Thursday, May 30, 2013

Blavatsky and Jesse Shepard

A May 29 post at Elisa-My reviews and Ramblings mentions the brief interaction between Blavatsky and the medium Jesse Shepard (1848 –1927):

Shepard returned to the US in 1871, meeting with spiritualist Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy. Blavatsky became uncomfortable with Shepard after she learned about his performances at Salle Koch, a St. Petersburg dance hall frequented by “dissipated characters of both sexes.” Taking up residence in Chicago, Shepard gave "mysterious and completely unique" performances in candlelit rooms, "accompanied" by the spirits of past composers and pianists.

Detail of Villa Montezuma, San Diego, California
Far more colourful was Shepard’s later career as a composer, pianist, and novelist under the pen name of Francis Grierson. According to one writer: “From mystic and philosopher to poet and pauper, Francis Grierson lived a life so full that it took two names and two personalities to encompass them. The Villa Montezuma [that Shepard built in San Diego] remains a wonderful historic home with a dark past.” Shepard’s life with Lawrence W. Tonner, his later years, and dramatic death are given Elisa’s piece.

Blavatsky referred to him twice in her writings, taking him to task for his imaginative restorations of Russian history while he was in that country. She described him in 1881 as “a really genuine, though rather erratic, medium, a ‘trance pianist’ and singer of America, through whose marvellous windpipe, the late Mesdames Catalini, Malibran, Grisi, and the Signori Lablache, Ronconi and Co., with a host of other deceased operatic celebrities, give daily their posthumous performances.”

“Gary Lachman, Albert Einstein, and the Rehabilitation of Helena Blavatsky”

Gary Lachman sends the following comment on Jason Colavito’s “Gary Lachman, Albert Einstein, and the Rehabilitation of Helena Blavatsky”:

It is odd that a mere mention of a ‘suspicion’ that Einstein may have read HPB brings out the kind of animus that Jason Colavito directs at my Fortean Times Article. I even send the reader to the web link that traces this idea and says unambiguously that it is most likely not true. If I wanted to perpetuate an untruth, would I send the reader to a source saying the opposite? I in no way say that Einstein ‘referred continuously’ to the Secret Doctrine or any other of HPB’s writings. But I guess one can’t be ironic or write with tongue in cheek about these matters. There are too many experts on both sides waiting to pounce on the slightest inaccuracy. On a more positive note, I gave a talk on Modernity and the Occult at the Hilma Af Klint exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm this weekend - 24-25 May. The symposium I participated in was a great success and the exhibition itself was inspiring. No mention of Einstein I’m afraid...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Centenary of the Rite

The Hilma af Klint exhibition at Moderna Museet in Stockholm serves as another reminder of Mme. Blavatsky’s subtle influence throughout Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. While Hilma af Klint was studying Blavatsky’s writings in Sweden, Kandinsky was writing in Concerning the Spiritual in Art about her contribution to an awakening sensibility. This week provides another marker on the intersection between Blavatsky and the arts.

May 29, 2013, will be the centenary of Le Sacre du printemps; performed as a ballet at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, the music was by Stravinsky, the stage design by Nicholas Roerich, the choreography by Vaslav Nijinski.

The work’s Russian title, Vesna svyashchennaya, is translated literally as “The Coronation of Spring,” and that sense is conveyed in the familiar French title Le Sacre du printemps. In English, however, there is greater impact in the single syllable Rite, which connotes no gay or festive ceremony, but evokes the stark, chilling scenario of the work, which Stravinsky labeled further with the subtitle “Pictures of Pagan Russia” and whose title is rendered in German as Das Frühlingsopfer, “The Spring Sacrifice.” 

Christopher Cook talked to Sarah Woodcock, curator at the Theatre Museum at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, about a neglected aspect of the performance, Roerich’s uninhibited use of colour:

Roerich’s particular speciality was the study of ancient Russia and the primitive tribes and peoples. Not much was known about them, so you have to work very imaginatively through the few facts that are left. He only really did Prince Igor and Rite of Spring for Diaghilev because they’re the two ethnic tribal ballets. 

The previous generation had been a depiction of the world, realism. Now, what you're looking at is a sort of emotional response to things. And simplification, that's the other thing. 

The assault on the senses seemed to be too much and the event reached riot proportions at times with screams and catcalls drowning out the orchestra. Carl Van Vechten, dance reviewer for the New York Times, gives the audience reaction from the viewpoint of one who was there and found, unbeknownst to him, sitting in the row in front of him Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas: The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time.

Among those in the audience was twenty-year old Dane Rudhyar, who would soon move to New York and then to California, eventually writing over 40 books and hundreds of articles on aspects of occultism, astrology, and Theosophy, as well as musical compositions of his own.

Roerich credited Blavatsky as foreshadowing a new age, and though he was known for his numerous paintings of his travels in Tibet, he also produced with his wife a number of philosophical texts inspired by her writings. Another event in 1913, the founding of the Anthroposophical Society by Rudolf Steiner, would soon provide another theoretical basis for those involved in the arts.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, which is still in existence in Paris, will be staging Vaslav Nijinski’s original 1913 choreography of Le Sacre du printemps on May 29.

Roerich's scenic design for Le Sacre du Printemps

Blavatsky and Albert Einstein

Jason Colavito’s “Gary Lachman, Albert Einstein, and the Rehabilitation of Helena Blavatsky” critiques a piece in the June 2013 Fortean Times by Gary Lachman on H.P. Blavatsky. He looks especially at the connection between Blavatsky and Einstein:

According to S. L. Cranston’s 1993 biography of Blavatsky, Einstein’s niece visited Theosophy headquarters in India and told Eunice Layton, a theosophical lecturer, that she had to see the place because although she knew nothing of theosophy she was driven to India by the sheer power of the book kept on her uncle’s desk. If that doesn’t sound like a myth, I don’t know what does. We can pretty much be sure it’s a myth because Einstein had no niece. His only sister had no children. Cranston’s sources were a 1974 article by theosophist Iverson Harris and a 1983 Ojai Valley News article by “Jack Brown,” a man who does not otherwise have any record of involvement with Einstein and whose article contains unproved assertions, including the claim that the otherwise unknown “Howard Rothman” was one of Einstein’s closest friends.

Somehow this original story that Einstein read Blavatsky in 1935 transformed into the modern story that he referred continuously to the book and left it open on his desk at his death.  Colavito traces its oldest reference to Boris de Zirkoff, editor of her writings.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hilma af Klint

We are OCA, the art, design, photography, music, textiles and writing blog maintained by staff and tutors of the Open College of the Arts in England, reports on the experience of viewing the exhibition dedicated to the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. The exhibition is huge—over 1,000 paintings and works on paper supported by decades of notebooks (around 124 in total), explaining the processes and thoughts behind the works. It is also significant. It is the first time that many of these pieces will be on view. According to the catalog: “Although she exhibited her early, representational works, she refused to show her abstract paintings during her lifetime. In her will, she stipulated that these groundbreaking works must not be shown publicly until 20 years after her death. She was convinced that only then would the world be fully and completely ready to understand their significance.” Apparently, the time is now right. The reviewer adds:

Hilma af Klint’s complex and articulate paintings have been revered as being possibly the first non-objective works to be made in the early 1900’s; two years prior to the Russian born artist Wassily Kandinsky who has historically been accredited with the accolade of being the first purely abstract painter.

Negotiating around the masculine domain of art making by working through automatism and spiritual séances, Hilma af Klint appears to allow herself more freedom and reverence by working directly through ‘High Masters’ in their masculine form; through instructed spiritualist experience. Influenced heavily by the infamous Madame Blavatsky, the co-founder of ‘The Theosophical Society’ and writer of ‘The Secret Doctrine’, af Klint’s ‘High Masters’ guided her hand in an attempt to gain spiritual knowledge of the self and of the universe.

This causes one of the commentators to post: Madame Blatavsky, despite being accused of faking some of the effects at her seances seems to have inspired some great art. (!)

The Hilma af Klint exhibition at Moderna Museet in Stockholm closes on May 26. For those unable to see it, the Venice Biennale will have five of her paintings in the Central Pavilion from June to November this year. Notice of the exhibition is given in the Blavatsky News post of January 24, 2013.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Blavatsky’s Subtle Body

Geoffrey Samuel, Director of the Research Group on the Body, Health and Religion at Cardiff University, has added a new book to his numerous studies on Tibetan religious culture. Professor Samuel has edited with Jay Johnston, Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body. Fourteen academic writers, including Samuel and Johnston, contribute on subjects related to their area of expertise. At 296 pages, the book published by Routledge UK, sells for £90.00 / $155.00 USD. Chapters are grouped into four sections detailing (1) Subtle Bodies in China and India; (2) Subtle Bodies in the Tibetan Tradition; (3) Subtle Bodies in Europe and Islam; and, of course, (4) Subtle Bodies and Modernity. Dr. Johnston of the Department of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney, who introduces part 4 of the book, notes Blavatsky’s contribution to the notion of a “Subtle Body”:

Blavatsky’s text in her multi-volumed tomes Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine draw together scientific aspirations (and nomenclature), Eastern religious ideas (adapted and changed), and Hermetic ideas and astrology. Core to the complex cosmology of ‘planes if existence’ and ‘root races’ was the subtle body.

She writes that “In Theosophical narratives, the subtle body comprises seven layers or sheaths, each interpenetrating and exceeding the other,” which is only partially correct. In Blavatsky’s schema the consciousness of the individual has seven aspects, often referred to as principles, rarely as bodies. Drawing from Blavatsky and Alice Bailey, a brief attempt on defining how these bodies function leads quickly into an outline of the contribution of C.W. Leadbeater and Alice Bailey and later writers who were influenced by them. Unfortunately the book includes no chapter on Blavatsky and her influential ideas on the subject, though a detailed literature exists.

The pioneering 1919 work by Blavatsky’s secretary, G. R. S. Mead, The Doctrine of the Subtle Body in Western Tradition: An Outline of What the Philosophers Thought and Christians Taught on the Subject, is referenced.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Blavatsky News

*  Another indicator of Blavatsky’s permeation in contemporary culture can be seen in the following reference to her in a sports column. Yahoo Sports, under the headline, “Behind the Box Score, where the playoffs have begun and the Clippers are up one,” carried a report on the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks which ended with New York winning 85, Boston 78.

And because this was a Boston/New York game, both teams regressed in a way that would make Helena Blavatsky proud. 

Occult Notebook of Xul Solar
*  An exhibition in New York on the Argentine artist Xul Solar (Oscar Agustín Alejandro Schulz Solari), “Xul Solar and Jorge Luis Borges: The Art of Friendship,” looks at “the intellectual exchange between the mystic artist Xul Solar (1887-1963) and the writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1985.) The Art of Friendship focuses on the fraternal dialogue and collaborations between Solar and Borges, the most singular cultural figures in Buenos Aires in the twentieth century who contributed to the philosophical and aesthetic renewal in Argentina in the 1920s by cultivating a form of ‘fluid nationalism’.”  The program notes: 

Xul Solar lived in Europe between the years 1918 and 1923 and during this time he studied the works of H. P. Blavatsky, Emanuel Swedenborg and William Blake among others who informed his interest in theosophy, spiritualism and astrology.

The exhibition at the Americas Society in New York runs from April 18 to July 20, 2013.

* A number of recent programs in the U.S. relating to the Blavatsky are worth noting: Paul Ivey’s presentation on his book Radiance from Halcyon, a history of the Temple of the People, at the historic IOOF Hall at 128 Bridge Street in Arroyo Grande, California, on Friday May 3. Michael Gomes’s weeklong seminar at the Krotona School of Theosophy, May 7 to 10, on Blavatsky’s Esoteric Instructions, commemorating the 125 anniversary of her School. David and Nancy Reigle will be giving a three day workshop, June 14-16, 2013, on the Book of Dzyan at the Ozark Theosophical Camp and Education Center in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas. The Reigles have spent the past 30 years looking into the origins of the Book of Dzyan and have contributed enormously to our understanding of the matter. Their program can be seen here.