Art, Science and Spirit

Parsonage, 2017. Cosmic Earth, Acrylic on Canvas. 97 x 97 cm

After lots of reading and researching, I have discovered that my interest in understanding the cosmos and the nature of reality is shared by many artists, scientists and philosophers.  While on this journey, I have struggled most with the role of the spiritual.  When I put my rational scientist hat on I feel the need to suppress other aspects of meaning and understanding.  On the other hand,  if I spend too long in the spiritual I am frustrated by mysticism and dogma.  I probably have a life’s work ahead of me to sort these things out.  It is good to know such questions have occupied many past and present.

An artist of great inspiration to me is Hilma af Klint.  A Swedish woman working in the early 20th century.  She was a theosophist struggling to understand her world. 

It seems I keep coming back to artists motivated by spiritual concerns.  Particularly, the abstract art pioneers in Europe, America and Australia.  The following essay explores these ideas in Europe in the early 20th century.

The role of nature in religion: Artistic expression in the art of Paganist belief systems in Europe circa 1900.

Sonja Parsonage 2017

In recent years, there has been a trend toward the spiritual in art (Gerould 2009). A study of history reveals the phenomenon to be part of a recurrent pattern. A recurring ebb and flow in Western civilisation’s need to revive ancient traditions and re-establish contact with the sacred. Prior to the present moment, the most significant manifestation of this phenomenon, in modern times, was the prominence given to the occult (Gerould, 2009) and other esoteric belief systems (outlined in Faivre and Voss, (1995)) in the Symbolist movement of Europe circa 1900 (Gerould, 2009). This essay examines the influence of mysticism, the occult and theosophy in Europe circa 1900 and how the role of nature in such belief systems was given artistic expression by symbolists and early abstract artists around this time. The essay ponders the paradox that by turning towards the past these artists represented a pivotal point in the progression of modernism.

The 19th century was host to a current of positivistic naturalism that embraced the contemporary world and unquestioningly accepted the premises of its reality. In contrast to this view, symbolists of the time reacted with hostility to a materialistic world obsessed by modernity, technological advancement, and progress. Symbolism sought, instead, to reclaim bodies of secret knowledge and to reconcile forgotten wisdom with the latest perceptions and insights. Their esoteric belief systems recognized the illusory nature of the material world and looked back to the spiritual. They did not turn to traditional religions but sought to reestablish continuities with past and future through a synthesis of non-denominational mysticism with Eastern and Western traditions of belief (Gerould 2009 see also Lipsy 1988; Henderson 1987; Fingesten 1961).

Fernand Khnopff, The Caresses. 1896, oil on canvas, 50 × 150 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: Johan Geleyns. Available from Google Arts and Culture (Google Arts and Culture 2017).

Cole (2009) examines the role of nature and the artistic expression of esoteric belief systems in the works of the Belgium symbolist Khnopff. In The Caresses, (see Figure 1), Khnopff personifies the metaphysical and spiritual as the androgyne (an angel, neither entirely male or female, seen as a mediator between the earthly and heavenly realms) and the material or natural as the sensual female sphinx. The key features to consider in this discussion are first, that the material or natural is presented as a hybrid animal/human figure; feminine and erotic; and second, that it reflects the symbolist’s longing to understand and give expression to the duality between the spiritual and material.

Cole (2009) considers the sphinx a fusion of qualities derived from both human and animal worlds: An awe-inspiring mystery of nature, the living unity of nature’s kingdoms. The sphinx depicts the accepted order of evolution, where human nature is thought to emerge from animal nature. The androgoyne and the sphinx are both symbols of synthesis, a crucial aspect to the belief system adopted by the symbolists. Cole (2009) emphasises that the artist does not put the androgyne (spiritual) and the sphinx (material) in conflict but uses iconography and compositional relationship to present a union of opposites. First, the obvious similarities in the facial features of the two figures, and second, the two columns to the right united by a chain echoing the union between the androgyne and the sphinx. The image of the double column is a ubiquitous symbol in the esoteric/Masonic tradition as a symbol of duality. Furthermore, the orb with two wings mounted at the end of the androgynes’s staff may imply the same. The sphere commonly signals the notion of original wholeness in the hermetic tradition and the two wings the notion of duality. Finally, the staff is related to the staff of the god of Hermes who mediated between the gods and mortals, between earth and heaven (Cole 2009).

Early German theosophers introduced a characteristic mode of nature reflection into European esotericism. They proposed a cosmology comprised of magic, medicine, alchemy, chemistry, experimental science, and they speculated on networks uniting different levels of reality in the universe (Faivre 2000, 6). Theosophic belief systems viewed humans as an element in a natural landscape, subject to diurnal and seasonal cycles. The sun, moon, and planets provided perspective. On the one hand the vision was a cosmic one. On the other hand, it was located in the inner recesses of the psyche. This macrocosm and microcosm mirrored each other. The deep structure of the human mind was seen to correspond to the deep structure of the universe (Gerould 2009).

The Lithuanian symbolist Mikalojus Ciurlionis devised his own pictorial language to express the cosmos envisaged by his theosophic belief system. Applying musical compositional forms and principles to painting he portrayed infinite, mystic landscapes in different movements about the sun, planets and signs of the zodiac. To him the natural was supernatural. Ciurlionis declared, “I would like to create a symphony out of the sound of the waves, the mysterious language of a hundred-year old forest, the twinkling of the stars, out of our songs and my boundless yearning.” (Ciurlionis n.d. in Gerould 2009, 84)(Gerould 2009). In a review of an exhibition of his work, Clegg (2001) considers Figure 2 to be indicative of Ciurlionis as mythologist, fabulist and cosmographer. She suggests Rex is reminiscent of the work of German Romantic painter and theorist Philipp Otto Runge. The importance of Runge lies in the fact that he realized earlier and more clearly than any other artist that landscape was the great mythological experience of the nineteenth century (Simson 1942).

Figure 2. Ciurlionis, Mikalojus, Rex. 1909, tempera on canvas, 147.1 x 133.7cm. Ciurlionio Dailes Muziejus, Kaunas. Available at Gallery M. K. Čiurlionis (Gallery M.K. Ciurlionis 2017).

The beginning of the 20th century was a period of history where the physical sciences were exploring the complex structure of matter beneath surface appearances: Invisible forces, including infrared light, X-rays and electromagnetic fields (Vos 2013). Psychology was suggesting a similar complexity within the self. Such discoveries lead to a profusion of hypotheses about the nature of reality (Hendersen, 1987). Coinciding with these developments in the sciences, in 1888, Helena Blavatsky set out the basic tenets of theosophy and established the Theosophical Society. In addition to offering an alternative to materialism, rationalism, and positivism, the belief system of the society was designed to resolve tensions between science and religion. Blavatsky’s brand of theosophy was primarily an acquired knowledge of the magical psychic powers latent in human beings and involved rites and incantations for controlling divine and beneficent spirits (Gerould 2009).


Figure 2. Hilma Af Klint, Group IV No. 3. The Ten Largest Youth. 1906, tempura on paper mounted on canvas. 321x240cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Available at Serpentine Galleries (Serpentine Galleries 2017).

An artist whose artistic expression is beautifully underscored by the role of nature in theosophy is the Swedish artist Hilma Af Klint. Her work’s basis in theosophy puts her on the same path towards abstraction as other pioneers like Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich. Notably, the abstract works of this relatively unknown artist predate theirs (Vos 2013). Klint was passionate about the natural world. She knew its plants (she studied Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist) and animals (she worked as a draughtsman for a veterinary institute). Her vision was to do with evolutionary theory.   She produced a botanically precise symbolic vocabulary dominated by spirals (evolution), U (the spiritual world), W (matter) and overlapping discs (unity). Yellow and roses stood for masculinity. Blue and lilacs meant femininity. Yellow was “next to the night”. Blue was “next to darkness”. Green was perfect harmony. She explored dualities but as with the other artists examined in this essay, unity was her goal (Klint n.d. quoted in Kellaway 2016).  Af Klint conducted séances with four other female artists.   In 1904, she received guidance from a spiritual entity telling her what to paint. Between 1906-1915, there followed 193 paintings known as the Paintings for the Temple one of which is shown in figure 3 where some of these symbols can be identified.

Now we come to the recognised pioneers of abstract art. Fingesten (1961) considers the incorporation of Hindu doctrines into theosophy as a particularly significant contribution to this development.   For instance, in Hindu pantheism, the soul travels from the lowest spiritual realms, the inorganic kingdom, to the highest, Brahman. This spiritual Darwinism was very attractive to many who saw more in nature than just physical phenomena and opened up vast possibilities for the experimentation with organic and inorganic forms (Fingesten 1961).

Figure 4. Piet Mondrian, Composition in White, Black, and Red. 1936, oil on canvas, 102.2 x 104.1 cm. Available at Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). (Museum of Modern Art 2017).

Piet Mondrian wrote that he wanted to catch the “pulsating rhythm of life” (Mondrian n.d. quoted in Fingesten 1961, 3). He considered this rhythm to be expressed in the opposition of the horizontal and vertical. To Mondrian, the balance of horizontal and vertical indicated the equal value of matter and spirit. His grid system (for example, figure 4) was an artistic expression of his belief in a monistic theory of the cosmos where the universe is an illusion and everything is spirit. The neutral background represents an undifferentiated continuum, the void, or Nirvana. He rejected nature because it was an illusion to him: Merely the ever-changing manifestation of what he called spirit. “Since modern science has confirmed the Theosophical doctrine according to which matter and force (mind) are one, there is no reason to separate them. If it is true that matter and mind constitute life, we must take both into account and not just one of these two.” (Mondrian n.d. quoted in Fingesten 1961, 4)(Fingesten 1961).

In conclusion, the emergence, circa 1900, of new scientific theories about the nature of reality and the nature of the self, created an openness towards mystical and occult belief systems whose ideas are now considered a major characteristic of modernism (Henderson 1987).   Despite the anti-modernist stance of artists of the time, who adopted these belief systems to reestablish a connection to ancient wisdom, their work represented a pivotal moment in the evolution of modernism. The symbolist’s legacy is a modern one because their artistic expression represented, not a mimetic representation of a contemporary world but rather a disruption to any fabrication of a logical, explicable world of matter (Gerould, 2009) and they paved the way for the opening up of new dimensions of perception and being (Fingesten 1961).


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Faivre, Antoine. 2000. Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism. Translated by Christine Rhone. Albany, New York: SUNY Press.

Faivre, Antoine and Voss Karen-Claire 1995. “Western Esotericism and the Science of Religions”. Numen 42(1):48-77.

Fingesten, Peter. 1961. “Spirituality, Mysticism and Non-Objective Art”. Art Journal 21(1):2-6.

Gallery M.K. Čiurlionis. 2017. “Mikalojus Ciurlionis, Rex”.Accessed 19 March,

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King, Mike. 1998. “Concerning the Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art and Science”. Leonardo, 31(1):21-31.

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Vos, Julia 2013. “The first abstract artist? (And it’s not Kandinsky)”. Tate Etc 27(Spring). Accessed 28 March 2017.


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