Images of self-transformation : occult and mystical influences in Australian art, 1890s-1950s

2017-02-08T04:09:58Z (GMT) by Sarmiala-Berger, Kirsti
The aim of this thesis is to show that the mystico-occult was a crucial influencing factor in Australian art between the 1890s and 1950s. To this end, an outline of four esoteric movements, Spiritualism, Theosophy, witchcraft and the Golden Dawn, is presented, together with a discussion of the extent of their presence in Australia. The mysticooccult, defined as the spiritual transformation of consciousness, is understood from the point of view of a single religio-philosophic system, whose basic axioms are fundamental to the esoteric tradition as a whole. These axioms include the existence of a transcendent, and hence a more perfect reality, the correspondence of the transcendent and the perceptual, the divine origin of humankind, and the soul's ambition to return to its primal origins. These axioms are compared with certain psychological (Freudian and Jungian) principles, positing the esoteric as a form of ancient psychologism. The ideas, personal histories, socio-cultural contexts, and selected works of four Australian artists- Charles Douglas Richardson, Christian Waller, Roy de Maistre and Rosaleen Norton - are discussed with a view to determining the extent of their involvement with esoteric ideas. It is found that each of these artists was decisively influenced by the mystico-occult: Richardson's interest in Spiritualism resulted in a number of allegories with Spiritualist subject matter; Waller's work is particularly informed by Theosophical and Golden Dawn doctrines; Roy de Maistre's reading of Theosophical/ Anthroposophical literature culminated in the 1919 colour music paintings; and Rosaleen Norton's oeuvre had wide esoteric antecedents in which the beliefs and practices of witchcraft and the Golden Dawn played a prominent role. Like the fin de siecle Symbolists, these four Australians saw art as a medium for the revelation of transcendent truths, and an instrument in the process of self-transformation. Their subject matter is therefore often discernibly esoteric, ranging from Norton's visions of the transcendent realms to Waller's depiction, in The Great Breath, of spiritual regeneration through the evolution of the human soul. The presentment of esoteric, symbolic contents in their works is seen to be in keeping with the Symbolist! modernist theory which sanctioned the deliberate manipulation of the visual sign for spiritual ends. By concentrating on pictorial properties as the carriers of esoteric meaning, Richardson, Waller, de Maistre and Norton avoided descriptive, rhetorical ends. By circumventing the ordinary, rational denotations of representational fonns, they emphasized the expressive, emotive contents of their works. Through this theoretical programme, the symbolic images of these artists became talismans with the power to effect a transformation of consciousness: in contemplating the symbolic meanings of their images the viewer could, through correspondences, gradually unite herself with her primal origins. Presented, in this thesis, are a number of previously undiscovered documentary associations, such as the influence of Beatrice Irwin's New Science of Colour on Roy de Maistre's theories of colour and form. Connections such as these serve to reinforce the extension of previously established iconological discourse into the realm of the esoteric. In researching the mystico-occult component in Australian art, it is intended to link the statements concerning the esoteric, to the body of already existing art-historical writings.