EXTENSION_From Ritual to Rebellion: The Rise of the Esoteric Avant-Garde

deadline for submissions: 
July 31, 2024
full name / name of organization: 
SAMLA 96: Seen/Unseen

This panel proposes an exploration of how the early 20th-century avant-garde movements, renowned for their radical innovations, drew profound inspiration from esoteric practices such as theosophy, occultism, spiritualism, mysticism, and Kabbalah. The focus will be on examining how these seemingly disparate worlds converged, shaping artistic production across various disciplines.

The impact of esotericism on the avant-garde movement is discernible from its earliest stages. Wassily Kandinsky, a trailblazer in the realm of abstraction, serves as a prominent illustration of this inclination. His seminal work, "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" (1910), underscores the pursuit of inner experience through the utilization of symbolic forms. This emphasis aligns closely with the underlying currents of esoteric thought, which aimed to uncover concealed dimensions of reality through symbolic representation and ritualistic practices. Kandinsky's theories, far from being solely speculative, laid the foundation for a novel artistic lexicon that transcended the confines of the material realm.

Beyond theoretical underpinnings, esotericism actively shaped artistic movements. Surrealism, with its exploration of the subconscious and the dream world, became a haven for artists like Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, and Remedios Varo. These figures, along with Hilma af Klint and Anna Cassel (pioneers of abstract art), incorporated arcane symbolism and spiritual themes into their work. The mystical teachings of figures like Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky and George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, who prioritized self-knowledge and hidden dimensions of reality, were particularly influential on artists like Varo and Carrington.

Beyond the visual arts, the Symbolist and Cubist movements, with its focus on suggestion and the unseen, drew heavily on occult themes. Writers like Guillaume Apollinaire explored these themes in their work. Surrealist playwright Antonin Artaud, fascinated by alchemy, Kabbalah, and mediumistic practices, sought a transformative theatrical experience through esoteric means. His "Journey to the Land of the Tarahumaras" (1936) exemplifies this, documenting peyote use and portraying Mexico as a mystical, forbidden land. Even Modernist writers like W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot incorporated elements of theosophy and mysticism into their poetry.

Given avant-gardists’ significant engagement with magic and the occult, this panel aims to investigate the intriguing dynamic between materiality and spirituality. Potential areas of exploration encompass, yet extend beyond, the following topics:

· Kandinsky's abstract mysticism and theosophical influences in "Concerning the Spiritual in Art."

· Abstract visions in the works of Hilma af Klint and Anna Cassel.

· George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky and the hermetic discourse of the avant-garde.

· Mexico and the magical in the Surrealism of Wolfgang Paalen, Victor Brauner, Eva Sulzer, and other artists.

· The enduring legacy of the occult in Modernist literature.

· The presence of Kabbalistic practices and indigenous rituals in Artaud's theater.

· The esoteric revival and the Modernist imagination in Yeats and Eliot.

· Phantasmagoric imagery in the photographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn.

· Reframing the feminine avant-garde through the archetype of the witch in the artworks of Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Kati Horna.

By July 31, please submit an abstract of 250-300 words, a brief bio, and any A/V or scheduling requests to https://samla.ballastacademic.com/.