Abstract Art's Mystical Heart

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Abstract Art's Mystical Heart


Art historians who revere abstract art tend to tiptoe around the role that mysticism played in its genesis. Occult beliefs were so common among abstract art's pioneers, such as the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), that it was "a basic component of their vision," argues Kramer, editor of the New Criterion.

Mondrian and the Russians Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) were very heavily influenced by theosophy. The mystical philosophy's high priestess, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), claimed that the conflict between science and religion could be resolved by applying evolutionary theory to the "spiritual" aspects of existence. The soul was born and reborn countless times until it achieved earthly perfection.

Mondrian was a working artist before he turned to the occult, Kramer notes, "but it was as a dedicated theosophist that he created his first abstractions." The influence is clear in the notebooks he began to keep in 1914. "To approach the spiritual in art," Mondrian wrote, "one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. Thus the use of elementary forms is logically accounted for. These forms being abstract, we find ourselves in the presence of an abstract art. …

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