Concerning the Spiritual
The influence of the Theosophical Society on
Australian Artists 1890-1934
by Jenny MacFarlane
Australian Scholarly Publishing
North Melbourne, Australia, 2012.
It is simply not possible to fully measure the overall influence of the Theosophical Society on the world. It has indeed permeated various aspects of human activities. Although the Society’s membership remains comparatively small in number Theosophical insights into the nature of reality and the human condition have had a profound impact on contemporary culture. Dr John Algeo’s article ‘Theosophy and the Zeitgeist’ (http://www.austheos.org.au/tsia-article-theosophy-and-the-zeitgeist.html) gives a clear and scholarly view of Theosophical influence in many areas of human endeavour, including religion, science and art.
This book, written by the art historian, writer and freelance curator Dr Jenny MacFarlane, is unique in that it presents, for the first time in one volume, the profound and extensive influence that the TS exerted on the cultural life of Australia in the first three decades of the twentieth century. It shows, among other things, how the visits by Col. H. S. Olcott, Annie Besant and C. Jinarājadāsa to that country attracted the interests of artists, poets, young politicians and musicians. An entire chapter is devoted to the influence of C. W. Leadbeater on different artists who later on collaborated with him in giving artistic form to his clairvoyant insights.
As Madame Blavatsky indicated in her preface to The Secret Doctrine, Theosophical teachings seek ‘to show that Nature is not “a fortuitous concurrence of atoms”’. Such premise defied, in a radical way, the prevailing Aristotelian-Mechanistic world view of her time, which was dominated both by scientific materialism and narrow-minded theological dogmatism. It is not difficult to see how Theosophy, perceived as a third way, would be of great interest to artists and creative thinkers of every walk of life.
Dr MacFarlane says: ‘This book follows a select number of artists who found in the Theosophical Society an organization which represented their concerns. … Australian artists recognized an alternative knowledge system by which they could make sense of their lived reality. … These artists sought to reconcile science with spirituality, the visible with the invisible, academic rationality with a concept of inner truth through the formal means of their practice. … They are connected not by a formal or stylistic relationship but by a common conceptual response to the representation of a Theosophical, non-visible reality.’
The visits of both Col. Olcott and Mrs Besant to Melbourne, at the end of the nineteenth century, aroused great interest. Alfred Deakin, who was to become the second Prime Minister of Australia, chaired some of HSO’s presentations in that city and later on joined the TS. This was at a time when the intense debate about constituting Australia as a Federation was in full movement. Jane Price, who was instrumental in taking Theosophy to the Melbourne’s art community, was also engaged in the campaign for more women to be elected to the Victorian Artists’ Society. She later on moved to Sydney where she was also involved in the Morven Garden Theosophical School in Mosman.
Mme Berthe Mouchette painted the portrait of Annie Besant in 1908 which still hangs in the Adelaide Lodge of the TS. As Dr MacFarlane writes, this portrait ‘is assured, competently and comfortably within the academic tradition. Only the subject – woman as orator – is unusual for the patriarchal traditions of the genre.’ Mrs Besant’s influence in Australia was an important one and it not only contributed to increase the Society’s membership in that country but was also a source of continuing inspiration to many, including several artists. As the author says, ‘her powerful promotion of Theosophy was enormously attractive to generations of artists around the world, including those in Australia.’ The book Thought Forms, which she co-authored with C. W. Leadbeater in 1901, is mentioned several times in the book under review.
The work also includes case studies about the contributions of Florence Fuller, Clarice Beckett, Ethel Carrick, Roy de Maistre and Grace Cossington Smith.
The chapter on CWL is quite interesting. The author refers to him as ‘the influential proponent of radical visuality’. Although there were controversies surrounding his time in Sydney, Dr MacFarlane says that ‘no one to date has examined the effect that this charismatic and complex man had on the artists of the city which he came to call home.’ She mentions particularly three artists: Judith Fletcher, Alfred Edward Warner and Gustaf Köllerstrom. The author writes:
Leadbeater’s intense relationship with these artists had in each case surprising ramifications. They have previously figured as conservative and parochial exponents in their chosen fields. Yet in collaboration with Leadbeater, their work blossoms into expressions of radical Modernism in ways which offer unique insights into broader contemporary practice. These three artists shared a conviction that the visible and invisible worlds were interlinked; that the transcendental was immanent and active in the visible world. In their work, the separation of the disciplines of science, religion and art, promoted by the Enlightenment, was explicitly and programmatically ignored.
Dr MacFarlane’s book is a scholarly, thoughtful and important contribution to our understanding of the widespread influence of the TS on the cultural panorama of Australia in the first three decades of the last century. It shows how Theosophy captured the imagination of a significant number of artists of that period and how it helped them to find the means and the way to express their own creative vision of the deeper realities of life.
(This review was originally published in The Theosophist, the international journal of the Theosophical Society, in its July 2012 issue.)