The Influence of Madame Blavatsky's 'Wacky Ideas'
on the World of Art

A review of the Theosophical references in
'Big Sky, Big Dreams, Big Art: Made in the USA' by Waldemar Januszczak

An Article by Janet Hoult

Janet Hoult is a Trustee of the Blavatsky Trust and a member of The Theosophical Society in England.
This article was first published in Insight, by The Theosophical Society in England, August 2018.

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This series of three programmes were screened on BBC 4 on 23rd and 30th May, and 6th June 2018. Taking the form of an artistic road trip, the first programme, 'From Wild West to Abstract Expressionism' traced how the landscape of America influenced its art. Standing in the magnificent Death Valley, Januszczak introduced us to grand paintings of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon by Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington's lively depictions of cowboys, Native American pictographs, bold murals by Diego Rivera and Thomas Hart Benton, to Jackson Pollock, influenced by the pictographs and ... Theosophy.Sego Canyon Rock Art... And he says some surprising and interesting things considering the usual modern materialist viewpoint. Looking at those painted pictographs in Sego Canyon, some of which date back 8,000 years, he tells us that the shamans who made then communicated with another world - the world which lies behind the surface ... a powerful world. Jackson Pollock saw pictographs and sand art by the Native Americans, when he accompanied his father, a surveyor, out into the desert. Pollock attended the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles where his teacher, Frederick Schwankovsky introduced him to Theosophy.

Januszczak then tells us something quite extraordinary - "Theosophy", he says "has been brutally redacted from the story of modern art." "Even here, in California it's an art historical embarrassment ... no-one wants to believe that Theosophy changed anything - but it did ... actually Theosophy changed everything."

He says that abstract art would not have happened without it and that all the first artists working in this field such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, the Italian Futurists Bocconi and Bala were all heavily influenced by Theosophy ... and Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock 'Lavender Mist'

We then see footage of Krishnamurti speaking at Ohar, USA, and are told that Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin and John Lennon all came to hear him. What is Theosophy all about he asks, and holding up a copy of The Secret Doctrine tells us that life's too short to go into detail, and that you need to read this book "and that's not something I'd wish upon anybody, especially you nice sensible people watching this film. So I've read it for you, and tried my best to comprehend."

Januszczak's understanding is that Theosophy teaches about an underlying order to the universe, that there's a deeper reality to everything, and like the native American shamans who painted the rock art in Sego Canyon, the artist can touch the deeper reality which lies beneath the surface and portray/show it.

In part 2 of the series there is further reference to Madame Blavatsky, "the notorious spiritualist and founder of the Theosophical Society" who came to New York where she founded her new religion. She "bewitched" many artists, including Mondrian, who, amongst his few possessions when he died was a small portrait of Madame Blavatsky.

Mondrian 'Victory Boogie Woogie'

Other artists included Thomas Wilfrid, who made paintings with light, or Lumia, as he called them, blurring the boundaries between art and music with his Clavilux (invented 1919), a keyboard machine which created colourful light images. Gaugin 'The Great Buddha'The artist Gauguin, lived next door to a Theosophist in Tahiti and painted Jesus and Buddha, the East and the West sharing the path to enlightenment. Januszczak links this to New Age thinking, but then draws attention to the many new immigrants in America at the time who would find comfort in a belief that there is a larger reality which makes us all One.

He mentions that Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb was a Theosophist, making his ambition to bring light into the world not just a physical one. Januszczak then refers to his earlier comments that it is unfashionable to say that a "mysterious occult religion, founded by a mysterious Russian spiritualist was the driving force behind the leap into abstraction – but it was. And Madame Blavatsky's wacky ideas had their biggest impact here, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. This is where abstraction triumphed."

Founded by wealthy 'gold man' Solomon R. Guggenheim, his portrait painter Hilla Rebay chose the art works for it. Theosophist Rebay felt that modern art was not just a style, but a new start that could change the world, and she filled the museum with what she called 'non objective art'. The Guggenheim Museum, New YorkKandinsky, keen on Theosophy, was a big favourite, as was the now largely forgotten Rudolf Bauer, Rebay's lover and fellow Theosophist. The collection soon outgrew its initial gallery, so Rebay commissioned an architect "with Theosophist leanings", Frank Lloyd Wright, to design a new one. "A Temple of the Spirit, she called it, somewhere where the Light could spread up and out, into the waiting cosmos." ... "A spiral of light that climbs towards the heavens."

Januszczak reminds us of light artist Thomas Wilfrid, whose work has been recently on view in an exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery ('Lumia: Thomas Wilfrid and the Art of Light', Oct 2017-January 2018). The catalogue introduction opened in 1959. is written by James Turrell, a contemporary artist also working with light, and whom Januszczak believes to be "the greatest artist currently at work in the world." Turrell tells us that as a youngster, he saw the light works by Thomas Wilfrid, which captured his imagination and led him to become an artist. In 1979 Turrell bought an extinct volcano, the Roden Crater, out in the Painted Desert in Arizona, which he is turning into a giant work of art and filling with secret chambers "where wondrous things happen with light." One of the chambers near the top is an oculus, a hole allowing one to watch and contemplate on the ever-changing sky, and leading up to it is a golden stair, "climbing into the light." Januszczak's comment "Thus in faraway Arizona, Madam Blavatsky continues to pull the strings of American art."


Sego Canyon rock art (Wikipedia)
Jackson Pollock 'Lavender Mist' 1950 (Wikipedia)
Mondrian 'Victory Boogie Woogie' (Wikipedia Commons)
Gaugin 'The Great Buddha' 1899 (Wikiart public domain)
The Guggenheim Museum, New York (Wikipedia Commons)

Look on YouTube to see some of James Turrell's Skyspace installations and light artworks including the Roden Crater, together with interviews.

'Aten Reign, Turrell Part of 'Space that Sees' at Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Left: Turrell's light exhibition 'Aten Reign' at the Guggenheim, in 2013. Looking upwards, there are bands of continually changing colour stretching up to nearly the height of the Museum's atrium. (Photo: David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons) Right: Part of 'Space that Sees' at Israel Museum, Jerusalem 2009. (Wikimedia Commons)

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