Sunday, February 21, 2010

Embarrassing Times

The Sunday Times of London for February 7, 2010, carries a review of an exhibition at the Tate Modern on the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg. Van Doesburg (1883-1931) was also a founder of the Dutch art movement, De Stijl.

Noting the acknowledged influence of Theosophy on the artist, the reviewer, Waldemar Januszczak, states:

The fact is, theosophy, founded by the fraudulent Madame Blavatsky in the 1870s, is embarrassing. If there is one thing you do not want your hardcore modernist to be, it is a member of an occult cult that believes in the essential unity of the cosmos, as proposed so battily by Madame Blavatsky. Theosophy takes art into Dan Brown territory. No serious student of art history wants to touch it.

Yet it was theosophy that turned Van Doesburg from a turbulent expressionist working in the Van Gogh style into a painterly seeker after universal truths. He discovered it via Kandinsky, also a theosophist, whose writings on the spiritual in art Van Doesburg read and absorbed in 1913, his year of change. Mondrian, the greatest painter in Van Doesburg’s circle, and a gorgeous contributor throughout this show, was a theosophist too. When Mondrian died, one of the few possessions left in his studio was a large portrait of Madame Blavatsky.

If the reviewer wants to talk about “embarrassing”, he might want to start with the corny title of this piece, “Theo van Doesburg made it hip to be square”. “No serious student of art history wants to touch it.” What “it”? Theosophy’s impact on art ? Yet art historians and curators have long acknowledged Blavatsky’s creative influence on the arts, as the four hundred page catalogue, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition a quarter century ago would seem to indicate. So would the testimony of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee, Van Doesburg, Frantisek Kupka et al. Why the need to denigrate HPB just because you can’t comprehend or appreciate her work? This is the level The Sunday Times has descended to: name calling in the name of journalism.

The exhibition, “Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde,” is at Tate Modern, London, SE1, until May 16. The review in The Sunday Times, and readers comments, can be read here.

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