The Esoteric in Contemporary Art: A History, A Movement, An Art Scene

In the summer of 2008, an exhibition opened at the Centre Pompidou in France that aimed to ‘look at the way in which art continues to testify the existence of a universe beyond, by taking in the whole history of twentieth-century art”. It was called Traces du Sacré and it marked an important moment for the form of art that some academics, curators and artists are today tentatively calling esoteric.

On show were artists that had been, up to that point invisible from the world of fine art. Amongst them were Frieda Harris with three tarot paintings (five years later exported to Venice for Gioni’s 55th Biennale), Marjorie Cameron’s Dark Angel (on show at MOCA from October), The Tree of Life in the Four Worlds by Harry Smith and a newly discovered painting by notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. In other words, works explicitly influenced by esoteric currents.

Since then, Tate St Ives hosted The Dark Monarch, MOCA is holding Songs for the Witch Woman, and Venice welcomed The Encyclopedic Palace, all of which engaged with esoteric sensibilities.

For the purposes of this piece, it might useful to think of esotericism as the study (and later practical application) of a set of symbols through which reality can be interpreted. Those symbols belong to different, sometimes initiatory, traditions such as alchemy, astrology, ceremonial magic, witchcraft, and more eclectic systems. As with all symbols, the ones we encounter in esotericism are layered, thus allowing for different entry points and participatory experiences.

A few complications with this definition must be mentioned as they are at the core of contemporary art’s relationship with the esoteric. First is the fact that as Feivre noted, we are not dealing with a genre per se but with a “style of imaginary permeating diverse materials to give them a specific hue". (Feivre, 1994, source)


paintings

Figure 2: Leonora Carrington Ab Eo Quod 1956 Image Source


Second, is that within the last fifteen years, the numbers of discourses surrounding the topic have flourished not only endemically but from art historians, anthropologists, critics and cultural commentators too. Some are talking about an esoteric renaissance. Academics, like Partridge, whisper occulture. Discourses abound, definitions are woven. Slowly, the arts & culture world, both high and low, seem to be populated by these ghosts. In this last sense, we can think of western esotericism as a new field of study, as it is perhaps for the first time in history, deconstructed, analysed and discussed by a myriad of voices rather than simply practiced.

When esotericism meets contemporary art, the situation is further complicated by the multi-layered laws of the art market. In an exploratory article on the subject, Prof. Marco Pasi discusses contemporary art’s mixed feelings towards esoteric sensibilities. (Accessible via academia.edu: Marco Pasi, Coming Forth by Night, or Stenberg Press) On the one hand, the burden of history and tradition esotericism carries – as well as a conflation between esotericism and religion – makes it a dangerous category to think with, but on the other, the tradition’s distaste for social norms and its tendency to think up new worlds, makes it irresistibly appealing. It might even be said that the art world is tired of being predominantly a market and is looking at the esoteric, as at many other fringe forms of knowledge, to present a valid alternative.

This love-hate relationship, this tension between past and present, history and emancipation, is exemplified by Massimiliano Gioni’s Encyclopedic Palace. On show, were cabalistic paintings by the South American Xul Solar, Tarot paintings by Frieda Harris and Carl Jung’s Red Book all gathered under the mission statement of humans “as media, channeling images, or at times even finding themselves possessed by images”. But when it came to showcasing contemporary artists, the mission statement moved from visionary – and in some cases revolutionary – esoteric practice and symbols to war memories, prison camps and metaphorical allusions. And although, in Gioni’s defence, this somehow peculiar split did not make the show any less engaging, it nonetheless highlighted a disconnect – perhaps too often visible in the high circles of contemporary art – between an indulgent moment of nostalgia and a pressing urge to keep up the good rules of the market.

Attempts to understand the entangled yet fast growing relationship between esoteric practices and contemporary art are being carried out, not at the elite level but in the world of galleries and academies, as is often the case, where discourses and practices are given more opportunity to blend.

Following this trend, academic endeavours incorporating both historical and contemporary elements began to flourish. Last September, the Enchanted Modernities Network hosted Enchanted Modernities, a conference exploring the relationship between Theosophy and Modernism. To tie the past to the present at this engaging evening at the Stedelijk Museum, contemporary artist Christine Odlund discussed her work in relation to the Theosophical ideas of Annie Besant. Another enchanted exploration came from NYU, where Jesse Bransford and Pam Grossman’s Occult Humanities united first class contemporary artists such as Elijah Burgher and Shannon Taggart with academic lectures on Surrealism and Modernism.

In a similar vein, the network Black Mirror is looking at contemporary art through a series of publications and events under University Arts Bournemouth’s goodwill. Drawing from artistic and magical practitioners’ first hand experiences as well as from academic and historical perspectives, the network seeks to explore esoteric motifs in modern and contemporary art. The first book emerging from the network’s efforts will be called Territory and will do precisely that: attempt to map this movement, test the ground, ask questions and perhaps (who knows?) unravel the knot of uncertainty surrounding esoteric art.


I:mage exhibition

Figure 3: Residue Out of Zero Hours
Image Source, courtesy the artist and the author


Salt Water Bransford Esoteric Art

Figure 4: Black Mirror - Territory
Launch Event on 30 October in London More information
Image courtesy the organisers and the author





NOTES:

Those interested in Esoteric Art should attend the I:MAGE 2014 exhibition, opening on Tuesday 21st October 2014. Attendance requires an RSVP.
Details:
IMAGE 2014, Travelling with Unfamiliar Spirits @ The Cob Gallery
205 Royal College St, London NW1 0SG
21 October 2014 – 2 November 2014

Cover Image: Agostino Arrivabene, Corteo macabro 2012
Image courtesy the artist