No wonder the Surrealist’s found inspiration in old alchemical and occult engravings as its strange symbolism hints toward a deeper reality that cannot be comprehended by reason alone but only in the recesses of the unconscious.
The illustrations to Boehme’s Aurora are a particularly fine example of the early theosophical tradition. Boehme was a German shoemaker and mystic who one day while contemplating upon the exquisite beauty of a beam of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish fell into a visionary state which he believed revealed the spiritual structure of the universe.
His work was a direct influence upon the great English visionary, painter and poet William Blake.
Minimalism and abstraction are certainly not styles usually associated with alchemical illustrations and engravings, but the extraordinary emblems in the Paradoxa Emblemata utilise both to great effect, two centuries before they became institutionalised in modern art. Continue reading →
The Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint (see Occult Abstraction) frequently divided her Paintings for the Temple into thematic groups, including The Swan, The Dove, Altarpieces and Primordial Chaos. One of the most stunning groups is The Ten Largest, so called because of their truly monumental size, each canvas is over 10 foot tall. The Ten Largest is an abstract, spiritual rendition of a persons life from Childhood to Old Age.
The Ten Largest with their bold colouring and joyful unfettered line displays an exuberance reminiscent of Matisse, yet Hilma’s mediumistic work painted in secret preceded the acknowledged modern master by a year. Thankfully her canvases survived being stored in frozen Swedish attics for decades and we can now marvel at the splendour of Hilma’s esoteric creations.
Hilma af Klint raises many questions concerning the history of modern art. Wassily Kandinsky’s untitled watercolour of 1910 was long considered to be the first abstract painting, a turning point in the course of Modernism. Abstraction was to influence, and at times dominate the art of the entire 20th Century. Yet this tidy version of events was upset to a certain extent by the discovery of the private abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint, some of which predate Kandinsky’s watercolour by 4 years.
Hilma af Klint was born into a naval family in the Karlberg Palace just outside of Stockholm, Sweden in 1862. After an idyllic childhood she studied at Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she graduated with honours and as a post graduate scholarship was awarded an atelier. She made a living as a conventional landscape and portrait artist, occasionally supplanted by botanical and technical drawings
af Klint had developed an abiding interest in Spiritualism and the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky at an early age after the death of her younger sister in 1880. She formed a group called ‘the Five’ with four other women artists with the expressed intention of contacting the ‘High Masters’. The group met weekly to conduct seances and in 1896 experimented with automatic drawing and writing, a full twenty years before the Surrealists. During one seance in 1905 she received instructions from a spirit named Amaliel that she was to execute the’Paintings for the Temple’. af Klint said she had no idea what the Temple was but from 1906 to 1915 (with a four year hiatus between 1908-1912) she completed 193 large scale paintings , some as large as 10 foot tall, a remarkable work rate, especially considering her petite stature (she was 5ft on the dot).
af Klint was in no doubt that she was receiving assistance from the beyond. Commenting on the Temple paintings she noted, “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”
In 1915 the guiding spirit left, but af Klint continued painting in the abstract vein, though on smaller canvases. The paintings of this period show the marked influence of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. Upon meeting Steiner, Hilma showed him the Temple paintings, however he said that the world wasn’t ready to see them for at least another fifty years, which may have influenced her decision to stipulate that the 1,200 paintings and many notebooks (which explains in depth the complex letter and colour symbolism of the paintings) wouldn’t be made public until twenty years after her death.
After her death in 1944 her nephew Erik af Klint, Vice-Admiral of the Swedish Royal Navy complied with her wishes. He offered the Swedish Moderna Museet Hilma’s complete archive in 1970 but they declined. In wasn’t until 1986 that an exhibition of her work was held. af Klint’s work is held in by a foundation so none of her work is on the market or held by museums. There are plans however for an exhibition centre dedicated to af Klint just south of Stockholm.
The question whether af Klint or Kandinsky was the first abstract painter is largely academic. af Klint abstracts were created in isolation and remained private until 80 years after they were painted. They show an urgent spiritual need to fashion a personal mythology in the manner of Blake or Goya’s Pinturas Negras. Interestingly the recognised pioneers of abstraction, Kandinsky, Malevich and the unknown af Klint were all immersed in esoteric and Theosophical doctrine.
In upcoming posts I will discuss the symbolic system as outlined by af Klint to shed further light on these mysterious paintings as well as a feature on her major series, The Ten Largest.
In her post on Hermes (► “Hermes & Writing in Ancient Greece”: “Collaboration with Alan Severs”✍️.-,) the wonderful Aquileana mentions the syncretic figure of Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes the Thrice Great, on account of being the greatest priest, the greatest philosopher and the greatest king). This figure who at various periods has been considered divine, semi-divine or legendary is nowadays shrouded in obscurity yet it once was a name to conjure with. As Aquileana has outlined the Greek-Egyptian deity in her post I will dealing exclusively with the Hermes Trismegistus who was the purported author of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Emerald Tablet.
In 1463 the great Florentine banker, power broker and patron of the arts Cosimo de Medici heard from his agent Leonardo de Pistoia that he had recently acquired the Corpus Hermeticum, part of the treasures rescued before the sack of Constantinople (previously Byzantium and now Istanbul). At 74 Cosimo was an elderly man for the time and he didn’t hesitate in instructing his brilliant scribe Marsilio Ficino to stop translating the Complete Works of Plato and start work on the Corpus immediately so that he could read it before his death. Ficino immediately agreed and only returned to Plato after he had completed translating the Corpus. It may seem amazing to ourselves that such cultivated and learned men as de Medici and Ficino sidelined Plato, the philosopher whose immeasurable influence upon Western thought has led to the suggestion that the entire history of Western philosophy is merely a footnote to his works, but they were believers in the prisca theologia. Hermes Trismegistus was believed to be of immense antiquary, a contemporary of Moses and was therefore closer to the source of divine inspiration than Plato.
The effect of Ficino’s translation galvanised the nascent humanist Renaissance movement. Hermeticism and Gnosticism share many similarities, however Hermeticism’s emphasis on the inherent divinity of mankind and its descriptions of the soul’s ascent through the heavens make it a fundamentally more optimistic and positive philosophy than the rather austere and ascetic doctrines of Gnosticism and would have held a particular appeal in the hothouse atmosphere of the Renaissance. One of the high watermarks of that giddy epoch, Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man, is clearly indebted to Hermetic thought.
The Corpus, was well as influencing astrology, alchemy and magic also spurred the developing field of the natural sciences as has been shown in a series of books by the truly exceptional Renaissance scholar Dame Frances Yates, including Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, The Art of Memory and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. This spirit of scientific empiricism that Hermeticism had in part engendered caused the eventual demise of the Hermetic Revival. In 1614 the distinguished Swiss philologist Isaac Casaubon published his philological study of the text. The Corpus was not the product of a single author of an antiquary predating Plato and Christ but was actually written by multiple differing authors from Alexandria in the 3rd or 4th Century AD. This revelation would weaken the intellectual appeal of Hermeticism during the 17th Century, although certain esotericists, notably Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher kept the faith in the historical veracity of Hermes Trismegistus.
Below is The Emerald Tablet attributed to Hermes Trismegistus in a translation by the scientist and the discoverer of gravity, Sir Isaac Newton. A key text in alchemy it also contains the doctrine of asabove, so below, the central tenet of Western Esotericism. I have chosen the Newton translation as it shows how magic and science were once closely allied and not mortal enemies.
The Emerald Tablet
1.) Tis true without error, certain & most true. 2.) That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing 3.) And as all things have been & arose from one by the [meditation] of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation. 4.) The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse. 5.) The father of all perfection in the whole world is here. 6.) Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth. 7.) Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry. 8.) It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior. 9.) By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world 10.) & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you. 11.) Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing. 12.) So was the world created. 13.) From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world 14.) That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended.
There is an anecdote about the young Yves Klein (see Dreams of Desire 48 (Blue) lying on a beach in the South of France with his friends, the artist Arman and the poet Claude Pascal, where they decided to divide up the universe between themselves. Arman wanted the riches of the earth and tangible, material things, while Pascal claimed words and language itself. Klein chose ‘le vide’, the void, ethereal space empty of all matter.
Klein spent his career, cut short by his early death at 34, giving pictorial representation to the void, most famously in his blue monochromes using his own patented colour International Klein Blue (see the header image for my story A Promise of Paradise for an example of Klein’s monochromes), but also in the fire paintings, painted in his last years. Klein was something of an esotericist and was familiar with Rosicrucian and alchemical doctrine. As he noted ‘…fires burn in the heart of the void as well as in the heart of man.‘
The above golden monochrome is part of a triptych (the other colours are blue and pink) that represents the colours seen in the heart of a flame. In a lecture given at the Sorbonne, Klein further elaborated on the transformative and unifying nature of fire . ‘Fire is both intimate and universal. It resides in our hearts; it resides in a candle. It rises up from the depths of matter, and it conceals itself, latent, contained, like hate or patience. Of all phenomena it is the only one that so obviously embodies two opposite values: good and evil. It shines in paradise, and burns in hell. It can contradict itself, and therefore it is one of the universal principles.’ Such comments are reminiscent of the patron philosopher of occultists, the gnomic Heraclitus who remarked that ‘everything is fire.’
Klein made his fire paintings using a flame thrower on specially treated cardboard. Supplementary techniques were also involved to evoke a synthesis of the four classic elements, for example a nude model would be moistened with water and directed to leave an imprint on the surface before Klein applied the flame.
After WWII the enigmatic Marcel Duchamp, arch avant-gardist and art world provocateur was widely have believed to have turned his back on art to dedicate himself to competitive chess. However for the next twenty years Duchamp would work in secret on his tableau Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz D’Eclairage (Given: 1 The Waterfall 2 The Illuminating Gas), it was to be his final work. The tableau was only installed after Duchamp’s death in 1968 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
It immediately caused a sensation. The tableau is only visible through two tiny peep holes which presents a mysterious scene whose meaning remains elusive. In the foreground against the painted sylvan landscape is a naked female (comprised of parchment, hair, glass, paint, cloths-pegs, and lights). Her head is hidden, all that is visible above the torso is strands of blonde hair. The posture of the body is extremely disturbing, the immediate impression is of violence against the supine figure. The model for most of the figure was Duchamp’s lover from 1946 to 1951, the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins. After meeting Martins Duchamp increasingly introduced the erotic into his previously cerebral art and he would obsessively draw her voluptuous figure. Duchamp’s second wife Alexina (Teeny) was the model for the arm. Duchamp consulted extensively with both women during the artistic process.
A work as opaque as Etant Donnes invites all manner of interpretations. For me several features are highly suggestive of alchemy and Hermeticism. The oil lamp could be alluding to the alchemical fire that accelerates the process of perfection in the Great Work. The headless women was a frequent symbol of Mother Nature in early cultures and her position could be taken as someone ready for either childbirth or sexual intercourse. If this is the case then the spring would refer to the womb where new life is formed and nourished. Is Etant Donnes an alchemical allegory on artistic creation?
Walking down the street I entered one of those passageways that are created when a city block is undergoing renovation. It was longer than usual and I was starting to feel hemmed in. Finally it ended and I had a view of the open sky again between the buildings. It was even greyer than usual, the clouds were pregnant with rain. As I carried walking along I kept on staring at the sky, I had this anticipation of some kind of inauguration. The clouds coalesced into an eye enclosed within a triangle inside a double circle. I saw the workings of the system, all the letters and words and symbols revealed their latent content to my new self. The weight of the revelation overwhelmed me and I passed out.
In fact I was sleeping on the bus driving through the countryside, the whole vision had been a dream. I looked out of the window and saw up ahead a massive sprawling council estate that seemed oddly out-of-place in the valley that was hundreds of miles away from any urban area. The ominous feeling that everything was off-kilter only increased as the bus inched closer to the development and I could see the smoke rising from the burning buildings. The bus pulled to a halt at a bus stop even though a riot was in full swing and it was being pelted with bricks and Molotov cocktails. A stone shattered the window and hit me on the temple and I immediately lost consciousness.
But I was actually under sedation the whole time and I was lying in a hospital bed. Coming too I briefly remembered my dream within a dream, before going back to sleep.
Then I woke up for real but it felt like those Russian dolls, you open it and inside is an identical smaller doll that opens to reveal yet another identical doll only smaller and so on. A nausea inducing object lesson in infinity.
Although Ithell Colquhoun distanced herself from the London Surrealist Group in 1940 she considered herself a Surrealist for the rest of her life. The schism occurred when Colquhoun was unwilling to submit to the group’s leader E.L.T Mesens dictates that any member was forbidden to belong to a secret society: Colquhoun was a serious occultist and was a member of several lodges and organizations including the Typhonian O.T.O, an order that had fallen under Aleister Crowley’s sway and which he had re-directed towards the practice of his own Thelemaic sex-magic. Colquhoun had her run-ins with the Great Beast, one time when she had rejected his advances Crowley chased her around his house.
As well as being a painter and occultist, Colquhoun was a gifted writer. Published by Peter Owen, the same independent firm that published Anna Kavan, Colquhoun wrote two idiosyncratic travel books on Ireland and Cornwall respectively; a brilliantly sustained Surrealist narrative dealing with alchemy, The Goose of Hermogenes (with what must be the only description in literature of a Green-Light district, like a Red-Light district but with the important difference that the clientèle are phantoms) and a biography of MacGregor Mathers, one of the founder members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which numbered among it’s distinguished literary members Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gustav Meyrink, Arthur Machen and W.B Yeats.
The most famous of the many outstanding works by the genius of the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Durer’s etching Melencolia I (Melancholy I), is replete with esoteric and alchemical references and has been the subject of much debate and interpenetration. The title is taken from the German occultist Cornelius Agrippa’s theory of melancholy, in his influential book On the Occult Philosophy he states that in artists Melencolia Imaginativa predominates over both mind and reason.
A winged figure, Lady Melancholy sits slumped surrounded by symbolic objects. In Medieval and Renaissance medicine, melancholy was a humour caused by an excess of black bile and her posture suggests the contemplative attitude and the mental anguish produced in people who suffer with this temperament. Artists, philosophers, theologians and craftsmen were thought to particularly susceptible to melancholy and were often said to have a Saturnine nature, that is to be under the influence of the planet Saturn. Further allusions to Saturn can be found in the purse and keys which are traditional attributes of the patron god of melancholy.
Directly above Melancholy’s head is an hourglass showing the passing of time, and a magic square that adds up to 34 every which way. Additional references to alchemy can be found in the darkened countenance of the brooding figure, the so-called facies nigra, pointing to the adept that the first stage of the Great Work is nigredo(blackness), the putrefaction necessary for all creation. The geometric tools are symbols of various other stages of the magistery, leading up to the six-sided prism (imprinted with a faint human skull) which represents Prime Matter and the seven steps of the ladder, each rung a phrase in the Magnum Opus. The blazing comet in the sky and the rainbow heralds its final completion.
Contrary to the contemporary belief that melancholy has to be banished at all costs, either by chemical means or positive thinking, the Renaissance view of melancholy was that it was the necessary, preliminary stage of all creativity. Without the putrefaction of melancholy you cannot take the first step on the journey that will led to a transformation of matter and, more importantly, the self. Only art can produce this metamorphosis.