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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Cult and color

Our ideas of the psychology of color come from a 19th century occultist, Madame Blavatsky.

From Concerning the Spiritual in Art, by Wassily Kandinsky. He believed both shapes and colors had specific meanings.
My student used to love to read aloud to me while I was painting. This is how I ‘read’ Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

Kandinsky was a student of the great occultist of his day, Madame Helena Blavatsky. She has the distinction of being one of the few women to successfully found a cult in modern western society, Theosophy.

Two Helens (Helena Hahn and Helena Blavatsky), artist unknown, is a portrait of the teenage Helena and her late mother.
Born into the Russian nobility, Madame Blavatsky’s nomadic youth exposed her, in turn, to Tibetan Buddhism, Freemasonry and the meandering byways of esotericism. Her mother died when she was 14. Shortly after, she began to experience astral projection and visions involving a spirit guide, a “mysterious Indian” named Master Morya. He would become the first Master of Ancient Wisdom in Theosophy. Blavatsky claimed to have traveled the world with him.

At age 17, she married a much older man because, she said, he was interested in magic. The marriage was a disaster. She fled, escaping to Constantinople. According to biographer Peter Washington, at this point “myth and reality begin to merge seamlessly in Blavatsky's biography.” She claimed to visit Asia, the Americas, and Tibet, where she learned a secret language, Senzar, from which she translated the texts of Theosophy. She developed clairvoyance, telepathy, the ability to control another person’s consciousness, to dematerialize and rematerialize physical objects, and to project her astral body. “Hardly a word of this appears to be true,” wrote her biographer.

Madame Blavatsky as a medium in New York. Courtesy New York Public Library.
With Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Irish Spiritualist William Quan Judge, she founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Shortly thereafter, Blavatsky penned the first ‘bible’ of her new religion, Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology.

Olcott and Blavatsky continued her peripatetic lifestyle, moving first to India, and then to Europe. Meanwhile, Theosophy was a growing concern. By 1885, there were 121 Theosophical Society lodges worldwide. The movement had attracted such luminaries as W. B. Yeats, Thomas EdisonAbner Doubleday and the social reformer social Annie Besant.

Among them were many successful artists, including Wassily Kandinsky. Concerning the Spiritual in Art was written after Madame Blavatsky’s death, but it is heavily influenced by her theories.

Kandinsky was an avid student of occult and mystical teachings, especially Theosophy. Madame Blavatsky taught that creation is a geometrical progression, beginning with a single point. The creative aspect of the form is expressed by a descending series of circles, triangles and squares. Kandinsky adopted this. He based his color teachings on Blavatsky’s writings about the correlation between vibrations, color, and sound. While the framework of his color theory was based on that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the content was pure Theosophy.

Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott in their later years.
We think of Kandinsky as the first abstract painter, but he was in fact attempting to create a visible representation of the astral world as described by Blavatsky.

Kandinsky believed:
  • Yellow is “warm,” “cheeky and exciting,” “disturbing.” This is the color of madness.
  • Green represents passivity and peace. Good for tired people, it can become boring.
  • Blue is a supernatural “typical heavenly color.” The lighter it is, the more calming it is.
  • Red is the color of “manly maturity.” It is restless, glowing, and alive.
  • Light Red means joy, energy and triumph.
  • Middle Red expresses stability and passion.
  • Dark Red is a “deep” color.
  • Brown is inhibited, dull, and inflexible.
  • Orange is a healthy radiant mix of red and yellow. 
  • Violet  is “morbid, extinguished, sad.”
  • White is the harmony of silence.
  • Black  is “Not without possibilities […] like an eternal silence, without future and hope.”
  • Grey is soundless and motionless, but different from green because it expresses a hopeless stillness.
These ideas still kick around today and influence our beliefs about color.


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