The Occult Roots of Modernism

The Guggenheim are hosting a show called “Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892–1897” and The New Yorker ran a piece called “The Occult Roots of Modernism” that expands on the subjects of this show and it’s impact on the Modernist movement that followed.

This all coincides with the research I am doing into my great grandfather and his peers who were also part of the movement embracing mysticism and the occult. I looked briefly into the impact of this occult revival on the Modernist movement when I was researching for my MFA, particularly with the likes of Kandinsky and Ithell Colquhoun.

The exhibition is an homage to the Salon de la Rose + Croix art events held by eccentric writer Joséphin Péladan in fin-de-siécle Paris. He sounds like rather a histrionic and narcissistic man, but there is no doubt that he created an interesting movement with his salon happenings.

“…Greene argues that Péladan’s flamboyant manifestos and mixed-media happenings anticipated avant-garde trends of the following century—notably, the “conception of the exhibition venue as a space for multidisciplinary performance and as an immersive aesthetic environment.” The Salons de la Rose + Croix, which unfolded in various galleries and halls around Paris, were designed less to present a coherent group of artists than to demonstrate art’s ability to transform the daily world.”
Alex Ross, online article, New Yorker

Very much like members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (including my GGfather) the artists, musicians, poets and writers of the Salon de la Rose + Croix enjoyed dressing up, playing archetypes, exploring the occult and rather a large dollop of exoticisation of the East.

“Kenneth Silver expands on the connection in a thought-provoking essay in the “Mystical Symbolism” catalogue, entitled “Afterlife: The Important and Sometimes Embarrassing Links between Occultism and the Development of Abstract Art, ca. 1909-13.” The word “embarrassing” is taken from the art theorist Rosalind Krauss, who wrote, in 1979, that “now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” Yet in the early twentieth century Kandinsky, Pound, and other modernists absorbed what Silver calls “an amalgam of spiritual sources—Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, kabbalistic, alchemical, and just plain wacky.” Assuming the pose of a sorcerer or guru emboldened more than a few artists and writers in their quest to explode tradition and create a new order.”
Alex Ross, online article, New Yorker

The attitude in the passage I have highlighted above is still very much extant in the contemporary art world. I’ve always found this curious when taking into account the history of art that has drawn on the ‘spiritual’ for inspiration and expression over the course of humanity’s creative life. One doesn’t have to be ‘spiritual’ or be a ‘believer’ to find art exploring these ideas to be engaging and worthwhile. I enjoy working within this arena and consider myself a skeptic and an atheist (in the literal sense of the word, if not quite with the Dawkins attitude).

It is important to understand the effect the 2 World Wars in quick succession had on Europe’s attitudes towards creativity and decadence. Interest in turn-of-the-century exploration of occultism and other frivolous pastimes waned quickly when confronted with the cold reality of war and this, in turn, affected the arts. Still, the influence of this movement can be noted in the roots of Modernism even after the end of WWII but in a form that was less fantastical and more routed in emerging ideas around human consciousness and psychology.

Image; Jean Delville. La Morte d’Orphée (1893), oil on canvas, 79.3 x 99.2 cm

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