Meditative, Mystical, Magical: The Idea of India in Abstract Art

Updated: Jan 28

Can a country be called an artist’s muse? The period between the 1880s and 1930s saw Europe profit from colonialism, mechanise society with rapid industrialization, and prepare for a tumultuous world war. At the heart of such disenchantment with livelihood, lay a mystic hope: hope suffused with dangerous jungles and untamed nature; the spirit of the wild harnessed by yogis and sadhus; the softness of Aryans that were otherwise very much barbaric; and extravagance in glittering palaces of pompous and vain maharajas. This contrasting temperament in color, habitat, society, and culture meant that this hope had very much preserved something lost in Europe. And this hope lay hundreds of kilometers away, in India.

Now, all this does sound exotic and fascinating, but we know Orientalism meant something much worse for us - and being called snake-charmers or worshippers of multi-limbed gods was just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. So it’s intriguing (and highly amusing) to find that these same Europeans that looked down at us, now came running towards us…

...for guidance?.

Modern society was built on the foundations of science and rationality, and it’s interesting to find that Modern art was embarrassingly opposite to it - resting on communicating ideas that felt subliminal. It was this abstraction with sense and sensibility that India found a place in because the very same India whose sadhus were the subject of European condescension held what now the first world looked with utmost sincerity - magic, spirituality, and the growth of Theosophy as a religion.

Towards an Indian abstraction

Theosophists Subba Row, Bawaji, and Blavatsky in India; logo of the Theosophical Society. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

We’ve all had bouts of sometimes feeling that we occupy a temporary space with material distractions. It might seem a little far-fetched to assert that our ancestors predicted this future when they wrote about maya, the cycle of rebirth, and the mixing of the atman with the Brahman. But these very ideas were what led Madame Blavatsky, a crucial founder of Theosophy, to write books that mixed Buddhist and Hindu ideas with Mysticism and the occult, that highly influenced major abstract artists. Nearer home, Annie Besant not only headed the Indian National Congress and fought for India’s independence but also influenced the growth of Theosophy.

Not commonly known, but Besant had an adopted son who she claimed was an incarnation of the Buddha, and was also a medium - perceiving people’s color auras that depicted their emotional states. Abstract artists had their own ways of seeing which turned them away from figurative art as merely representative, towards abstraction that was a proper manifestation of what could be real. The next time then if you find yourself staring at a circle, remember - it can just be something much more than what ‘even a child could make.’

Figures 8 and 9 from Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, Thought Forms, 1905. For Besant, the pink clouds were seen issuing from someone who was happy (top) and the affectionate with a gray of selfishness (below).

And it only made sense that theosophy and spirituality - Indian, that is - appealed to artists. Distraught by a soulless material world, European naturalistic art became deeply inadequate to explain something that rested in a metaphysical world beyond scientific rationality. No religion became higher than attaining this truth. As we celebrated the sixth International Day of Yoga the previous Sunday, here’s looking back at the patriarchs - and matriarch - of abstract art.

Not that Klimt

Hilma af Klint was the nineteenth-century Queen Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. Both lived in complete isolation in a Nordic country and harbored a talent that wasn’t appreciated during their times. Okay, the parallel might be a bit of a stretch, but what can be said with confidence is how this Swedish artist’s life took a radical turn when she came into contact with Buddhist and Hindu philosophy through the Theosophical Society (which was now headquartered in Adyar, India).

One of her most prominent works, a collection of 193 paintings (Paintings for the Temple) were a result of a series of seances that she used to participate in with four other women. According to her, she was communicating with deceased Mahatmas in order to recover lost wisdom. Ananda was one of the spirits she came in contact with. Interestingly, the philosopher of Indian art Ananda Coomaraswamy traveled to theosophical hotspots while theorizing and interpreting the influence of India on the west. A different Ananda then, but also a very similar one.

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, installation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 12, 2018–April 23, 2019. Image courtesy of David Heald

“No. 2a, The Current Standpoint of the Mahatmas,” from 1920.Image courtesy the Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm. Klint made a series of works with a single circle, half black and half white to denote a balanced duality. Variations like the one shown here meant that different religions simply constitute part of this duality.

Klint’s work is filled with enigmatic symbology highly influenced by theosophy. Spirals represent evolution, the letters ‘U’, and ‘W’ stand for the spiritual and matter, intersection of two overlapping discs signifies unity - and of course, the theosophical language of color, where yellow stands for masculinity and blue denotes femininity. Yet such complexity was understood by Klint - and seeing that the world wasn’t ready for her beliefs, she included a clause in her will that stipulated that not a single item from her estate be shown until twenty years after her death, ridding her of the acclaim later abstract contemporaries achieved.

“Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 2, Childhood.” Image courtesy of The Hilma af Klint Foundation, Stockholm

The end is spiritual

The two All Saints I, 1911. Image courtesy of Städtische Galerie.

Wassily Kandinsky was highly interested in apocalyptic themes, for he believed that the present material epoch would change into something highly spiritual. This belief led to the painting of All Saints I. Angels, souls emerging from their graves, floods, and fires, Jerusalem, and Christ all featured. Yet Kandinsky made another All Saints I which if not compared with the former, is totally incomprehensible. Why so, if Kandinsky wanted people to know of this apocalypse?

Kandinsky recognized that just an abstract depiction would not be understandable. But at the same time, he wished to hide imagery that would anchor a viewer’s mind in a materialistic world. Abstract forms would prepare people better in approaching all things spiritual, hence the two paintings.

When Kandinsky was having difficulties with finishing Composition VI, a friend of his suggested chanting the theme of the painting (flood) as a sound rather than think of the material meaning the word has. Repeating it like a mantra (‘Om’ comes to mind), he finished the work in three days.

Ethereal congruity

Probably the only white personality who we won’t accuse of appropriating a Tibetan or Hindu mandala for consumer aesthetics (we’re looking at you, Tumblr) - Piet Mondrian’s expression of a pure spirit was imbibed in his grid patterns which were born from his monistic theory of the cosmos, that everything is spirit. The neutral backgrounds of his paintings were the void or Nirvana. The interplay of lines and colors became a cosmic game of creation and destruction, becoming and resting.

“Composition in Red, Blue, Yellow” 1937-42. Image courtesy of MoMA

Mondrian appreciated the latent spiritual powers of geometric design, for he rejected nature not only because it was to him an illusion but because ‘it is the everchanging manifestation of a constant principle’ he called spirit. And it were the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita that made him realize that.

The Soviet connection

How could this discussion come to a close without referring to the artist that called out Picasso for not being abstract enough? The inventor of the style Suprematism (where the truth of shape and color reigned supreme over the image), Kasimir Malevich was influenced by the idea of looking at things in several deconstructed perspectives, yet understood that such perception should always be free of logic and reason - for absolute truth can only be realized through pure feeling.

The Black Square hung at the top of the corner. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The single greatest example of this style was exemplified in the work Black Square, where the pictorial element is a purely abstract shape - which also provided a sense of weight (feelings) against a white background (nothingness). For Malevich, such transcendence was also godlike - when the painting was exhibited for the first time, it was hung in the corner where an Orthodox icon would traditionally be placed in a Russian home.

For the Russian avant-garde, this blackness became their guiding white light.

Nature and reality have come to be expressed in terms of light and color (Impressionism), pure space (Cubism), psychological terms (Surrealism) - and now, in extreme subjectivities. This destruction of appearances has meant a gradual but decisive shift into greater spiritualisation of art, for now symbolic statements lead the way. One only needs to pick up a work by Pollock and see the dichotomy between form and meaning disappearing. What this does tell us is that a necessary re-evaluation of symbolism in non-objective art has only begun.

With a better understanding now about modern art, take a look at how music and sensory perceptions have influenced artists like Kandinsky, Klee, and even Vincent van Gogh here!

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