Thursday, May 31, 2012

How and why did abstract art in the early twentieth century draw upon Universalist spiritual beliefs?

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Evolving after photography abstract art conveyed all that could not be captured through eye of a camera lens. It abandoned the stultifying constraints of representational art and embraced a new found freedom from conventional concerns and restraints, which allowed for unobstructed expressiveness and an innovative means of communicating emotions. This innovative means of expression which abandoned the representation of any physical form or object, drew clear parallels to the universalist spiritual beliefs that rejected material associations and embraced the journey from the physical to the transcendental.

Throughout history the primary purpose of painting had been to paint perfectly reproduced images rather than to evoke emotion. It was not until the late 1800’s that expressive art had begun to surface and later still, at the turn of the twentieth century that abstract art evolved into a practice concerned with representing the phenomenally unconscious feelings associated with mystical thought and theosophical belief. The turn of the twentieth century faced a revolution of artistic practice and beliefs, which were, induced by various political and social influences. The most influential changes being the emergence of Freud’s psychoanalysis, Marx’s analysis of historical changes, and the revolutions occurring in the modern scientific view of physical reality. Two things in particular shattered man’s view of the physical world, the discovery of nuclear fission and the new hypothesis of the space-time continuum. Both discoveries implied that the scientific view of the world could no longer be discerned in terms of representable geometry but in algebraic formulas, which could not be represented.1 Due to this many artists sought inspiration in occult thought and anarchistic attitudes, they wanted to find the underlying unifying force that would emerge after the structures of society were removed. These artists believed that when the world was stripped bare of its material assets all that remained was colour sound and feeling. Due to this, abstract art turned to the sanctuary of spiritualism, which abandoned earthly attachments in favour of pure expressionism and self-emancipation on a universal scale.

Universalist spiritual beliefs rejected the common secular penchant for materialism and commercialism in favour of a deeper study of religion, philosophy and science. Based on the notion of a united brotherhood, this movement inspired much of abstract art in the early twentieth century. These artists were primarily protesting against the restrictions of an industrialized society. This rejection of authoritarian beliefs was expressed through their art, which rejected all representational forms and required one to ‘search for meaning’ to be understood, synonymous to the universalist spiritualists, mystics and theosophists who also subscribed to the notion of such a search.

A culmination of spirituality and idealism, theosophy embodies ideas of a cosmic truth beyond material understanding. Indeed such a philosophy is critical of those that draw metaphors from the outside world to find meaning. Theosophy was primarily influenced by the mystical writings and beliefs of Madame Blavatsky, Edouard Schure, Jakob Bohme, and Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose life works transcribed these ideals of a universal brotherhood based on the study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, and the investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the physical powers latent in humankind and urged artists to seek truth beyond material realms.4 These ideas had an overwhelming influence on the founding fathers of the abstract movement, Wassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Piet Mondrian and Kazimer Malevich wherein abstract art became the visible manifestation of these united beliefs.


All four artists began their artistic practice engaged in a symbolist style. Their earlier works expressing cosmic ideals expressed through semi-representational forms. However the iconography of symbolism only limited their ability to express the universal concepts they so reverently believed in. Having experienced the extent of the symbolist voice, they began to dig deeper into their theosophical ideals and surfaced new modes of artistic recourse to express themselves.5

This revolution of the artistic realm altered the very aims and intentions of artisans, transforming the general practice of representational art into an art, which sought to portray “human inwardness without recourse to metaphors drawn from the outside world”.6

These Artists aimed at abandoning their attachment to the material world and sought to align themselves with the depths of their psyche, to the journey of spiritual truth, a journey they accepted as multi-dimensional, problematic and perpetually never ending. The objective of abstract art had become fixated with the desire to transform the spectators’ perception and psychic experience of viewing art. It was colour, stripped of all its associations, at its purist and most plastic that served to communicate these beliefs about the fundamental, underlying laws of the universe.7

Wassily Kandinsky, regarded by many as the godfather of pure abstract art, was the first artist of his time to appreciate the intensity of pure colour. It was Kandinsky’s fascination with colour, which provided the immediate impetus for his move into abstraction. Kandinsky was also a prolific writer and heavily subscribed to the Universalist spiritual beliefs in his book On the spiritual in art. In his book he explains his pre-occupation with colour and how it can be employed as a tool for expression of the spiritual, imagining it as a kind of intermediary between the viewer and the spiritual world.8 As in Theosophy Kandinsky believed in a certain universal harmony underlying the apparent chaos of the natural world, and he felt that someone with a higher consciousness could tap into this. His comprehension of colour was fundamentally dynamic, he felt that each colour had an inherent character defined by its relationship to its opposing colour, for example plus/minus, warm/cool, active/passive, female/male, and believed that these characteristics, on a intuitive level and in certain combinations, could project an emotion or idea to the person looking at the them.

Kandinsky also subscribed to the possibility of combining painting, music, architecture and poetic prose in a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art.) He agrees with both Goethe and Blanc that there exists a grammar of colour analogous to the grammar of music. Inspired by one of Wagner’s musical compositions he attempted to recreate the emotions he experienced listening to the music through the harmonizing of colour and form.10 Wagner also had an affinity with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, who considered music to be of central importance in mans emotional life, which paralleled Universalist spiritual beliefs and developed Kandinsky’s aims of production in his visual art.11 In liberating the symbol and elevating the status of colour, Kandinsky created a new movement that drew upon the Universalist spiritual beliefs of spiritual emancipation through the harmonizing of colour, line and form in art.

The use of colour to depict music is effectively illustrated in Kandinsky’s symphonic composition Impression III (111, Oil on Canvas, 5x 46, Private Collection). The painting is a direct illustration of one of Schonbergs concerts and in the painting, looking at the work one is able to identify the auditorium on the left side of the painting, whilst the right side is enveloped in a blanket of yellow. Kandinsky’s described this yellow as disquieting to the spectator, pitching him, stimulating him giving one a sense of the dynamism of the music and spiritual affinity within the arts.

These Universalist spiritual beliefs also united artists Kandinsky, Marc, Macke, Klee and Jawlensky to form the unofficial group ‘der Blaue Reiter’.1 Under the guidance of Kandinsky these artists ‘felt themselves to be harbingers of a new spiritual culture, rooted in the manifestations of the na├»ve soul’.1 They all produced art that reacted against the current direction of society and embraced the idea of awakening the spiritual in all mankind.

Franz marc explained that the entire aesthetic of the Blaue Reiter is dominated by the striving to perceive the “inner mystical construction”14 of the world. In his questioning of creation, he strove to find forms and colours offering a metaphoric correspondence to the knowledge, buried deep within us, of a secret order of the world � the Franciscan ‘ordo caritatis’.15

Ultimately Abstract art in the early twentieth century drew upon Universalist spiritual beliefs in protest against a society overly occupied with material wealth. Invalidating representational art as authoritarian and political, the embodiment of this spiritual school of thought allowed for the expression of the idea that consumerism and industrialization brings decline. The change towards spirituality was inevitable, because as the world moves towards the commercial, humanity, removed from its material environment requires a spiritual outlet. However abstract artists were guided by a passion beyond merely providing an outlet. Abstract artists drew their inspirations from Universalist spiritual beliefs overall because they held the belief that moving away from capitalism would regenerate humanity and allow for the theosophical ideal of a utopia where all mankind would live in harmony and love.

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