple of Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita. He facilitated the Japanese revivalist artist Okakura Kakuzo (author of The Book of Tea) to visit India and discover Buddhist Art. His third marriage with Stella Bloch, a Polish jewess and famous dancer, one amongst the close circle students of Isadora Duncan, took the couple to Indonesia and upon their return to America he wrote a treatise on Indonesian Art. The couple separated and AKC married an Argentine photographer Luisa Runstein in 1930 and they remained together up to the end of his life in 1947. Although 28 years younger, she bore him a son, Rama Coomaraswamy who was first a priest, and then became a physician.
AKC’s contribution to the world of Oriental art and introducing it to the West is colossal. Heinrich Zimmer, sums it up “That noble scholar upon whose shoulders we are still standing on his metaphysics and symbolism.” Among the artists influenced by AKC were the American musician and artist John Cage, British sculptor Jacob Epstein – who referred to AKC as a ‘Master’ (his project to build a secret temple in Sussex failed), Eric Gill, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (very often took his material from a grave stone) – all of whom retrieved Asian art from a dump yard in the British Museum. They showcased its symbolism and metaphysical interpretation. AKC works from 1917 to 1947 have been copious in the domain of art theory and language. The Dance of Shiva was first published in 1918, The Transformation of Nature in Art was published in 1934. Theosophy provided the cosmology theology for his writings. He stated that science and metaphysics were not in opposition but two different ways of looking at the world – which resonates with HPB. He is considered a Traditionist along with Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon. His critique of art was based on what he wrote in a letter to Meyer Schapiro in 1930 ‘Kunstgeschichte ist geistesgeschichte’ meaning ‘Art history is the history of the spirit.’ As Susan Ginsburg of the New York Metropolitan Art Museum said in her talks at Mumbai Cama Institute, appears so much true. What Helena Petrovna Blavatsky had achieved in introducing the Oriental wisdom to the West through Theosophy, AKC played a similar role in introducing Oriental art – its symbolism and metaphysics – to the West.
Lawren Stewart Harris (1885-1970) Ontario, Canada
Lawren Harris was undoubtedly the most well known artist from Canada in the twentieth century. Founder of the Group of Seven art syndicate in Toronto, the wealthy Canadian also established the Transcendental Painting Group in Santa Fe, New Mexico, many years later with his second wife Bess Housser (1891-1969), herself another transcendental artist.
Harris formerly joined the Theosophical Society, Toronto on 23 March 1923. He was for many years a regular contributor to the Canadian Theosophist. In 1926, probably for the first time, a course was run by Harris on the subject of ‘Theosophy in its relation to art’. Harris believed that he was a reincarnation of William Quan Judge and was deeply involved in his writings. He brought along with him many artists and introduced them to Theosophy. He set up a collective of artists who became popular in Canada – the Group of Seven, and the project was funded by him. His idea was to promote an exclusive Canadian style of art reflecting his nationalistic passion. He hailed from a wealthy family running an agricultural corporation. His mother, recognizing his talent, packed him on a ship to Berlin where he stayed with a family friend. It was in Berlin that Harris met Paul Thiem, an active member of the Theosophical Society who was himself inspired by Rudolf Steiner. He was a mentor both in his art and Theosophical education. The European art scene at that point of time was at the crossroads undergoing the ‘fourth dimensional transcendence’ in which Theosophy was a moving force. Paul Thiem “believed that a certain kind of landscape, the large wilderness, the forest, and the prevalence of snow created an enhanced spiritual sensitivity.” (Massimo Introvigne). Harris returned to Canada with a new experience and set up the Group of Seven consisting of Frederick Varley, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frank Johnston, Barker Fairley and himself. The group was passionate in creating a Canadian identity as opposed to a North American identity, weaning it away from what it described as a materially and politically driven United States – whereas it felt Canada on the contrary was influenced by artists and a creative energy. The Group built a caravan and drove into the Canadian wilderness to produce some amazing works of art. Mountains and glaciers, trees and lakes turned into magical creations in the hands of Harris. In 1915 his work entitled ‘Mountains and Glaciers’ was sold to an anonymous buyer for 4.6 million Canadian dollars at a Heffel auction. This was the highest for a Canadian art work. These works of rugged landscapes by the group became a new powerhouse of Canadian nationalism through art. The critiques described them as ‘Breathless artists’ who transformed superior beings and objects to a higher reality. Some of these paintings were displayed in Los Angeles in 2019 in an exhibition entitled ‘The Idea of North – the paintings of Lawren Harris,’ showcasing seventy-three of his works. He attracted many students, one among them was Emily Carr, who for a short time had a tryst with Theosophy. In 1930 Harris wrote to her in a letter “the true artist is outside social recognition, society lives by rules, the artist lives from within not without.”
After an emotional entanglement with fellow artist Fredrick Housser’s wife, Bess, he married her but never cohabited – it was a self-imposed spiritual discipline, he declared. The newly wedded couple had to move out of Toronto with a case of bigamy slapped on Harris. They moved to Santa Fe, in New Mexico. It was here that he founded the Transcendental Painting Group with Emil Bisttram. He lived here until 1940 when he returned to Vancouver. There is an interesting story of how in 1912, an art collector, David Robertson, discovered an unsigned painting of Harris in an Ontario antique shop for 280/oo Canadian dollars and took it home to hang it above the fireplace. He later tried to establish its originality through a chemical process using a Raman microscope. Harris insisted that “the experience of Buddhi should take place within the work of art itself. The painter is the first person to experience Buddhi through ecstasy, it is premised on creativity as well as a certain type of asceticism.” (Massimo Introvigne) In a 1986 Los Angeles exhibition ‘The Spiritual in Art – 1890-1985’, Harris was featured, and writing on the Transcendental Painting Group the curator Maurice Tuchman wrote “these artists working in New Mexico were not arrivists, coming late to European abstraction: on the contrary they were seasoned artists who were able to produce paintings amazingly cosmic and symphonic.” During the last years of his life Harris was declared the National Artist of Canada. He was elected President of the Canadian Federation of Artists in 1944. He died in 1970 three months after the death of his second wife Bess. The ashes of Harris and Bess are in a small cemetery in the garden of the McMichael Collection of Modern Art in Kleinburg, Ontario. Art, Theosophy and Canadian nationalism were an integral part of Lawren Harris until he breathed his last.
Agnes Pelton (1881-1961) California, America
Agnes Pelton was born in Stuttgart in Germany to American parents and spent her early childhood in Basel, Switzerland and a few years in Rotterdam. Her mother, Florence, and Agnes set sail for America and arrived in New York. They settled down in Brooklyn and Agnes was educated at home owing to her poor health. She learnt piano but was more inclined to art. Her mother, having studied music at the Stuttgart Conservatory of Music was running a music school in Brooklyn, and she continued her music, French and German lessons there. Agnes lost her father, a wealthy Louisiana sugar dealer, at the age of ten. Alice initially studied art in Brooklyn and her mentor was the same who tutored Georgia O’Keeffe. She went later to France to continue her study in art for a few years. Agnes’ initial interest was to depict the Pueblo Native Americans and the Asiatic immigrants who had arrived in the United States. Later she started to get enchanted with nature and hence went by the description of the Desert Transcendentalist. She was influenced by Madame Blavatsky, the Agni Yoga of Nicholas Roerich and even dedicated one of her paintings to the clairvoyant Geoffrey Hodson – the untitled painting with blue and a delicate oil paint of flames depicting the celestial fire. Similarly, the painting titled ‘Ray – the ray serene’ was influenced by the Theosophical concept of the seven rays. She went by the concept that spiritual transactions must be translated through her works in the language of the mortals.
She went by many descriptions – Visionary, Symbolist, Poet of Nature, Dreamer of Dreams, Desert Transcendentalist and so on. She was featured as one of the only two women featured in ‘50 Top American Artists’ at the 1913 New York Exhibition of Modern Art. Despite attracting so much appreciation from art critics, she was not so popular during her lifetime. There is some similarity with Hilma Af Klint who was another Theosophy-inspired abstract painter, from Sweden, and she too was not recognized during her lifetime. Some point to discrimination of the sex as one reason as to why women artists were not given their due. Agnes’ movement towards Abstraction was in her later years. Her association with Dane Rudhyar got her interested in astronomy and astrology. She abided by astrologically conducive dates for making a payment of $228 for registering the Pelton cottage (her ultimate home) and took a bank loan on her father’s birthday. The cottage was completed in 1938, where she lived till the end of her life. She incorporated all the esoteric ideas in her paintings and is now beginning to be discovered by America and the world. America in her day was exploring spirituality and moving away from mainstream Christianity. Erika Doss, a researcher on Agnes, in her 2019 talk at the Phoenix Museum of Art described Pelton as a ‘Child of the New Age.’ Agnes also spent some time in Katherine Tingley’s New Age community at Point Loma.
Interest in Agnes Pelton started to gain traction from the 1990s. The ‘Poet of Nature’ Exhibition at Water Mill Museum was held in 1995. Nyna Dolby, a relative of Agnes, discovered her diaries in old stored away boxes, and her diaries and jottings give valuable links to her retrieved art. Nyna works in close collaboration with Agnes’ collectors, Michael Zakian and Michael Kelly. A more recent exhibition with 45 of her works was held at the Phoenix Art Museum – ‘Agnes Pelton – Desert Transcendentalist.’ She was a key member of the Transcendentalist Painters Group Art Collective. Her isolation from mainstream art probably didn’t give her much fame or money during her lifetime, she made money creating portraits and selling them.
There is a fascinating story of an anonymous art collector, who picked up an Agnes Pelton painting in Santa Monica during the year 1970. The painting, entitled ‘Voyage’, was purchased for the paltry sum of two hundred dollars from a quaint store called ‘In One Era’. There was another piece of work called ‘Incarnation’ featuring an unfolding rose using the medieval technique of Roberto Assagioli. The anonymous painter came across the same painting in 1998, which had since been purchased by the Oakland Museum of Modern Art. The story goes that for the anonymous painter the work turned out to be a talisman, with favourable events unfolding in her life, one after another. She associates it with Agnes’ clairvoyance and mystical power of good intention. Interest in Agnes Pelton has now resurrected her works to prominence, with many exhibitions coming up with her Collective. She had spent time in Lomaland, at Point Loma in California, a Theosophy Colony established by Katherine Tingley. At her funeral, a painting was placed beside her body entitled ‘The Bless’– the theme was travelling to the Higher Realm, very much in tune with Agnes’ Theosophical conviction.
Emily Carr (1871-1945) Victoria, Canada
One of the women artists from Canada in whose name almost a dozen art institutions have been named is Emily Carr. Born to a Presbyterian family in Victoria, British Columbia, she was famous not only as a painter but also as a writer. Her style of painting was both Modernist and Post Impressionist. Initially, she focused on painting aboriginal themes, and later shifted to landscapes. It was her forest themes that brought her into popularity. She was described as a ‘Canadian Icon’ for both her chronicling of British Columbia as well as her painting. She studied art in Southern California, but also added degrees from Westminster and Academie Colarossi, in Paris. It was here that she met her art mentor Harry Gibbs. Although she took a revulsion to his nude paintings, his landscape theme had a lasting influence on Emily. She also came under the influence of Fauvism in France and introduced the genre to Canada. She later described Harry’s “use of distortion and vibrant colour in his landscape and still life paintings – brilliant, luscious, clean.” On her return to Canada, she caught the attention of Marius Barbeau, a prominent ethnologist at the National Museum of Ottawa. She held her first solo at the Women Art exhibition in Toronto in 1935. She came into contact with the Group of Seven in 1927 and in particular Lawren Harris, whom Emily visited on 17 Nov 1927, at Toronto. It was a life-changing association as Lawren Harris made her a protégé and was a great contributor in making Emily a national celebrity. She discovered Theosophy in common with Native American spirituality. Her painting ‘Nirvana’ in 1928 and ‘Blunden Harbour’, 1930, reflect her Theosophical influence. Her painting themes turned to mysticism. Mark Tobey, who taught her for a brief time at Victoria brought to her an influence of Abstraction and Cubism. She used this medium of art to warn against the impact of industrialization on Canada’s environment. Her major work in writing was Klee Wyck. She authored many other books, partially biographical. Unlike other woman artists of her time, Emily was recognized during her lifetime and was even conferred a doctorate. A series of heart attacks curtailed her travelling. Her third heart attack in 1945 brought an end to this iconic artist. She is buried at the Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, British Columbia, where even today art lovers visit to pay tribute to this artist. The Royal British Columbian Museum has a collection of 35 paintings and over 1000 items of sketches, notebooks, letters and manuscripts.
The arts and culture in early twentieth-century America were impacted by Theosophy and Theosophists as much as in Europe. Many other names belong to this genre, like Georgia O’Keeffe, and John Milton Cage, a leading figure of the post-war avant-garde. He was a musician, theorist and artist who came under the influence of Oriental philosophy through the works of Suzuki. Lomaland, a prototype Theosophical community envisioned by Katherine Tingley, was another major experiment, established in 1900 in Point Loma, San Diego, California, in a wooded area. She also set up a Raja Yoga school. The first Theosophical University was established in America in 1919. However, in 1942 the place was sold and moved to Covina near Los Angeles. The sculptor Reginald Machell was a symbolist who was associated with the project. He is credited with enormous woodwork in Lomaland. Raymond Johnson, co-founder of the Transcendental Painting Group was a leading name, influenced by Nicholas Roerich, H.P. Blavatsky and Theosophy. He had earlier set up in Chicago the group ‘Cor Ardens’ (Flaming Hearts) based on the idea that “All the arts together constituted a universal medium of expression on the evidence of Life”. The Transcendental Group was based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There are a string of names who have been spiritually inspired, such as Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), Arthur Dove, Beatrice Wood – a name associated with the Dada movement. All these artists were spiritually inspired through association with Theosophists and Theosophy as a philosophy. More interest in this domain is being increasingly seen by various themes in art that are now opening up in America. Woman artists, who during their lifetimes were ignored are now coming into prominence for their silent revolution in art. As Susan Albert, Associate Professor of Art History at the Bard College sums up: Woman artists occupied a large space in the art canvas of esoteric and modern art in twentieth-century America. It was not a mere flash in the pan, that Theosophy impacted modern art. In fact, there is a significant milieu both in Continental Europe and the Americas who had appropriated Theosophy in the New Age Art Revolution. The Sacred Geometry, Spiritual Wisdom, and the Dynamics of Thought Form were more than symbolic. Theosophy was at the vanguard of ‘Enchanted Modernities’ in the world of Visual Art.
Theosophical Appropriations – Esotericism, Kabbalah and the Transformation of Traditions – edited by Julie Chajes and Boas Huss, Ben Gurion University, Negev Press.
Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist: by Erika Doss, Google Books, March 2019.
The Dance of Shiva –14 essays – Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, Rupa Antiquities, New Delhi.
Theosophy and the Visual Arts – Wikipedia.
The Canadian Art Movement – Group of Seven, Fredrick Hausser, Macmillan Co., Canada 1926.
Modernism and the London Avant Garde – Rupert Richard Arrowsmith, Oxford University Press 2011.
Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy/Wikipedia.