EH: Maybe we can start with each of you introducing yourself and saying a little about your research and your focus.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Victoria Turner. I’m an art historian and Deputy Director for Research at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, but before my current position, I was a Lecturer in the History of Art Department at the University of York. And it was whist I was at York that we started the Enchanted Modernitiesproject. Personally, I’m really fascinated by the intersections between the visual arts and Theosophy. This interest was first developed whilst I was working on my PhD, and this going back quite a number of years, and one of the chapters of my PhD was about a group of artists in early 20th-century London who were all members of the Theosophical Society. They set up a magazine together called Orpheus which published ideas about ‘imaginative art’. So I started from there and this one artistic group, and then continued to delve deeper into the world of Theosophy and the arts. I started to look for other people who were working on this subject—and that’s how I met James and Chris.
[L-R] Christopher M. Scheer, James Mansell and Sarah V. Turner. Courtesy of Utah State University.
Enchanted Modernities, opening reception, 2014. Courtesy of Utah State University.
Enchanted Modernities, opening reception, 2014. Courtesy of Utah State University.
Oskar Fischinger: Blue Cristal, 1951. Courtesy of Utah State University.
Chris: We have to think also that there was probably a sense of who the viewer was: who is going to be looking at these paintings and listening to this music, and what their abilities would be. I mean this is talked about in Thought Forms as we just discussed: you have to have the ability to sense these deeper meanings, or ideas, or the deeper vibrations, and you may not have that ability. But that doesn’t mean you’re not getting something from simply having a vague sensation of the kind of exterior of the work, if that makes sense. I can think of one example musically that might be a helpful parallel: and it’s a piece that was played as part of the concerts for the exhibition. There’s a piece by John Foulds, the three ‘Aquarelles’, each of which is based upon a painting. The second one is ‘By the Waters of Babylon’, based upon the William Blake work. And he (Foulds) uses quartertones, as James has been talking about, in this piece. And there’s very much a sense that the music is presented and then through the integration of quartertones kind of dissolves away into something else, as if you’re almost looking at the surface of the painting and then going through the painting or something like that. It’s something similar, and—Sarah you may have to save me here—but I seem to remember Agnes Pelton talking about that, talking about the surface and the interior when she was discussing her paintings. Am I just kind of having a senior moment?
Sarah: No, no, and those ideas were particularly important for the group she was a part of, the Transcendental Painting Group.
Sarah: And again, because of their deep and sustained conversations with Dane Rudhyar, were interested in this kind of idea about how to ‘penetrate the veil’, I think that was the phrase that was used. And so thinking about the surface of the canvas in particular, how could you get through that? How could you permeate its materiality and enter into another realm? And so I think those ideas were particularly significant for the TPG.
EH: I’d like to end with talking a little bit about the impact of the project and what you believe the impact has been, what the response has been? It’s been going on for some time now, so you’ve been working on it for some time: how would you summarise the impact?
Sarah: There’s so much to say there. I guess for all of us it’s personal and professional. I think for me, again from my vantage point as an art historian, going into a major institution, like the Guggenheim, and seeing Theosophy openly discussed on the captions for a public audience is quite incredible. I’m not saying we had a direct impact on that!—but I think our project is part of this cultural shift in thinking about the wider importance of spiritualism, esotericism, and all its associated movements. So just seeing and feeling that the project is part of something bigger, and this book contributes to a much broader conversation globally about the ways in which we write history and the narratives that we tell about artists. It’s something that’s incredibly gratifying and exciting to be part of. On a personal level, the people that we’re talking to now have become such incredible friends, and that also goes for the people in the network, and just the conversations and the connections that we’ve made have been truly enriching intellectually, but also personally.
James: From my perspective I think only time will tell. There are certain people in the academic world that are very open and receptive to this kind of research, but I still think there are plenty of people who are quite hostile to it. Lots of the work we did in this network fed into work that I published in my own monograph on noise, and the response to that has been really interesting. The second chapter on Theosophy has been the most commented upon, and it’s provoked two separate reactions. One is to say ‘that’s the most interesting part of the book, that’s so fascinating and different to what I was expecting a book on noise to be about’, and the other response is ‘I don’t want to read about this, I really don’t want to know about this Theosophy stuff, it’s really unpalatable’. So I feel like there’s still quite a polarised response to this kind of research: people who don’t want to know, and people who just find it fascinating and surprising. So I think time will tell whether it becomes a more mainstream part of the way that we research modernity, modernism, and the arts.
Sarah: I was going to say James, art historians are honestly a much more embracing bunch!
James: I could quote some reviews of my book. One reviewer said something like ‘I spent far longer reading about Theosophy than I’d ever want to have done’!
Sarah: Let’s hope they don’t get a copy of this book then!
Chris: I think that the growing attractiveness of these narratives and this art to a wider public says something about where we may be headed, with the Hilma show at the Guggenheim, and other shows now popping up all over, which seem to meet this topic kind of head-on, rather than putting it in footnotes or not mentioning it at all. It’s really exciting to watch that. And who knows if we contributed to that. But if nothing else, our book will hopefully contribute to a more complete understanding than has hitherto been had of these artists and these times that we’re trying to research and study. I mean, a little anecdote: this stuff is obviously becoming more mainstream and more popular. I was in IKEA the other week, and you could buy Hilma af Klint prints. So that says something about the growing awareness and growing demand for this kind of art, even if—maybe if they’re buying in IKEA they don’t know the whole story behind it, they just like what it looks like, but still, that would maybe never have happened five years ago.
EH: Great. It might be through the consumer culture, but hey, at least it’s coming in…
Chris: Well exactly, and maybe someone will then go say ‘well who’s Hilma af Klint, or who’s Agnes Pelton?’ or whatever. And then the narratives they find will be these narratives, or there’s something there for them to read, whereas maybe there was not so much for them to read ten years ago.
James: I have a feeling that up until a certain point, being openly Theosophical or esoterically spiritual was a barrier to acceptance for artists and musicians, and I think that has changed. And Hilma is a good example. And there are others I can think of where what would be viewed as an unacceptably strange or unusual worldview was a barrier to mainstream acknowledgement, and I think that has changed. Just because you had unconventional views as an artist no longer means that you can’t be widely celebrated and known and shown in galleries and performed in concert halls. That’s something that has changed.
Sarah: And I’d say that actually it’s working the other way, that for contemporary artists who are interested in the occult and the mystical, it guarantees them in a way another audience. I’ve just noticed when working with contemporary artists how they’re not embarrassed to state that they’ve got an interest in esoteric ideas, and that’s been a definite shift within the contemporary art scene, to being very open and almost encouraging of what might have once been seen as that subcultural or counter-cultural interest as well.
EH:And it may be that contemporary art has had a role to play in making it more acceptable in academia.
Sarah: Yes, I think that’s right, definitely. Can I just add one thing about the book as well? As an object, as a material thing, we were really delighted with the way that Fulgur took on the project. We could see that the image quality, that the materiality, the quality of the printing really mattered to make our argument really sing about the visual and material qualities as works of art. So we were really pleased about that, and that dialogue that we had with Robert Ansell about the book’s textures and the way that he really played with those ideas and incorporated them into the design of the book. Because I don’t think we would have got that kind of interest in those ideas if we were working with a conventional university press, for example, where often you’re forced to have black and white images, or you have to get huge subvention. It seemed really important that the book was part of the argument itself, in its material and visual form. So actually having it in our hands and opening it up and seeing photographs of the cracked desert on the fly leaf and then you open it up even further and you have these incredible gate fold images: Andrew McAllister’s photography, another contemporary artist we’d worked with on the show and for the book. He’s got an incredible image, an almost panoramic image of Church Rock—and how Robert incorporated that physically into the book has been really exciting. I don’t think I’ve ever made a book or worked on a book quite like this.
EH: I’m so happy to hear that, it’s delightful, and it really is a gorgeous book!
Sarah: We’d just like to say thank you to Fulgur!