Spiritual Evolution and Modernity: Utopian Cultural Politics in Occultism, Theosophy, and turn-of-the-century French Art Presentation uri icon



  • Paintings from the Symbolist movement (such as that by the Nabis and others inspired by Paul Gauguin) is often framed by art historians as a step towards the the abstract, non-representational art that would dominate the twentieth century. A consideration of the cultural politics of symbolism and occultism reveals that this early  abstraction in art is tied to the cultural politics of occultism and the desire by Symbolist artists to find visual analogues for occultist ideas and political theories. As occultist, Martinist, and Theosophical journals in late nineteenth century France show, adherents to these new forms of religious faith promoted a utopian vision of a world where humans could be in harmony with nature, society, and themselves—where people are equal with regard to sex, race, and ethnic origin. Like the earlier spiritualists, occultists was on the leftward end of the political spectrum, and aligned with elements of Kropotkinian anarchism and Fourierist socialism. Symbolist artists and the occultists they followed wanted to unite science and religion, thereby transcending the alienation and inequality of modernity, and ultimately returning humanity to the social, natural, and spiritual unity of an ancient and universal human past. Scholars have long known of the links between the visual art of the Symbolist movement and occultist movements such as Theosophy; this paper argues that Symbolist art not only depicts occultist themes, but embodies the utopian cultural politics of occultism and Theosophy through the visual form of the paintings themselves.

date/time interval

  • October 23, 2014 - October 26, 2014