A Neoliberal Fairytale and its Esoteric Roots: Occultism in the Arts and Cultural Institutions (2019–2021)
Author: Svetlana Tambovtseva
The small project I undertook as a contribution to this blog focuses on the last few seasons of the long exhibition year in Russia’s two capitals. Although this time period covers the fall and winter exhibitions prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and continued up to 2021, my study more or less accidentally centers on 2020. The initial impetus was given by my realization that my leisure-time museum visits were increasingly intersecting with my scholarly interests: anthropology was making its way into curatorial practice, while the museums in Moscow and Petersburg were caught in an ‘occult wave’. In an attempt to understand its origins, agents, and peripeteias, I came up with the idea of a publication series. The research is ongoing, so stay tuned.
In the cloakroom of the Benois Wing of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg the tour guide stopped to end a short conversation with a visitor of an exhibition of paintings by Nicholas Roerich. “You see, he is perceived simply as an artist, as a son of his time,” he lamented. “The subjects of his paintings are taken apart… No one ever mentions ‘The Secret Doctrine’ [by Helena Blavatsky – S. T.]. […] Yet that is what constitutes the complexity of Roerich and the way in which he differs from other artists. You can be a fine art expert, but neither know nor feel that.” Meanwhile, the exhibition ‘Nicholas Roerich. In Search of Shambhala’ already by its title and introductory text draws attention to the artist’s spiritual quest, the origins of which the exhibition organizers believe to find in “Roerich’s passion for the theories of Russian and Eastern (sic!) Cosmists (N. Fedorov, K. Tsiolkovsky, V. Soloviev), and for the teachings of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.”
The defenders of the scandalous and oppressed International Roerich Center, who have no doubts about the spiritual quest of the artist and his family, might agree with the tour guide. They protected the occult component of Roerich’s philosophy from inevitable oblivion in case of an institutional takeover by the Moscow Museum of Oriental Arts, while their opponents, in turn, stigmatized the followers of Roerich as sectarians. We are already used to the fact that esoteric art exists in a cultural ghetto, but while the exhibitions of the Amaravella group of cosmist artists had previously attracted its loyal audience at the Roerich Museum or the Konstantin Vasilyev Center of the Slavic Culture, the Moscow hipsters now come to see them in the Garage Museum.
In the last few months, news headlines within the New Age milieu were made by the FSS’s attack on the community of the Last Testament Church, which ended with the arrest of Vissarion Christ (Sergey Torop), and by the announcement of an astrology course at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (RUDN), which elicited a vehement reaction leading to its rapid cancellation. Neither can one ignore the museum news of the year 2020: In Yaroslavl, a New Chronology Multimedia Museum was inspired, set up, and sponsored by the mathematician and businessman Oleg Zharov, who presents himself as a disciple of Anatoly Fomenko . The reality show Battle of the Psychics (Bitva extrasensov) is rated as high as ever, and the boom in Russian supernatural shows on television leaves no doubt about the popularity of esoteric content.
In the face of the political persecution of religious dissent, Moscow’s and Petersburg’s cultural institutions have turned towards ‘rejected’ art and its social background. Thus, occultism has become fancy, most notably in the art world, though it must be said that, in this case, the term ‘rejected’ does not exclusively refer to the art of the dissident underground (although in the USSR these marginal groups were closely intertwined). The term ‘rejected,’ as it is applied here to the artistic milieu, is used by analogy with Wouter Hanegraaff’s “rejected knowledge” (Hanegraaff 2012): as a result of the opposition between politics and the academy, esoteric art is marginalized and inevitably becomes part of the ‘occulture’. These fluctuations between marginality and mainstream force one to rethink the very label of ‘rejected’. The Swedish scholar of esotericism Egil Asprem observes that “elected marginality is mainstream” and the occulture sells as opposed and deviant thanks to the heterodoxy which is the hegemonic value (Asprem 2020) according to the neoliberal worldview.
Quite paradoxically, the very same art that was stigmatized as ‘degenerate’ in Nazi Germany owes its dubious status in the post-war world to anti-fascist rhetoric, and its cultural context became invisible.
Western background: Revisionism and the Rediscovery of Esoteric Art in Europe and America
In his book Mona Lisa’s mustache: A Dissection of Modern Art the British designer popular in the US Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings (Robsjohn-Gibbings 1947) accused modernist art (Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstractionism) of an unholy alliance with the occult, which, in turn, was associated with Nazism in the years following World War II. At approximately the same time, the radical thinker of the Frankfurt School Theodor Adorno wrote his Theses Against Occultism and proclaimed that the irrationality of occultism, as it had adapted to late capitalism, was similar to and mixed with totalitarianism (Adorno 2001, 129). Thus, occultism for many years became neoliberalism’s sinister Other.
The influence of Adorno and other German intellectuals, who had emigrated to the United States to escape Hitler’s Germany, on the formation of the post-war US-American intellectual space can hardly be overestimated. The situational alliance between leftist thinkers and the liberal bourgeoisie labeled the occult as fascist – who prevailed in art history and the art scene were the so-called revisionists: For several decades the affiliation with occult circles, just as interest in esoteric ideas such, was regarded as a slur on the reputation of modernist artists, and the topic itself became a repulsive taboo.
The first studies in art history countering revisionism were those of Sixten Ringbom and Linda Dalrymple Henderson. Their pioneering works were no less radical and visionary than the first experiments of the abstractionists. One might even say that their works represented the rejected knowledge of canonical art.
The force of this academic taboo back then manifests in the fate of the work of the Finnish art historian Sixten Ringbom (1935–1992), which was devoted to the influence of Theosophy on Wassily Kandinsky’s work. Four years after his pioneering article of 1966, he published his book The Sounding Cosmos: A Study in the Spiritualism of Kandinsky and the Genesis of Abstract Painting (Ringbom 1970), which for a long time did not meet with any response from the academic and artistic environment – that is how unconventional its main ideas were. The Italian researcher Massimo Introvigne analyzes Ringbom’s biographical context as a clue to his discovery: not only was he the son of a prominent Finnish academician who had stained himself
with sympathy for Nazism, but he had also worked for a long time in an anthroposophical
library, which had allowed him to study materials dating back to the beginning of the century
and to compare them with the academia of his time (Introvigne 2018).
Ringbom’s main argument was that Kandinsky’s fascination with Theosophy was not only an undeniable fact of his biography but had also been crucial for the transformation of the artist’s creative method, and thus shed light on the birth of abstract painting. Ringbom documented that Kandinsky had been influenced by Goethe’s aesthetics as interpreted by the theosophist and founding father of Anthroposophy Rudolf Steiner (Mazur 2018, 454). Interestingly, Kandinsky had adhered to theosophical views on painting even twenty years after his landmark work On the Spiritual in Art (O dukhovnom v iskusstve) had been published, suggesting that art should be called “realistic” rather than “abstract” (ibid., 455). It was important for Ringbom to emphasize the direct influence of Theosophy on the visual language of Kandinsky’s abstract painting: “The place of art in spiritual development and the contribution of art to future synthesis; the teaching of vibrations; the interrelations between art, feeling, and cosmic laws; the idea of liberated colors and forms characterizing the spiritual reality behind the shell of matter and even some elements of Kandinsky’s pictorial language – all these central tenets derived from Theosophy or from juxtaposing Theosophy with the Goethean reasoning in Steiner’s teaching. Obviously, Kandinsky was not the first artist intending to depict the inexpressible; the fact that his attempts have resulted in liberated abstract forms and colors instead of ideal or symbolic figures can be explained by the influence of the movement that had taught him that this is the nature of the Spiritual” (Ringbom cited in Mazur 2018: 467).
Contemporary art historians suggest that “the anthropological approach to the history of fifteenth-century religious and visual culture,” proposed as early as in Ringbom’s first work on Renaissance painting, “was many years ahead of traditional art history’s methodology” (Mazur 2018, 450). Similarly, Linda Dalrymple Henderson, who studied the impact of the concept of the fourth dimension on the minds of artists and mystics at the beginning of the 20th century, argued for the enrichment of art history with the context of scientific discoveries at the turn of the century and their cultural efficacy. Drawing on Ringbom’s research in her book The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art (1983), Linda Dalrymple Henderson ascribed a key role to Theosophy and other esoteric movements in the development of modernist art, directing the artists’ quests toward the fourth dimension. She argues that the fourth dimension in its various interpretations was ‘the agent of liberation’ (Henderson 2009, 139).
It took researchers two decades to be heard. The revolutionary exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985 in 1986 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is considered the first step toward recognition in modernism’s esoteric implications (Tuchman 1986). The rediscovery of rejected art was made by the exhibition’s curator, Maurice Tuchman, who traced the connection between innovations in painting and the spiritual quests of artists. The exhibition presented works by more than a hundred authors, both famous (as Kandinsky and Mondrian) and unknown (as Hilma af Klint). Tuchman pointed out that “abstract art remains misunderstood by most of the public. Many
consider it meaningless” (Tuchman cited in Wijnia 2018, 55). The curator invited Sixten Ringbom to the exhibition as a lecturer, thereby paying belated tribute to the researcher.
Nevertheless, despite its scale, the precedent of the Tuchman exhibition remained a rather isolated phenomenon until the mid-1990s, when interest in esoteric art started growing and became increasingly visible in the exhibition scene. It is not my intention to draw up a complete list of such projects, but they number in the dozens (see, for example, Fischer). A major exhibition in 1995, Occultism and Avant-Garde. From Munch to Mondrian 1900–1915 was curated by Veit Loers and presented in the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt (Loers et al. 1995). In 2008, the exhibition Traces du Sacré was held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, followed by an exhibition of occult art in Strasbourg , and in 2015, the exhibition Ænigma was organized at the Czech Museum of Modern Art Olomouc to mark a century of anthroposophical art (Fauchereau and Pijaudier-Cabot 2011). A separate major subject of the exhibition was occult photography, which sought to capture what was invisible to the ordinary eye and to provide materialistic evidence for Spiritualist ontologies.
A turning point was reached with the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, by curator Massimiliano Gioni who gathered art outsiders of all sorts in his “Encyclopedic Palace”. The title refers to the project of the Italian-American amateur artist Marino Auriti, which was created in the 1950s in the utopian and cyclopean spirit of high modernism and was conceived to contain all the achievements of human science. Gioni’s Encyclopedic Palace displayed af Klint’s paintings, Rudolf Steiner’s drawings, Aleister Crowley’s Tarot, and Carl Gustav Jung’s Red Book. As the curator explained, the exhibition was based on “an anthropological approach to the study of images, focusing in particular on the realms of the imaginary and the functions of the imagination.”
In recent years, the case of Hilma af Klint has stirred the art community, prompting a discussion about the need to rewrite the history of abstract art and to pay tribute to the Swedish artist who preceded Kandinsky and created her first abstract work as early as 1906. The story of the artist’s final recognition after a century of neglect is addressed in the 2019 film Beyond the Visible. Af Klint, a thoroughly educated woman who had successfully started her career as a naturalist painter, soon devoted a series of paintings to the latest scientific discoveries, such as radio waves, the electron, the atom, quantum physics, and the theory of relativity. As a medium in a spiritualist circle, she “eventually employed the technique specifically to that end; thereby showing that automatism could indeed function as a means to achieve artistic change and innovation” (Bauduin 2015: 435). However strongly she was inspired by the opportunity to see the life behind the form, to reflect it in her enormous multicolored canvases, af Klint was deprived of the opportunity to exhibit her works during her lifetime, although she tried, though unsuccessfully, to arouse Rudolf Steiner’s interest in them, wishing to see her paintings displayed in the interior of the anthroposophical temple, the Goetheanum. Perhaps after failing, af Klint felt that she could not be understood by her contemporaries – at least in her will, she stipulated that the paintings would see the light of day only twenty 20 years after her death. However, even after a longer period of time, cultural institutions rejected the paintings of the spiritualist artist. Her official triumph as a ‘pioneer of abstractionism’ has been a case of recent years: the exhibition of af Klint’s paintings, organized in New York in 2019, has been the most visited exhibition in the history of the Guggenheim Museum.
The discovery and triumphal march of Hilma af Klint’s paintings through global exhibitions has stirred up a whole layer of forgotten or never-before-exhibited paintings. In 2016, the London exhibition of the Victorian spiritualist Georgiana Houghton became a great success, and in 2020 the Whitney Museum hosted an exhibition by the Phoenix Museum of the theosophical American artist Agnes Pelton, whose style, somewhat reminiscent of Čiurlionis, evolved from symbolism to abstraction – again, it was Tuchman who first presented her paintings to the public.
What I presented here, in a nutshell, can be considered the global context of the recent exhibitions in Russia’s art scene, which have marked the turn towards Russian esoteric art. The process of its ‘rediscovery’ cannot be called complete, yet it is its ‘in-transit’ state I am interested in. Its rediscovery involves addressing the context of ‘rejected’ knowledge and placing the works of ‘forgotten’ spiritual artists in the spotlight together with famous experimentalists, whose canonical interpretation often still protects them from the shadow of occultism.
To be continued…
Translated by Romina Kaltenbach (née Heim)
- Anatoly Fomenko is a mathematician and the infamous founder of the New Chronology doctrine, which he elaborated together with Gleb Nosovskyj.
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Featured Image: Hilma af Klint’s exhibition in the Guggenheim Museum, 2019 @guggenheim.org, 2019
Read this blog post in Russian.
Cite this article as: Svetlana Tambovtseva, “A Neoliberal Fairytale and its Esoteric Roots. Occultism in the Arts and Cultural Institutions (2019–2021)”, in New Age in Russia, 09/11/2021, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/6048.