Thursday, March 22, 2012


It was H P Blavatsky, cofounder of the Theosophical Society (TS), who wrote of ‘the maddening effect of Protestantism [especially Calvinism].’ Theosophy, at least in its more 'modern' form, emerged in the late 1800s as an alternative spirituality---and as an antidote to the maddening effect of Protestantism.

Such a totally negative word---'Protestantism.' It doesn't even make it clear just what they were 'protesting' about or against, although history tells us that---and much of the story is not a happy one. Devoid of ritual and colour, devoid of intellectual depth, devoid of emotion (except emotion of the more hysterical and almost pathologically clinical kind), and inherently separatist, divisive, and backward-looking for the most part, and totally obsessed with sin and the fear and wrath of God, Protestantism---especially in its more evangelical forms---was found lacking and monumentally uninspiring to many intellectuals of the day. It remains the same today---at least for me as well as for many others.

For many years now, I have been a proud member of the TS. I am in full agreement with its three objects [see above], even though I reject many of the so-called ‘teachings’ of Theosophy (with a capital ‘T’). That doesn’t matter. Beliefs don’t matter. What you do with your life matters. (In addition to being a member of the TS, I have also had a long association with the Liberal Catholic Church (LCC)---a church very much open to theosophical ideas---and was even in holy orders in that church for a brief period. In the end, I decided to remain solely a Unitarian minister, but I continue to have great respect for the LCC. For those who may be interested, here is a published article of mine entitled 'Progressive Christianity from Liberal Catholic and Unitarian Perspectives.')

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, in the 1920s and 30s, was known in Theosophical circles as ‘The Occult Centre for the Southern Hemisphere’---a veritable hothouse of spiritual and intellectual inquiry, exploration and productivity. Indeed it was, with much of the attention focused on the writings, pronouncements and activities of leading Theosophist and Liberal Catholic bishop Charles Webster Leadbeater [pictured below left, and also above left with the then international president of the TS, Dr Annie Besant] who was resident in Sydney from 1914 to 1929 and who otherwise retained a significance ‘presence’ there until his death in Perth in 1934. (From 1922 onwards Leadbeater, when in Sydney, resided at 'The Manor' in Mosman, which was said by Theosophists to be a great ‘occult forcing-house.’)

The Sydney of today, in which I live, is a lot more multicultural than it was in the 1920s and 30s---which is a good thing---but the life of the city is nowhere near as bohemian, cosmopolitan and 'colourful' as it once was. We may have people here from every part of the globe but the ‘international’ flavor has in many ways gone---as well as much of the intellectual and spiritual life that once flourished. For the most part, Sydney is just like most large cities in North America---architecturally uninteresting (not so the Sydney Opera House and a few other prominent buildings),  and entirely mercantile and even mean. That reminds me of the occasion when Charlie (later Sir Charles) Chaplin returned briefly to Los Angeles in 1972 after some 20 years in exile outside the United States. Chaplin was looking around for the places he used to know in the city. A dismayed Chaplin remarked, ‘It's all banks, banks, banks!’ I digress, but hopefully you get the point.

Now, Dr Jenny McFarlane, who is a freelance curator and writer based in Canberra, has recently put together a wonderful book---which I heartily recommend---entitled Concerning the Spiritual: The influence of the Theosophical Society on Australian Artists 1890-1934, which has been published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. The book contains a series of fascinating case studies of some fairly well-known artists, including Jane Price, Clarice Beckett, Ethel Carrick Fox and Grace Cossington Smith, who had a special relationship with the TS and its ‘radical visuality.’ McFarlane beautifully documents an era, not that long ago, in which there was (in her words) an 'embedded and productive relationship between the Theosophical Society and Australian art.'
The book challenges assumptions about early Australian Modernism and offers a convincing, if controversial, basis for reinterpretation. McFarlane writes, ‘The Australian experience itself is reconceptualised as an integral part of a larger, distributed conversation with like-minded artists, intellectuals and activities across the globe. Australian Modernism is recast as an informed primary player in a movement which challenged Western reason and looked to the ‘East’ to revitalize its focus.’ Fascinating. No longer is Australian Modernism seen as entirely derivative and secondary to what was otherwise happening in Europe and North America. No, Australia was a leading player in its own right---with a distinctively unique contribution to the world of art. Further, the Modernism which emerges from McFarlane's fascinating account is (in her words) 'essentially feminist, spiritual and cross-cultural.' It is an account which has been waiting a long time to be told. Sadly, most Australian art historians have chosen---yes, chosen---to ignore this important part of Australian cultural, artistic and spiritual history.
Back to the book. There have been a couple of good books written on Theosophy in Australia but this is the very first book on the influence of the TS on Australian art. As such, the book fills a void and is a most important contribution to Australian cultural, artistic and spiritual history. McFarlane writes very well. She is a brilliant wordsmith and her writing has colour and flair. She also knows her subject-matter---very, very well. For those interested in Australian art, the book is a must. Ditto those interested in Theosophy, the Ancient Wisdom, esoteric Christianity and alternative spirituality.

I found one particular chapter especially interesting---'Science versus Spirit,' which deals with colour-music theories pertaining to the scientific and spiritual dimensions of colour. It seems that Sydney was at the forefront of research, discovery and discussion in this field of knowledge and speculative inquiry during the first quarter of the 20th century. Here's another nice thing about the book---McFarlane refers to a number of eminent Australian writers, such as Kylie Tennant, who made reference---sometimes oblique, other times not so oblique---to Theosophy, the Liberal Catholic Church and persons such as Bishop Leadbeater in their novels and other writings. (I hope that someday someone will write a book on the influence of Theosophy and the TS on Australian writers. Maybe I will.)
The book contains about 30 beautifully reproduced colour photographs (mainly of works of art) as well as many black-and-white and sepia photographs as well---a truly priceless and unique collection which alone is worth the price of the book. It's a gem!

Concerning the Spiritual: The influence of the Theosophical
Society on Australian artists 1890–1934, by Jenny McFarlane
 Imprint: Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd   ISBN: 9781921875151
Format: PB   Release date: February 2012   RRP A$49.95


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