An Introduction to Thought Forms, the Pioneering 1905 Theosophist Book That Inspired Abstract Art: It Has Returned to Print

“It is some­times dif­fi­cult to appre­ci­ate the impact that the late-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry (and ongo­ing) occult move­ment called Theos­o­phy had on glob­al cul­ture,” Mitch Horowitz writes in his intro­duc­tion to the new­ly repub­lished 1905 Theo­soph­i­cal book, Thought Forms. That impact man­i­fest­ed “spir­i­tu­al­ly, polit­i­cal­ly, and artis­ti­cal­ly” in the work of lit­er­ary fig­ures like James Joyce and William But­ler Yeats and reli­gious fig­ures like Jid­du Krish­na­mur­ti, hand­picked as a teenag­er by Theosophist leader Charles W. Lead­beat­er to become the group’s mes­sian­ic World Teacher.

The Theo­soph­i­cal Soci­ety helped re-intro­duce Bud­dhism, or a new­ly West­ern­ized ver­sion, to West­ern Europe and the U.S., pub­lish­ing the 1881 “Bud­dhist Cat­e­chism” by Hen­ry Steel Olcott, a for­mer Colonel for the Union Army. Olcott co-found­ed the soci­ety in New York City in 1875 with Russ­ian occultist Hele­na Blavatsky. Soon after­ward, the group of spir­i­tu­al seek­ers relo­cat­ed to India. “Near­ly a cen­tu­ry before the Bea­t­les’ trek to Rishikesh,” writes Hor­witz, “Blavatsky and Olcott laid the tem­plate for the West­ern­er seek­ing wis­dom in the East.”

Theos­o­phy also had a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on mod­ern art, includ­ing the work of Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky, until recent­ly con­sid­ered the first Abstract painter—that is until the paint­ings of Hilma af Klint came to be wide­ly known. The reclu­sive Swedish artist, whom we’ve cov­ered here a few times before, came first, though no one knew it at the time. After show­ing her rev­o­lu­tion­ary abstract work to philoso­pher and one­time Ger­man and Aus­tri­an Theo­soph­i­cal Soci­ety leader Rudolf Stein­er, she was told to hide it for anoth­er fifty years.

Theos­o­phy gained many promi­nent con­verts in the UK, Europe, and around the world. Af Klint joined the Swedish soci­ety and remained a mem­ber until 1915. The sym­bol­ism in her mys­te­ri­ous abstrac­tions, which she attrib­uted to clair­voy­ant com­mu­ni­ca­tion with “an enti­ty named Amaliel,” may also have been sug­gest­ed by the draw­ings in Thought Forms, an illus­trat­ed book cre­at­ed by Theo­soph­i­cal Soci­ety lead­ers Lead­beat­er and Annie Besant, who was “an ear­ly suf­frag­ist and polit­i­cal activist,” notes Sacred Bones Books. The small press will release a new edi­tion of the book online and in stores on Novem­ber 6. (See their Kick­starter page here and video trail­er below.)

Besant was “far ahead of her time as an artist and thinker. Theos­o­phy was the first occult group to open its doors to women and Thought Forms offers a reminder that the his­to­ry of mod­ernist abstrac­tion and women’s con­tri­bu­tion to it is still being writ­ten.” Although that unfold­ing his­to­ry cen­tral­ly includes af Klint and Besant, the lat­ter did not actu­al­ly make all of the illus­tra­tions we find in this strange book. She and Lead­beat­er claimed to have received, through clair­voy­ant means, “forms caused by def­i­nite thoughts thrown out by one of them, and also watched the forms pro­ject­ed by oth­er per­sons under the influ­ence of var­i­ous emo­tions.”

So Besant would write in 1896 in the Theo­soph­i­cal jour­nal Lucifer. After these “exper­i­ments,” the two then described going into trances and view­ing “auras, vor­tices, ether­ic mat­ter, astral pro­jec­tions, ener­gy forms, and oth­er expres­sions from the unseen world.” The two described these visions to a col­lec­tion of visu­al artists, who ren­dered them into the paint­ings in the 1905 book.

Among those who do study the Theo­soph­i­cal Society’s impact, its first gen­er­a­tion of publications—especially Olcott’s “Bud­dhist Cat­e­chism” and Blavatsky’s 1888 The Secret Doc­trine—are espe­cial­ly well-known texts. But Thought Forms may prove “the most wide­ly read, last­ing, and direct­ly influ­en­tial book to emerge from the rev­o­lu­tion that Theos­o­phy ignit­ed,” Horowitz argues.

“By many esti­mates, Thought Forms marks the ger­mi­na­tion of abstract art”—originated through sev­er­al artists’ best guess at what visions of psy­chic phe­nom­e­na might look like. You can fol­low Sacred Bones’ Kick­starter cam­paign here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

A Vision­ary 115-Year-Old Col­or The­o­ry Man­u­al Returns to Print: Emi­ly Noyes Vanderpoel’s Col­or Prob­lems

Dis­cov­er Hilma af Klint: Pio­neer­ing Mys­ti­cal Painter and Per­haps the First Abstract Artist

New Hilma af Klint Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Life & Art of the Trail­blaz­ing Abstract Artist

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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