Site for Esoteric History 

Enchanted Modernities

Theosophy and the arts in the modern world
Conference, Amsterdam 25-27 September, 2013
Report by L. Harris:

Lynda Harris has three degrees in the history of art from universities in the USA and UK. She has taught extra-mural classes in art and symbolism for London University, and has also given evening lectures, including some at the Theosophical Society. Her book, The Secret Heresy of Hieronymous Bosch, was first published in 1995, and since then she has written shorter pieces on Catharism (20) and esoteric artists of the late nineteenth century.


The conference was organised by Dr Sarah Turner, Dr Marco Pasi, Dr Christopher Scheer and Katie Jane Tyreman of the Enchanted Modernities network (a new research site),(21) in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam’s Centre for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents (HHP). It was attended by around 160 scholars interested in various types of esoteric and mystical art. In addition to painting, there were talks on relevant music, dance, architecture and the applied arts. The delegates came from countries in Eastern and Western Europe (including Britain), Israel, the Americas, India, Australia and Japan. The conference covered the influence of esotericism (Theosophy in particular) over artists in these countries between c.1875 and the 1960s.

The majority of the talks were held in two venues belonging to the University of Amsterdam. Lectures were grouped into themed sessions, which took place simultaneously in both locations. This enabled more subjects to be covered, but it also meant that the delegates had to choose between two lectures at any one time. Choosing could be difficult, as the subjects were interesting, varied and comparatively new to art conferences. But the great majority of the talks have been recorded, and will be available through the Theosophical Society for those who missed the conference, or want to fill in the gaps. They will also be published at a later date.

On Thursday morning the conference also gave the delegates a choice between visits to Amsterdam’s Theosophical Library and the Ritman Library, where an exhibition ‘Beauty as the Imprint of the Cosmos’ was held in partnership with the HHP. The Ritman has a large collection of books on comparative religion, gnosis, esotericism, Hermeticism and related subjects. It has also set up a blog on the conference, in which some of the lectures are illustrated and discussed.(22) [328]

This report can only give a ‘taste’ of a few of the highlights of the conference, and, as the appeal of the individual arts and countries will vary from one person to another, the choice of which to discuss here will have to be personal. One session which I found appealing, for example, was on the Symbolist movement of the late nineteenth century. In this session, Paul Sérusier, was discussed by Christel Naujoks. Sérusier, a founding member of the painting group known as the Nabis (prophets), reacted against the Impressionists. Nabi art aimed to depict symbols and ideas (rather than exact physical reality) by the use of pure colour and line. With his ideas greatly influenced by Schuré’s book ‘The Great Initiates’, Sérusier painted subjects from Hindu mythology and depictions of the Mysteries of Eleusis. Another interesting talk in this session was Sarah Turner’s ‘Orphic Modernity’. It examined a group called the Theosophical Arts Circle, founded in London by Clifford Bax. Its journal, ‘Orpheus’, published between 1907 and 1914, had an important input from Jean Delville, the Belgian Symbolist painter who was living in London at that time. Many other artists with an interest in Theosophical subjects are also represented in the journal, a publication well worth looking at in detail.

The sessions on the esoteric arts in Russia and the Balkans introduced some lesser known artists, as well as covering better known ones such as the Russian Nicholas Roerich, who had a major influence on the ballet ‘The Rite of Spring’. Roerich’s art and ideas were discussed in a talk by Anita Stasulane. He read some of Blavatsky’s writings early in the twentieth century, and many of the themes of his 7,000 paintings were inspired by Theosophical ideas and interests. Other, less well-known figures from these areas included the Nicolay Raynov, the Bulgarian writer, artist and art historian whose works were discussed by Yuri Stoyanov. Raynov, who was the chairman of the Bulgarian Theosophical Society during the 1930’s, also took an interest in the ancient heretical literature of his country, including some in the Bogomil tradition. He had been expelled from the Orthodox church, but managed to retain his university position during the Communist period by keeping his many esoteric interests and connections unpublicised.

In a different session of talks, Jenny McFarlane’s lecture ‘Leadbeater in Sydney’ revealed Leadbeater’s major influence in this city after his move there in 1914/15. One of the artists influenced by his Theosophical ideas was the photographer Judith Fletcher, who took pictures of Leadbeater and his circle. The jeweller Gustave Kollerstrom, another member of the circle, fashioned relevant objects such as a cross which was seen as an object which could connect the spiritually aware with invisible reality, and help to manipulate it. As in the Platonic tradition, this realm was seen as more real than the shadowy physical world.

Another interesting talk by Susana Pliego Quijano looked at esoteric symbolism in the Mexican mural paintings of Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and their circles. These artists are usually viewed as leftwing painters who expressed nationalist and political ideas. Quijano’s talk revealed that they were also interested in Theosophical, Pythagorean and other esoteric concepts. Paintings discussed included Rivera’s early murals of 1921 in the National Preparatory School of the University of Mexico, in which Quijano sees an expression of Theosophical ideas on creation, evolution, macrocosm and microcosm. Jose Clemente Oroczo met Besant and others when he went to New York City in 1928, and his ‘The Fraternity of All Men at the Table of Universal Brotherhood’ at the New School can be seen as reflecting their Theosophical as well as socialist ideals.

The presentations in the music and dance sessions revealed the influences of Theosophical concepts in these artistic spheres. Christopher Scheer, for example, discussed Leadbeater and Besant’s images of the thought forms which are inspired by music, and linger on after the [329] pieces have been played. He also talked of the musician Maud MacCarthy’s ideas of music as a bridge to the spirit world. Maud (whom Besant later tried to distance from Theosophy) believed that music enabled a wordless communication with higher entities. Dance was also very much intertwined with esoteric ideas, as revealed, for example, in Fae Brauer’s illustrated talk on hypnotic dancing. Esoteric dance had a wide influence in France, but this talk concentrated on the particular use of dance as therapy by Albert de Rochas. Influenced by magnetism and spiritualism during the 1890s, Rochas based his techniques on what he called unconscious art – dance under magnetic hypnosis. One of his dancers, known as Magdalene G., copied Greek positions, and was said to have taken on a second personality while dancing, in which she was unaware of her own actions. Rochas took photographs of his dancers in locations such as Rodin’s studio and the Parthenon, and their positions influenced the artist Mucha, as well as the well-known dancer Isadora Duncan.

The evening keynote address, ‘Rethinking Theosophy in its early 20th -century context’, given by Linda Dalrymple Henderson introduced some significant ideas about science and esotericism. Henderson discussed the importance of the scientific concept of the ether in the esoteric and mystical ideas of Blavatsky, Leadbeater, Steiner and others. The chemist and physicist Sir William Crookes also believed in ether vibrations, which could transmit thought. Many artists (Kandinsky, for example) were also influenced by it. With the advent of Einstein’s theory of relativity during the 1920s, however, many of the older theories based on the presence of the ether suffered a serious disconnect. This led to revisions of some of the earlier Theosophical writings. It also had an important influence on art, possibly even leading to the works of artists such as Marcel Duchamps.

The presentations referred to here are only a few examples of the many interesting and varied talks given at the conference. This three day event revealed the widespread influence of the esoteric and mystical ideas connected with Theosophy, and the degree to which they have been expressed through the arts. The number of people who find these subjects interesting and inspiring today is also striking. This trend must be increasing, as, twenty or thirty years ago, conferences such this as would not have attracted such a large group of international scholars. No doubt there are many more artists with similar interests still to be looked at, and many more conferences still to come.

An upcoming international conference on similar themes, ‘Visions of Enchantment: Occultism, Spirituality & Visual Culture’, will be held at the University of Cambridge, 17-18 March 2014. A collaboration between the Department of History of Art, University of Cambridge and the Arts University Bournemouth, it will be organised in association with ESSWE. (The European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism. (23)

Stop Press:
Planning is underway for another Theosophical History conference to be held in London, the first since 2007, possibly in September 2014.


20. See Psypioneer Vol.9 No. 4 2013: The Cathar View: The Mysterious Legacy of Montsegur (review) – Lynda Harris:—http://www.woodlandway.org/PDF/PP9.4April2013.pdf

21. Enchanted Modernities: Theosophy, Modernism and the Arts, c. 1875-1960:—http://www.york.ac.uk/history-of-art/enchanted-modernities/

22. See: http://www.ritmanlibrary.com/2013/10/enchanted-modernities-some-thought-forms-on-the-metaphysical-in-art/

23.Website of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism:—http://www.esswe.org


The report was originally published in Psypioneer Vol. 9, No. 11: November 2013, 327-9. Founded by Leslie Price. Edited by Paul J. Gant. Reproduced with kind permission of the editor.

Lynda Harris also wrote a little study on the British psychiatrist and Cathar researcher Arthur Guirdham, in which she concluded that Guirdham was lead astray by, and uncritically believed, his only source for his past reincarnations, 'Miss Mills'.

Lynda Harris. The Cathars and Arthur Guirdham: an investigation into the past lives of a Bath psychiatrist and his circle. Barnstaple: Psychic Pioneer, 2001.


Endnotes in round brackets. Pagination in square brackets. Links to institutions added.



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