Notes on Spirituality in Modern Art

In looking through one of my notebooks a few days ago, I came across some notes I took at the exhibition Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, works from the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presented at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. These bits and pieces don’t have any narrative thread, and I’ve just written plenty on this subject in my review of Roger Lipsey’s The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art. But I thought I’d preserve a few of these jottings here.

– “Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that flesh is heir to.” – Karen Armstrong
– Der Blaue Reiter, or The Blue Rider, was a group founded in 1911 by several artists, including Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, that was dedicated to revealing spiritual truths in contemporary, often abstract, art.
– In his book On the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky calls blue the color of spirituality – the darker the blue, the more it evokes one’s yearning for the eternal.
– Marc’s Gebirge (Mountains, 1911-12) hints at a path thru jagged mountains, leading at the end to bright sunshine. The spiritual metaphor is pretty obvious.
Marc Gebirge
– Paul Klee was another member of the Der Blaue Reiter group. His etching Kleinwelt (Little Cosmos, 1914) is a miraculous little world just coming into being.
Klee Kleinwelt
– Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalent series of the 1920s and early 1930s, a series of photographs of cloud shapes, are among the earliest abstract photographs.
Stieglitz Equivalent– In the book mentioned above, Roger Lipsey points out the resonances of calligraphy and Islamic art in Jackson Pollack’s work. But there is also a less rarefied, more earthy spirituality in some of his work, perhaps related to his interest in Native American spirituality. In Guardians of the Secret (1943), familiar from SFMOMA’s permanent collection, one can see a fascinating if inscrutable collection of symbolic associations – a dead boar, a chicken, tribal masks, guardian totem figures.
Pollock Guardians of the Secret
– Abstraction, among other things, provides a separation from the daily, visible world, with all its chaos and violence, and attempts to recapture a sense of the numinous through a regard for pure color, pure shape, pure form.

Roger Lipsey: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art

Lipsey Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art coverRoger Lipsey
The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art
(1988, Dover Publications, Inc., 518 pages)

What does one mean by “the spiritual” when it relates to art? It’s a question that becomes particularly problematic when one considers the creations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many of which are commonly regarded as lacking such values. Art historian Roger Lipsey takes on this big question in his excellent book, drawing on examples from throughout the last century, and giving primacy to the artist’s own words as expressed in memoirs, articles, and public documents as well as private diaries and journals.

Lipsey tentatively defines the spiritual as “when people begin to look beyond or within themselves for a strength to face life or a wisdom to understand it that surpasses their ordinary capacity.” He is deliberately vague about the details, noting that this quest is often, but not exclusively, a religious one. In the artistic context, Lipsey sums up the spiritual as “an idea of vast scope conveyed through an image, not a word, complete in itself, not an illustration but an illumination.” This spiritual element, Lipsey believes, is present in much art of the twentieth century, but has been misunderstood or ignored by many.

The author takes his cue from Wassily Kandinsky’s short book On the Spiritual in Art (1912). In it Kandinsky wrote of a new art that, leaving behind realism and traditional subject matter, would instead, in Lipsey’s words, “be based on an absolutely fresh sensitivity to line and color in themselves, to form as such rather than as description, and to space as such rather than as a setting for events,” drawn from “a new wisdom born of the artist’s awareness of his or her own depths and of the resonant universe.”

Kandinsky Several CirclesKandinsky incorporated many esoteric sources into his work, like the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and The Theosophical Society, Kabbalah, and shamanism, not to mention his own personal spiritual views and metaphysics. But he also wished to emphasize in his works the primacy of form and color in and for themselves. This tension – as Lipsey describes it, “the struggle between the artist’s delight in form and the seeker’s delight in meaning” – is a significant part of his art. For instance, in Several Circles (1926) one may be looking at a proto-cosmos and a solar eclipse, or a meditation on color and the impact of the circle. Read more