The discussion of the spiritual in modern art, academia and popular culture is not only rare but often dominated by artists, such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and other prominent figures, primarily men, who paved the way for the emergence of abstract art. The feminist scholar Charlene Spretnak in her book on The Spiritual Dynamics in Modern Art also ponders on the problematic issue of the spiritual in art which is systematically ignored in academia and the art arena in general, and is especially absent from the main galleries and art museums where art is being culturally defined, catagorised, curated and made available to the public.
This week, I completed teaching a pioneering BA course on the Spiritual in Art within the framework of studies in mysticism and contemporary spiritualities. The course, which I devised, highlighted a number of often ignored facts about, for example, abstract art and artists. In this blog post, I will briefly share with you a couple of insights from the course from a feminist perspective.
The first insight derives from the major thesis which initially defined the spiritual in art as a modern phenomenon. It was written by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky and was published in Germany in 1912 under the title Concerning the Spiritual in Art. It is a fascinating text to study, but here I only wish to emphasise Kandinsky’s standpoint with regards to women visionaries.
In his book, Kandinsky attributes the vision of the future of humanity to Helena Blavatsky, leader of the Theosophical Society. Whilst not in agreement with all of her ideas, Kandinsky was still able to see through the muddle of imperfect notions and harsh historical events. He witnessed the gradual decline of monotheistic dogmas and materialistic paradigms alongside the spiritual awakening of modern people as being led by a charismatic and thought-provoking woman and spiritual teacher (Blavatsky).
In addition, in order to exemplify the art of the future, Kandinsky comments on the work of Isadora Duncan, who was active when he wrote the book, and emphasises how she has created a new art on the basis of her aesthetic involvement with the art of ancient Greece. Her art, as he rightly predicts, will determine the future and give rise to new dance forms and styles. Interestingly, the book’s Russian to English translator, Michael T. H. Sadler, who offers introduction and additional explanations of Kandinsky’s art, remarks that ‘Kandinsky’s example of Isadora Duncan is not perhaps perfectly chosen’. He suggests Nijinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps or Jacques Dalcroze’s system of Eurhythmics instead, failing to grasp or deliberately undermining the crucial role of Isadora Duncan as one of the mothers of modern dance and first-wave feminist. This is an example of how ‘his-tory’ is editing out ‘her-story’ through the guise of expertise. To the uninformed reader, male or female, this edition of Kandinsky’s book, which has been widely circulated for decades, could be misleading.
The second insight from the course is the now historical fact that the first abstract art and paintings were envisioned and painted by Hilma af Klint, a Swedish artist and spiritual medium, and not as previously thought by Kandinsky and his circle of modern artists. Hilma af Klint, who received the instructions for the first abstract painting in 1906 via a séance with four other women artists, was only discovered by the contemporary art establishment in the late 1980s. The discovery of her work has irritated the history of modern art as established until Klint’s sudden appearance as the official pioneer of abstract art. Moreover, abstract art became officially associated not only with a woman but with a spiritualist who envisions a temple in which art is worshipped and where art and the spiritual are intertwined. (See the image of the painting Altarpiece at the top of this page). Altarpiece was made with the idea of placing it in a temple dedicated to art and the evolution of woman, man and consciousness.
Hilma af Klint was a student and follower of Rudolf Steiner who advised her to cease from painting or adopt his aesthetic philosophy and painting method. He undermined her capacity to channel spirits and Masters and negated her vision of humanity’s evolution as portrayed in her series of paintings titled Evolution from 1908. Curiously, he particularly opposed her painted vision of a woman and man as equal beings or partners in evolution. Although Steiner, in his writings and lectures on the ‘woman’s question’, stressed the importance of the rise of women in the modern era and also referred to the fact that theTheosophical movement had to be born from a woman, he probably had another evolutionary target for humanity. Hence, he was perhaps challenged by Hilma af Klint’s powerful spiritual and aesthetic visionary direction, preferring to edit it out of ‘his-tory’.
HilmaafKlint @ Wikipedia
© Dr Lila Moore