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Spirituality in Abstract Art

by Pamela Schaeffer

Ms. Schaeffer is religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 30, 1987, p. 819. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


"Art is the daughter of the divine," contended philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Most art 1overs today would assume that Steiner was referring to a pre-20th-century past. True, art was once the daughter of the divine, they might say. But in the 20th century the once-dutiful daughter has struck out on her own, ignoring her religious heritage (indeed, ignoring religious subject matter altogether) and turned her attention to form. Abstract art is a purely aesthetic activity. Certainly in the late 20th century, it is rarely associated with religion.

However, in recent years this story of abstract art has begun to undergo revision. Art critics have discovered that for many artists, abstraction is a way not to express emptiness but to communicate particular ideals. A number of major exhibitions exploring the roots of abstract art have emphasized artists’ utopian hopes bred by the industrial revolution, or their revolutionary political thought, or their revival of primitivism out of a dissatisfaction with the modern world.

The latest of these exhibitions appeared in Los Angeles and Chicago during the first six months of this year: "The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985." (It is on view at the Gemeetemuseum in the Hague from September 1 through November 22.) While the exhibition leaves intact the notion that the "daughter of the divine" has indeed struck out on her own, it offers an intriguing challenge to the widespread belief that she has altogether abandoned her spiritual focus. Rather, like many adventurous spirits through history, and a fair number of seekers during our own age, she has shunned traditional religious expression in favor of esoteric aspects of spiritual life.

For those able to accept a broad definition of the word "spiritual" -- one that encompasses elements of the mystical, the gnostic, Eastern religions and the occult, and has few, if any, discernible connections with the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures -- abstract art might be approached as a doorway to the symbolism of modern culture’s spiritual underground. In any case, the arguments advanced by exhibit curator Maurice Tuchman and others in the exhibition catalogue (copublished by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Abbeville Press, New York) deepen our appreciation not only of abstract art but of a little-understood aspect of the religious temper of our times.

To understand the daughter’s journey, it is helpful to recall the break with traditional religious art that took place in the Romantic period. Friedrich Schleiermacher gave theological impetus to highly privatized religious forms with his Romantic insistence that inner piety is more important than outer forms. "Indeed," argues Robert Rosenblum in Modem Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko (Harper & Row, 1975) , "Schleiermacher’s theological search for divinity outside the trappings of the Church lies at the core of many a Romantic artist’s dilemma: how to express experiences of the spiritual, of the transcendental, without having recourse to such traditional themes as the adoration, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, whose vitality, in the Age of Enlightenment, was constantly being sapped."

Rosenblum, an art historian invoked in one of the catalogue essays, was among the first scholars to assert that abstract art, far from representing a neat break with representational art, is actually part of a Romantic tradition reflected in northern European artists like Caspar David Friedrich and Joseph M. Turner, who infused landscape paintings with a "sense of divinity." Abstract artists faced the same problem as the earlier Romantics, he said: "how to find, in a secular world, a convincing means of expressing those religious experiences that, before the Romantics, had been channeled into the traditional themes of Christian art." According to art historian Charlotte Douglas, the shift to abstract art in the early 20th century was prompted by a need for new dimensions of consciousness, forms suited "to serve as a passport to and report from" the so-called higher realms.

Esoteric cousins of theosophy that attracted the artists featured in the exhibition include Rosicrucianism, alchemy, Tantrism, cabalism and Hermeticism. The writings of psychiatrist Carl Jung, who was himself interested in alchemy, parapsychology and the occult, were a favorite of some artists. Others favored Jacob Boehme, the 16th-century Lutheran shoemaker who combined Neo-platonism, the Jewish Cabala and Hermetic writings and the Bible in explaining his experiences of God. Still other artists made use of symbols from medieval legends, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, the religion of American Indians, the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff and the works of medieval Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, John of Ruysbroeck and Richard Rolle.

That theosophy and other types of occult and mystical thought have influenced abstract artists is supplemented in the show by 125 books by theosophers, philosophers and mystics whose images and ideas also appear in the tradition of abstract art. The argument for the relationship begins with four artists generally viewed as pioneer abstractionists, all of whom are shown to have been steeped in spiritual concerns.

Piet Mondrian, the Dutch painter best know for his abstract gridwork of interlocking perpendicular black lines and enclosing squares of red and yellow, was an avid reader of theosophy, who once said he learned everything he knew from Madame Blavatsky He joined the Dutch Theosophical Society in 1909, about the same time that his work began its gradual evolution toward the abstract. The shift was heralded in his landscapes: wide expanses of beach and sea; forest scenes that highlight the vertical thrust of trees from a horizontal

expanse of earth. Mondrian’s preoccupation with the tension between vertical and horizontal was later depicted in the haunting abstract cruciform patterns that would become his trademark. One critic has said that given the antisocial attitudes apparently underlying abstract works, a viewer unfamiliar with Mondrian’s personal religious quest might associate his grids with jail bars. But according to Mondrian’s own notebooks, the patterns represent the struggle toward unity of cosmic dualities and the religious symmetry undergirding the material universe. A strong believer in the theosophical doctrine of human evolution from a lower, materialistic stage toward spirituality and higher insight, Mondrian wrote that the hallmark of the New Age would be the "new man" who "can live only in the atmosphere of the universal."

For Wassily Kandinsky, the religious themes implicit in his paintings are made explicit in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a little book he wrote in 1910, the year he did his first abstract painting. Kandinsky, like many abstract artists, saw himself as a spiritual as well as an aesthetic pioneer. Like Mondrian, Kandinsky was versed in theosophy, and felt that abstraction was the best means available to artists for depicting an unseen realm. With near-messianic fervor, Kandinsky announced that the type of painting he envisioned would advance the new "spiritual epoch." In his book he describes the spiritual realm as a triangle in upward motion. At its apex stands a man whose vision points the way; within are artists, who are "prophets," providing "spiritual food."

Familiarity with this theory is all but crucial to understanding a painting like Kandinsky’s "Variegation in the Triangle." This 1927 work consists of an obtuse triangle set against a background of dense clouds that seem to be in motion. At the apex of the triangle is a circle, a symbol of wholeness and unity in much mystical thought, and within the triangle are circles connected by straight lines, likely representing the artist-prophets.

Two other pioneers, Frantisek Kupka, a Czech, and Kasimir Malevitch, a Russian who in 1914 and 1915 exhibited a series of squares on plain backgrounds, were also avid readers of theosophy and other metaphysical works. Kupka studied Greek, German and Oriental philosophy, along with a variety of theosophical texts. Douglas writes that the aesthetics of Malevich and his circle "resulted from a unified world view that encompassed all dichotomies; for them science and Eastern mystical ideas were seamlessly joined in a conceptual continuum, and knowledge of the world might be obtained by beginning at any point."

Tuchman stresses that it was not just the founders of abstract art who were interested in spiritual investigations. "Abstraction’s emergence throughout the 20th century was continually nourished by elements from the common pool of mystical ideas." What artists found appealing about the various arcane religious and philosophical systems was their underlying premise that the spiritual world is governed by laws that mirror natural laws and that can be expressed in symbols. The idea is akin to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion that every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind. Geometric forms are thus paradigms of spiritual evolution. The spiritua1 world, like the natural world, is charged with energy, producing cosmic vibrations and human auras. The spiritual principles that intrigued certain artists included synesthesia, the overlap between the senses by which a painting can simulate music; duality, the idea that the cosmos reflects an underlying principle of yin and yang; and so-called "sacred geometry," the belief that, as Plato put it, "God geometricizes."

Against this background, the works take on new meanings. For example, the Russian Ivan Kliun’s work titled "Red Light, Spherical Composition," which portrays a hazy red-orange sphere against a black background, bears a striking resemblance to Fludd’ s mandalas. Yves Klein’s "Cosmogony" is a canvas covered with blue, red and black circles that seem to be in movement, as if engaged in a cosmic dance. The works of Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) , an early American abstractionist who was an avid reader of Christian mystics, combine symbols from traditional Christianity and the occult. Hartley once said that it was "out of the heat of his reading" of the mystics that he began his works. In "The Transference of Richard Rolle" (1932-33) Hartley pays tribute to that 14th-century English mystic. The painting is of a cloud, set against a deep blue sky and hovering over a barren red-rock landscape. The cloud is imprinted with a yellow triangle enclosing Rolle’s monogram, suggesting transcendence within the Trinity. And the use of American Indian pictography by Jackson Pollock and others indicates the interest in the 1930s and ‘40s in the vitality and spirituality of Indian culture.

As the century wore on, some artists abandoned the search for iconography and turned to more radical abstraction. Viewing the exhibit, I found it especially fascinating to ponder some of the purer abstract works -- such as the rich, dark, imageless canvases of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko -- in relation to the apophatic tradition in Christian mysticism. Masters of that tradition, sometimes called the via negativa, choose words like nothingness, darkness and obscurity to symbolize God, the wholly other Absolute who is unknowable by means of the intellect but approachable through love.

Newman’s and Rothkos somber, borderless canvases suggest deep silence and infinite void, yet somehow, too, evoke a sense of presence and mystery. Newman, an American who died in 1970, made no attempt to hide his spiritual interests. In 1943 he wrote, "The painter is concerned . . . with the presentation into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extent, his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life."

For many Christians, the theme of the show is sure to be problematic, perhaps rightly so. Scrutiny of the artists’ sources reveals a deep immersion in multiple forms of Neoplatonic spirituality -- a spiritual pursuit that has accompanied Christianity from the time of Irenaeus, who thundered against the gnostics in the second century, to the present, a time in which ultraconservative Christians view the occult as a direct manifestation of evil spirits. The dangers of a spirituality divorced from the disciplines and dogmas of established religion have always been clear to Christian leaders. One is reminded of St. Paul’s admonition to "test the spirits."

On the other hand, this reading of abstract art offers yet more evidence that the religious landscape has undergone radical shifts. In their new book American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (Rutgers University Press, 1987). Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney note that traditional Christian symbols can no longer be relied on to forge a synthesis of religion and culture. They cite a need for a new mode of synthesis, one suited to a post-Protestant age. Seeing the connection between abstract art and spiritual exploration is sure to contribute to a better understanding of the metaphysical quests taking place on the fringes of our culture. Though these quests undoubtedly are alien to many, they are rooted in intellectual currents that arose more than a century ago and have never disappeared.


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