One should not underestimate the impact the Theosophical Society has had on the modern world through its writers, painters and musicians.
This treatise examines three of the ‘heavy-weights’ of the European abstract school of painters – Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Jean Delville.
Pieter Cornelis ‘Piet’ Mondrian was an influential Dutch painter, and one of the founders of the Dutch modern movement, De Stijl.
Born in the Dutch town of Amersfoort, on 7th March 1872, his father and uncle taught him to paint. Despite initial support for his talent, his family were dead set against him giving up his secure job as art professor to set out full time as a painter.
At the age of 20, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam, in 1892, he soon entered the city’s artistic circles. In the same period, he came into contact for the first time with esotericism, notably Theosophy, which led to him to turn away from the Calvinist faith in which he was raised.
In the 1920s, he became very well known for both his art and the articles he wrote for De Stijl, to outline his theory of art. In 1922, to celebrate his 50th birthday, there was a retrospective exhibit of his work in Paris.
In 1938, with World War 2 approaching, Mondrian moved to London and then on to New York City in 1940. On 1 February 1944, he died of pneumonia.
Mondrian was initially employed as a primary school teacher, and at this time painted naturalistic landscapes. His early works display soft, misty colours of the Dutch countryside, but from about 1907 his palette expanded into stronger colour schemes.
Image above: Willow Grove: Impression of Light and Shadow, c. 1905, oil on canvas, 35 × 45 cm, Dallas Museum of Art. courtesy of Wikipedia
His transitional work demonstrates a new view of reality, reflecting the idea that there are forces in nature that related to those of human feeling and thought.
Image above: Woods Near Oele, 1908. representative of the move to abstraction. courtesy of Wikipedia
The artist explored several styles – luminism (divisionism), symbolism and suprematism – but then settled on cubism as exemplified by Picasso and Braque. During World War 1, while staying at an artist’s colony, he met Theo van Doesburg, with whom he founded the art periodical, De Stijl.
Mondrian’s form of synthetic cubism, displayed a tendency towards full abstraction. He radically simplified the painting’s elements to reflect a spiritual order underpinning the visible world, creating a clear and universal narrative in his canvases.
De Stijl was an artistic and architectural movement in the Netherlands between 1917 and 1931, in which artists aimed for pure abstraction. Palettes were reduced to just black, white, grey and primary colours. Mondrian developed his own unique form, which he called neoplasticism – which consisted of horizontal and vertical configurations of squares and rectangles.
He was influenced by M. H. J. Schoenmaekers, a Theosophist and mathematician, who wrote in a 1915 essay:
“The two fundamental and absolute extremes that shape our planet are: on the one hand the line of the horizontal force, namely the trajectory of the Earth around the Sun, and on the other vertical and essentially spatial movement of the rays that issue from the centre of the Sun… the three essential colours are yellow, blue, and red. There exist no other colours besides these three.”
It was in Paris, after the end of World War 1, where Mondrian began work on the grid-based paintings for which he is best known, using grey or black lines as structure for blocks of white, grey and primary colours.
Image left: Tableau I, 1921, Kunstmuseum Den Haag. courtesy of Wikipedia
His most famous work – Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow – was painted in 1930, was sold on 14 November 2022, at Sotheby’s Auction in New York for $51 million.
In 1908 Piet Mondrian became interested in the Theosophical Society and on 25 May, 1909 became a member of the Dutch Section. The Society’s co-founder, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, believed that it was possible to attain a knowledge of nature more profound than that provided by empirical means, and much of Mondrian’s work for the rest of his life was inspired by his search for that spiritual knowledge.
Image right: H. P. Blavatsky
In addition to Blavatsky’s writings, he is known to have read works by French philosopher Édouard Schuré and by Rudolf Steiner, General Secretary of the German TS. 
Author Tessel M. Bauduin writes that theosophical concepts pervaded Mondrian’s development of Neoplasticism:
‘He was most concerned with cosmic harmony, which was to be expressed in a correct balance between general and abstract elements representative of absolute truth and absolute beauty. These elements, or “vibrations of energy,” are either male, equated to the vertical and to direction, and visually represented by the line; or female, the horizontal and space, represented by the field and colour.
In The Secret Doctrine, the male vertical line, or active and moving spirit (designated by the Sanskrit term purusha), and female horizontal field, or cosmic space or matter (prakriti), are posited to be in mutual opposition, while at the same time being facts of the Absolute or One. the joining of male and female is represented by the cross or right angle.’ 
In his 1980 book The Shock of the New, critic Robert Hughes describes Mondrian as “one of the supreme artists of the 20th century.” Hughes adds he was “one of the last painters who believed that the conditions of human life could be changed by making pictures” 
There are several references to Mondrian in modern culture
Lola Prusac, the French fashion designer who worked for Hermès in Paris, in the 1930s designed a range of luggage and bags inspired by the latest works of Mondrian: inlays of red, blue, and yellow leather squares
In 1965 Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent held an Autumn collection based on Mondrian’s designs. It featured shift dresses in blocks of primary colour with black bordering, inspired by Mondrian. The collection proved so popular that it inspired a range of imitations that encompassed garments from coats to boots.
From 6 June to 5 October 2014, the Tate Liverpool displayed the largest UK collection of Mondrian’s works, in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of his death. Mondrian and his Studios included a life-size reconstruction of his Paris studio.
Charles Darwent, in The Guardian newspaper wrote: “With its black floor and white walls hung with moveable panels of red, yellow and blue, the studio at Rue du Départ was not just a place for making Mondrians. It was a Mondrian – and a generator of Mondrians.”He has been described as “the world’s greatest abstract geometrist”.
In 2017, Hague City Council honoured Mondrian by adorning walls of City Hall with reproductions of his works and describing it as “the largest Mondrian painting in the world.” The event celebrated the 100th year of the Stijl movement which Mondrian helped to found.
From 2 March to 16 September 16, 2018, Villa Mondriaan museum in Winterswijk, the artist’s childhood home, featured an exhibit entitled “Back to the Past: Mondriaan, Sluijters and Spoor Reunited.” Later in 2018 a new exhibit was installed: “The Spiritual Path.”
Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was a Russian abstract expressionist painter who was heavily influenced by Theosophy. He taught at the Bauhaus and wrote a hugely influential book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
Kandinsky was born on 4 December 1866 in Moscow. From a very early age he had loved music and art – playing piano and cello, and painting in oils.
As author Richard Stratton relates “Art and music, ranging from traditional Russian religious icons and Rembrandt oils to a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin, left profound impressions on him… An 1895 Moscow exhibit exposed Kandinsky to the French Impressionists, and his feelings upon seeing Monet’s Haystack seemed to predict the destiny that awaited him.” 
Though career in academia seemed assured, he turned down a professorship in Estonia and instead decamped to Munich to study painting. While in the German city he moved in avant garde circles and was exposed to the Jugenstil movement that in the 1890s explored abstract, primitive, oriental, and medieval styles.
In 1901, he formed an artists’ association called the Phalanx. He then gained experience in teaching art and built a reputation that helped him into major exhibitions like the 1902 Berlin Secession and the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1904. Between 1903-08, he toured Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, France and Tunisia, where he developed his own unique style.
Image right: Empor in Alto, 1900. courtesy of Wikipedia
Upon his return to Munich, Richard Stratton asserts that Kandinsky was influenced by the “the impact of the Fauvist colour, combined with a primitiveness and directness attributable to his Russian heritage, the artist began producing major expressionist landscape paintings.” 
After 1911, he moved ever farther into abstraction and with Franz Marc formed Der Blaue Reiter [the Blue Rider] association, named after a Kandinsky painting. They published a journal, which emphasised spiritual reality expressed in diverse styles of art. At the same time, Kandinsky was writing his pioneering work Über das Geistige in der Kunst, or Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which was published in 1912.
He compares this upward spiritual movement to that of a revolution. ‘Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt.’ 
Image left: Composition VII, 1913. courtesy of Wikipedia
Concerning the Spiritual in Art has been translated into over 20 languages, with several editions and printings. Kandinsky’s theories on art begin with a description on the life of the spirit, which he visualises as a triangle – which becomes a pyramid – moving forward and upward. Every person occupies some level of the triangle and their goal is to find spiritual food appropriate to that level of evolution.
Kandinsky asserts that paintings should convey the emotions of music, and music should have a language of colour. Concerning the Spiritual in Art examines not only the physical impressions of the visual arts, but the psychic effects of colours and shapes and their rich associations.
In this work, Kandinsky explores the merging of the arts and the concept of synesthesia, wherein the experience of one sense is linked to another sensory experience in an involuntary response.
Theosophists Alexander Scriabin and Claude Bragdon experimented with keyboard instruments that exhibited colours while certain musical tones were being played. The psychic effect of colour is profound, and particular colours are linked to experiences of sound, taste, scent, and texture.
A large portion of Kandinsky’s text discusses specific colours – their qualities, influences, and associations – and the inner meanings of forms such as geometric shapes. The combinations of colours and forms are expressions the artist’s inner need.
Kandinsky summarises his philosophy as such
‘If the artist be priest of beauty, nevertheless this beauty is to be sought only according to the principle of the inner need, and can be measured only according to the size and intensity of that need. That is beautiful which is produced by the inner need, which springs from the soul.’ 
Kandinsky was offered a post in the faculty of the Bauhaus in Weimar. Its core objective was a radical concept: to reimagine the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts.
Image right: Circles in a Circle, 1923. courtesy of Wikipedia
Kandinsky worked here from 1923-33, when the school was closed by the Nazis. The school attracted a number of Theosophists or those highly influenced by Theosophy, such as Paul Klee and Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, the widow of Gustav Mahler who had married Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.
After the closure of the school, Kandinsky moved to Paris, where lived there until his death on 13 December 1944.
Though never a member of any Theosophical society, Kandinsky immersed himself deeply in theosophical lore, including Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s magnum opus – The Secret Doctrine.
Writer Kathleen Hall opines
‘Wassily Kandinsky was an avid student of occult and mystical teachings. Theosophy provided the main structure for his lessons in spirituality. As his spiritual awareness evolved, so too did his art. Ideals that he was previously content to express in Symbolist form, later shed their casings as they expanded through abstraction. As theosophical teachings on thought forms and the correlation between vibrations, colour, and sound influenced his work, he began to rely very little on form. Shape, line, and colour became his main tools for creating a visible image of unseen events in the astral world.’ 
And Hilton Kramer contends that Kandinsky’s book ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ was greatly influenced the 1905 tome Thought-Forms by theosophists Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater.
Kramer says – ‘When, for example, in the chapter of On the Spiritual devoted to “The Language of Forms and Colours,” Kandinsky sets about the task of assigning specific meanings to specific colours, he is clearly appropriating an occult practice.
Image left: “Seeing” of music: a piece by Gounod (from the book Thought-Forms by Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater). courtesy of Wikipedia
‘Thus, about the colour blue, Kandinsky writes that “the deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man toward the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, the supernatural”—an obvious echo of the assertion in Thought-Forms that “the different shades of blue all indicate religious feeling.” ’ 
Kandinsky was clearly a great admirer of H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. He says ‘This society consists of groups who seek to approach the problem of the spirit by way of the inner knowledge… Theosophy, according to Blavatsky, is synonymous with eternal truth’.
He then quotes from her book, The Key to Theosophy
“The new torchbearer of truth will find the minds of men prepared for his message, a language ready for him in which to clothe the new truths he brings an organisation awaiting his arrival, which will remove the merely mechanical, material obstacles and difficulties from his path. The earth will be a heaven in the twenty-first century in comparison with what it is now.”
It is believed that Kandinsky kept a photo of Blavatsky by his bedside table until the day he died.
Another abstract artist of note, was Jean Delville – a Belgian symbolist painter, author, and teacher. He was the first General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in Belgium, from 1911-1913.
Delville was born on 19 January, 1867 in Louvain, Belgium. Given his indifference to schooling, at the age of 15, his parents allowed him to enrol in the School of Arts at Brussels. He showed great promise and was awarded prizes for composition, painting and drawing from life, after just wo years of study.
Image right: Jean Delville in his studio. courtesy of Wikipedia
Delville demonstrated great technical skill and originality in his works of art. He developed a style that departed from the naturalistic aestheticism and the materialistic realism of the day; his work is idealistic.
In common with many of his profession, Delville lived in poverty in his early years as an artist. By the mid 1890s, he had married and started a family. Winning the Prix de Rome in 1895 greatly improved his fortunes and refined his style, but for many years he had to supplement his irregular income from painting with teaching positions.
In 1896, Delville founded with prominent artists of the day, the Salon d’Art Idealist, as he described it as ‘an imitation of the Salons de la Rose+Croix’. These artists wished to take art beyond prevailing realism and materialism into the concepts of the ideal; taking in the main principles of the aesthetic from such influences as freemasonry, Neoplatonism, Rosicrucianism and Theosophy.
Delville joined the Theosophical Society in the late 1890s, after being introduced to Theosophy from an existing member, Édouard Schuré.
As a result of this encounter, Delville added a tower to his house in Forest, painting the meditation room at the top entirely in blue, with the Theosophical emblem at its summit.
In 1899, Delville founded a theosophical journal, entitled La Lumiere.
In 1900, his ‘Love of Souls’ painting won the silver medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition. Writer Paul Shapera comments that “While lovely and romantic on one hand, this work also portrays the coming together of the female and male aspects of humanity, which only when combined can create the perfect being.” 
Image above: ‘The Love of Souls’. courtesy of Wikipedia
From 1900 to 1906, Delville was a professor at the Glasgow School of Art. Afterwards, he worked as a professor of drawing at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, until 1937. Arthritis forced him to stop painting in the 1940s and Delville died on his birthday of 19 January in 1953.
In 1908, Russian composer and pianist Alexander Skrjabin relocated to Brussels, and there met Delville. Skrjabin had been introduced to Theosophy three years earlier.
Image left: Alexander Skrjabin. courtesy of Wikipedia
When Skrjabin composed his fifth symphony, Prometheus or “The Poem of Fire” in 1909-1910, Delville created the cover art for the score.
As American theosophical writer James Cousins recounts
“Delville, and possibly Skrjabin, had joined a secret cult within Theosophy called “Sons of the Flames of Wisdom.” They worshiped Prometheus, because those fires, colours, lights were meta-symbols of man’s highest thoughts. Fire was Prometheus’s stolen gift to man…” 
Image right: cover art for ‘Prometheus’. courtesy of Wikipedia
Delville worked in many artistic media – oil, tempura, chalk, pencil, charcoal, and even mosaic. He experimented with several colour schemes and styles, but always keeping focused on the inner reality, the central idea, of what he was painting. He wrote in La Mission de l’Art of the expressiveness of idealist art: “Before works of genius the human consciousness receives mental and spiritual vibrations, which are generated by the force of the idea reflected.”
As a mystic strongly influenced by Neoplatonism, Delville believed that visible reality was merely a symbol, and that humans exist in three planes: the physical (the realm of facts), the astral (or spiritual world, the realm of laws), and the divine (the realm of causes). He considered art to be transformative, lifting people from their blindness and that a true artist was an initiate.
During the tumult of the First World War, the Delville family lived in London. The artist turned his attention to Belgian expatriates and refugees, and sold a volume called Belgian Art in Exile to raise money for charities. He continued painting, with symbolic warfare as a theme. His monumental work Les Forces, 5 metres by 8 metres in size, depicts two enormous spiritual armies in conflict. It was completed in 1924 and is now displayed in the Palais de Justice in Paris.
In October 1926, the Theosophist – the international journal of the Theosophical Society, published an article by Delville called ‘Modernism in Painting’ in which he expressed his views.
“Art, in its human expression, is above all things a psychological, a spiritual, an inner phenomenon; it is of the imagination, and human imagination is an independent faculty… To produce any work of art, to make manifest a beautiful thing, the artist need not depend on the surroundings in which he lives, neither need he reproduce or imitate the objects of those surroundings or look to them for his inspiration”
Main photo at beginning of article: ‘Composition II in Red Blue and Yellow’ by Piet Mondrian. courtesy of Wikipedia
1. Robert P. Welsh ‘Mondrian and Theosophy – Part one”. Theosophy Forward. 27 September 2012
2. Tessel M. Bauduin, “Abstract Art as ‘By-Product of Astral Manifestation’: The Influence of Theosophy on Modern Art in Europe” Handbook of the Theosophical Current (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp432-433
3. Hughes, Robert (1980). “Trouble in Utopia”. The Shock of the New. British Broadcasting Corporation
4. Richard Stratton, “Preface to the Dover Edition” Concerning the Spiritual in Art (New York: Dover, 1972)
6. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (New York: Dover, 1972), p14
7. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (New York: Dover, 1972), pp54-55.
8. Kathleen Hall “Theosophy and the Emergence of Modern Abstract Art” Quest 90.3 (May-June 2002)
9. Hilton Kramer “Kandinsky & the Birth of Abstraction” The New Criterion 35.4 (December 2016)
10. Paul Shapera, “The Art of Esoteric Symbolism: Jean Delville” at Steampunkopera.wordpress}
11. James H. Cousins, “The Life and Work of Jean Delville, Theosophist Painter-Poet.” The Theosophist 47.3 (December 1925), pp396-397
Colyn Boyce is a former radio journalist, from Canada. From 1981 until 2018, he was Publicist for the English Section of the Theosophical Society – for about 25 years he was assistant editor of the house magazine, ‘Insight‘, which he typeset and illustrated. He is a National Lecturer for the TS in England and has spoken on numerous occasions in London and at various other locations throughout the UK, Canada and the USA. During 2021, 2022 and 2023 he has spoken for the TS in England, the TS in Ukraine, for the European School of Theosophy and the Philippines Section of the Society.
Note for your Diary
The Blavatsky Trust are funding an event, Theosophy and Art: a Celebration, at the Art Workers’ Guild in London on Saturday 8 July 2023.
This will be a series of talks to coincide with the Hilma af Klint and Mondrian exhibition at Tate Modern which is being held from April-September 2023.
The intention is to showcase Theosophy’s influence on art and is aimed at those interested in art and art history and the esoteric and the spiritual. It will be centred on the artists’ subjects at the Tate exhibition, but will include other aspects of Theosophy and Art.
Tickets will soon be available on Eventbrite – search on Blavatsky Trust and/or Theosophy and Art. It will be online as well as with limited tickets in person.