Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Transcendental Painting Group

Emil Bisttram, Psychic Sensitivity, c.1940
Art & Antiques Magazine for August 2013 carries a piece on the impact of Blavatsky’s Theosophy on the Transcendental Painting Group that flourished in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the 1930s and ‘40s. Leading lights and founders of the TPG were Emil Bisttram, a transplant from New York City, and Raymond Jonson. “The pictures they were making were completely abstract or mostly abstract, in the 'non-objective’ vein espoused by Wassily Kandinsky, who was a huge influence on them all.” 

One ingredient in that mix was a lively interest in the occult, and particularly in Theosophy, a movement founded in the late 19th century by a Russian writer and mystic, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Theosophy, while absorbing and synthesizing a variety of ideas from European and Eastern mysticism and symbolic lore, emphasized the right of the individual to choose his or her own path to truth irrespective of dogma and tradition. This openness combined with speculative boldness naturally appealed to creative artists, prominent among them Blavatsky’s fellow-Russian Kandinsky. Another Russian, the painter and peace activist Nicholas Roerich, was also strongly influenced by Theosophy (as well as Buddhism) and had a presence in New Mexico. He visited Santa Fe in 1921, and in the ’30s a gallery based on his philosophical ideas was set up and served as a gathering place for the TPG.

Raymond Jonson,  Sphere, 1932

Other members included Lawren Harris, the Canadian Theosophist who had been a member of the Group of Seven that inaugurated modernism in Canada. “In their day, the Transcendental painters were well respected in the art world, despite their peripheral position, geographically speaking. They exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and also at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Guggenheim) in 1940. However, while the artists had long careers, their official solidarity as a group lasted only until 1942, when war duties and pressures caused them
to  disperse.”

The rest of the article, “Mystic Vistas: The Transcendental Painting Group  aimed to convey spiritual truths through abstract art,” can be read here.

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