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Visual arts: Spirituality and Abstraction in Post-war Europe at Hanina Fine Arts, London

23 July 2021

Jonathan Evens views an exhibition of 20th-century abstract artists influenced by esoteric and Eastern religious movements

Hanina Fine Arts

Claude Bellegarde (1927-2019), Transfiguration, oil on canvas, 130 x 107cm, signed, titled and dated on reverse, 1960

Claude Bellegarde (1927-2019), Transfiguration, oil on canvas, 130 x 107cm, signed, titled and dated on reverse, 1960

POSTMODERNISM has shone a light into the hidden corners of art history, and one of the stories increasingly being explored is that of the interplay between spirituality and modern art.

This exhibition at the Hanina Fine Arts gallery adds to that story by highlighting the works of abstractionists from groups such as Abstraction-Création, CoBrA, and Groupe Espace, who were engaging with the spiritual teachings of Theosophy, Swedenborgianism, Rosicrucianism, and Eastern religions.

This is ground that was originally covered by the 2008 exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, “Traces du Sacré” (Arts, 25 July 2008). That exhibition, as with this, sought to document the traces of spirituality to be found in modern and contemporary art. As the story of modern art had originally been told primarily as a secular tale, arguments that metaphysical questioning has consistently featured in that story are necessary counterbalances, revealing a greater complexity of influence and motivation than was previously allowed.

The focus of this exhibition is on post-war abstraction in a period that saw a more general flowering of art exploring spirituality. Christian, Jewish, and atheist artists alike used crucifixion imagery to explore the stark horror of the Holocaust. New churches were built, contemporary art was commissioned and exhibitions were held, such as “Modern Christs” at the Puma Gallery in 1942 and 1944’s “Religious Art of Today” held in Boston and Dayton.

Within this broader canvas can be found the works included here that explore the spirituality of colour, gesture, and shapes. Key players among second-generation Theosophists, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, published vibrant diagrams of aural energies in “Key to the meaning of colours” and developed the notion of colours seen in the human aura as indicative of the bearer’s character and mental state. Claude Bellegarde drew on such diagrams to create the explosive outbursts of colour found in his Chromagraph paintings. Paintings such as Transfiguration and Un Homme dans la Vie sought to illustrate the spiritual resonances of aural energies and colours.

Léo Leuppi of the Abstraction-Création group in Paris believed that reducing art to its purest form would reveal its spiritual properties. His Komposition seeks perfect harmony” and “universal equilibrium” through geometric abstract forms. The Russian émigré Cubist Leopold Survage became heavily influenced by the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, developing a visionary goal of interpreting in understandable signs and images the profound realities of life. With this goal, his work became increasingly surreal, as with Destins. Survage is also represented here by the very small and beautiful Homme à L’Oiseaux.

Among the most interesting of the artists included here is Marie Raymond, who was a pioneer as a female artist and a proponent of Rosicrucianism, an esoteric variant of the Catholic faith promulgated by Max Heindel through his essay “The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception” or “Mystic Christianity”. The French Catholic art critic Pierre Restany called Raymond an “organist of light”, and the light with which she plays can be clearly seen in Montagne and Composition. Her abstract compositions were intended as windows to the spiritual world, in the hope that they would help the viewer to transcend the material world.

Among those making that journey was her son Yves Klein. Raymond sensed early that her son was exceptional, and supported him by using her resources and contacts in the art world. Klein, like his mother, drew on Catholicism and Rosicrucianism in the radical works that he made. Her son’s untimely death in 1962 understandably had a profound effect on Raymond, who returned to her own work, making a series of large-format paintings and collages that create imaginary visions between dream and reality.

The sources of inspiration for these artists lay in esoteric spiritualities that have not captivated later generations as they did these artists; yet their quest to make visible the invisible remains a goal for all artists engaging with spirituality. The work included here is often compelling, and the story told adds to a developing understanding that spirituality in its rich diversity was an important catalyst for much modern art.

“Spirituality and Abstraction in Post-war Europe” is at Hanina Fine Arts,
21 Woodstock Street, London W1, until 31 July. Phone 020 7243 8877. www.haninafinearts.com

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