Cardiff Theosophical Society

206 Newport Road,

Cardiff, Wales, UK, CF24 – 1DL





Gauguin & Theosophy




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In the period around 1889, Paul Gauguin overwhelmingly incorporated his own figure into religious paintings. There are a handful of paintings that follow this trend, such as The Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Self-Portrait: Les Miserables, oSelf-Portrait with Yellow Christ and Self-Portrait with Halo.In these paintings Gauguin initially portrays himself as a believer and then as a martyr, Christ, and the devil. Naturally this trend in his art for some another instance of folly of this deranged personality calls for an interpretation. Ziva Amishai-Maisels, in her masterly thesis  Gauguin’s Religious Themes of 1969, goes into a profound and comprehensive examination of all of the artistâ?Ts religious works. In the introduction to her analysis of this particular set of paintings, she asserts that â?othey express ideas that relate both to his own misfortunes and to nineteenth-century theories on art and on the artist’s function in society(Amishai-Maisels 72). With this, Amishai-Maisels explains the appearance of the self-portraits in terms of the artist’s philosophy about life and art tying them in to events in his life, but unfortunately she fails to see the doctrine of Theosophy which would have been familiar to Gauguin, as a force behind them. On the other hand, Thomas Buser in an article published in 1968 had declared Gauguin a theosophist, but with a focus on later paintings, entirely disregarding this particular set of religious works. These paintings, however, can also be interpreted within the spirit of Theosophy. By looking at the paintings mentioned above we can see a corresponding gradual acceptance of Theosophy on the part of Paul Gauguin, which previous art historians have always failed to see. This novel reading is important not only because it offers an explanation of the influences under which Gauguin painted, but also because these influences may be the roots of 20th century modern art.



The appearance of Theosophy after the 1880s coincided with the start of Gauguin's mature period. Gauguin's art, however, is not the only instance in which the creation of art has been driven by the theosophical beliefs of the artist. In the 20th century artists like Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, and also Kazimir Malevich, Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee are known to have been influenced, to some extent by theosophy. This influence is most commonly associated with the former two. According to the Grove Dictionary of Art, Vasily Kandinsky was particularly interested in Theosophy as a means of "apprehending inner values". This means that Kandinsky, like Gauguin, appreciated the spiritual insight that Theosophy promised and aspired to become an initiate. According to the same source, he became familiar with the work of the major Theosophical writers like Mme Blavatsky, who originally conceived of Theosophy, and Charles Leadbeater, who wrote the book on it. His famous thesis on Abstraction, a classic work that has been studied for many years, is "replete with theosophical references and theories". Piet Mondrian, during the period of his career when he was experimenting with abstraction, went even further than Kandinsky, by becoming a member of the Theosophical Society. His art of this period is characterized by "the dominance of spirit over matter".



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Cardiff Theosophical Society

206 Newport Road,

Cardiff, Wales, UK, CF24 -1DL



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Cardiff Theosophical Society

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