The esoteric in modern art

Bauduin occultation of surrealismOver the last few years, there appears to have been an increased interest, at least from academics and curators, in the relationship between esotericism and art. A couple of my colleagues have spent considerable research time investigating this relation, and I want to use this post to recommend their work. This seems particularly relevant given certain recent publications, which I will get to in a second.

First, however, I want to mention an article that Marco Pasi published a few years ago (“Coming Forth by Night”, available here). Here he presents a useful typology of four ways in which an engagement with “the occult” or esoteric may take in modern and contemporary art. The first of these is simple and straight forward, and concerns the representation, generally visual, of esoteric symbolism or imagery. The second is more interesting, and concerns the production of artworks that are thought to be “esoteric object” in their own right: thus a talisman, a fetish, a magical object.  The third type, pertinent especially to performance and body art, concerns works of art that aim to induce certain extraordinary experiences – thus initiation, or “mystical experience” – deemed in some sense to be “esoteric”. Finally, the fourth type covers works of art that are presented as the result of a certain type of extraordinary experience: such as the direct communication of spirits, or the attainment of visions – an element of esoteric discourse that has often been labelled “mediation”.

These types may be good tools to think with. They make it clear from the beginning that “esotericism” /”the occult” has many dimensions, spanning the visual, representative, transformative, experiential, and practical. These dimensions may furthermore influence a variety of artistic expressions, through numerous media.

One who has been working in this field for many years now is Tessel Bauduin, who defended her PhD dissertation on esotericism and surrealism at the end of last year.  The dissertation is entitled The Occultation of Surrealism: A Study of the Relationship between Bretonian Surrealism and Western Esotericism, and can be found in its entirety through the digital archive of the University of Amsterdam. One of the themes she addresses concerns the fourth type of interaction between art and esotericism mentioned above: André Breton’s surrealist circle was slightly obsessed with weird communications from elsewhere; indeed, this was even reflected in the definition of the movement’s “-ism”. In the 1920s, this obsession was expressed through an intense interest and experimentation with psychic mediums, somnambulism, and Mesmeric trances, as mediations of the surreal.

Besides her dissertation on surrealism, Bauduin has emerged as a general expert on the historical dimensions of the relation between esotericism and modern art. I should mention her contribution to another fresh volume, the Handbook of the Theosophical Current (a milestone work edited by Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein, 2013), entitled “Abstract Art as ‘By-Product of Astral Manifestation’: The Influence of Theosophy on Modern Art in Europe”. This article charts the territory of artistic involvement with Theosophy in particular, and theosophical influences on artistic forms, notably abstract art.

Finally, another very recent  achievement of this spur of research into the esoteric in art is found in the current issue of Aries (vol. 13, issue 1). This is a special issue on “Occulture and Modern Art”, co-edited by Bauduin and Nina Kokkinen. The issue is available here for those who are on an online subscription. It is an interesting volume on several levels. It takes Christopher Partridge’s concept of “occulture” (read more on that in his contribution to Contemporary Esotericism) as a starting point to theorize about the historical interaction of art and esotericism. This broader project is made most clear in the introduction written by the guest editors, and in a long article by Kokkinen. Thus, Kokkinen’s “Occulture as an Analytical Tool in the Study of Art” attempts to find a sociological framework for analyzing the confluence of occultism, spirituality and art – and not only in contemporary times. The result is thus of some interest to a broader academic debate in the sociology and history of religion.  Partridge also contributes a response to the papers in the volume,  leading to a fruitful and hopefully clarifying dialogue on the concept of “occulture”.

Other articles in this issue focus on late-19th-century spiritualism (Jonathan Shirland), its visual culture (Serena Keshavjee), and surrealism (Victoria Ferentinou). Taken together, the thematic issue on “Occulture and Modern Art” demonstrates that the interaction of esotericism and art opens up a field of inquiry that reaches much broader than galleries, expos, and seance rooms, and is of relevance to the general study of religion as well as esotericism and art history.

Creative Commons License
This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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  1. […] discovered the work of Marco Pasi (University of Amsterdam) via a post on Egil Asprem’s Heterodoxology blog (highly recommended). Asprem points towards Pasi’s essay Coming Forth by Night, which […]


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