Lecturer Discusses Occult Influence in Early 20th Century Art


Drew Kaplan '20, Editor-in-Chief

Linda Dalrymple Henderson ’69 explored the role of synesthesia, the ethereal and conceptions of the fourth dimension in the art of Russian born painter Wassily Kandinsky in a recent lecture.

Henderson explained that Kandinsky first became deeply interested in art, while viewing a painting by the French painter Claude Monet, he was unable to determine the subject matter of the painting. The idea of “painting pure color and pure form” strongly influenced the artistic development of Kandinsky, according to Henderson. He became aware that “color itself can convey meaning.” Henderson illustrated this point through references to two paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles and The Night Café. Henderson explained that the blues of the former painting denote the sleepiness of the space, whereas the dissonant greens, yellows and reds of the latter signify the café as a space of chaos where nefarious activities may occur. The “painted surface [became] no longer a window on the world” for Kandinsky, rather a canvas able to convey abstract messages. 

Henderson also noted the importance of Henri Matisse to Kandinsky through his rejection of materialism for a more spiritual conception of art. “Materialism that so troubled him in the world” led Kandinsky to move to more abstract representations. Henderson also explained that it was around this time that Kandinsky became interested in the idea of synesthesia, a condition from Kandinsky suffered. He subscribed to the idea that avant garde music and art could expand the consciousness of individuals. The “new focus on meta-reality […] largely missing from modern art” led Kandinsky to explore this dematerialization of form, Henderson explained, “color is a power which directly influences the soul” in the manner of a piano player and the piano creating an artistic vibration which physically strikes the listener through sound. 

Important to this stylistic develop, Henderson argued, was a then growing interest in occult practices during the pre-World War I period. The period saw the development of technologies such as radio transmission and X-rays which undermined physical representations. Occultism during the period, according to Henderson, had become an alternate understanding of reality. 

Henderson concluded her lecture by discussing these elements through Kandisky’s painting Composition VI. She stated “its chaotic, its anarchic” in describing the piece, and argued that Kandinsky’s intent in the painting was to communicate with viewers without using any material representation, and instead through the use of color.

 “Yellow was the earthly color, aggressive, which tended to move towards a viewer. Blue by contrast was the heavenly color. […] Red keeps its energy within,” she said. This shift came about as “matter was seen as no longer stable” as a means of expression. Rather, matter moved about, both solid and liquid, through the “undulatory movements of the ether.” Henderson ended by noting that, to Kandinsky, “matter is not at all what it appears to our senses,” and that this sentiment allowed to Kandinsky the opportunity to assert through his art that the “creation of works of art is the creation of the world.” 

Students reacted positively to the talk. Victoria Gralla ’22 said she thought the lecture was interesting because “it brings together two different facets of education that are often considered to be wildly separate, both the arts and the sciences.”

Gaby Torres ’20 added “it was nice to see an Alum still be passionate about what they studied during their time here.”

Henderson is a faculty member at The Univeristy of Texas at Austin. Her lecture was entitled “Pioneering Abstraction in its Early Twentieth Century Scientific/Occult Context,” and took place on Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 5:30 p.m. Weiss 235 to a crowd of approximately 150 people.