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Mondrian and ‘The Coming Christ’: a lecture by Annie Besant in Amsterdam

February 2, 2021

By Wietse Coppes

1 ‘Advertisement for Besant’s lecture The Coming Christ’, in: Algemeen Handelsblad, 24 October 1909

The Mondrian Papers project team, who are working to annotate letters and postcards by Mondrian, regularly make smaller and larger discoveries. Some of these relate to Mondrian’s interest in theosophy, a pseudo-scientific, philosophical belief system which centres on a universal divine wisdom that is the basis of all religions anywhere in the world. Within the Mondrian literature there is no consensus about the role that theosophy played in Mondrian’s life or about its influence on his aesthetics. Each new piece of information helps us to adjust the picture we have. One example is the postcard which Mondrian wrote on 24 October 1909 to his painter friend Kees Spoor, which establishes that Mondrian was present at a theosophical lecture. This gives new meaning to a letter which Mondrian wrote three months later to the writer and translator Arnold Saalborn.

The text on the card to Kees Spoor reads as follows: ‘Since I’ve had no opportunity to bring them to you, I’m sending you the ticket; and the one for Fernhout, who should come and pick it up from you. See you tomorrow – very best regards from Piet. Fernhout should pick you up; I’ll fetch the ladies from the train and so will see you at the Concertgebouw. – So don’t wait for me.’ Practical details of this kind occur frequently in Mondrian’s correspondence. In a period when the post was delivered several times a day, it was normal for people to update one another in this way as plans changed. We know from advertisements in various newspapers of the time that there was no music concert scheduled for the evening of Monday 25 October in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, but there was a lecture by Annie Besant, president of the International Theosophical Society.[fig. 1] It was probably not the first time that Mondrian went to attend a lecture by a well-known theosophist. It is believed that in March 1908 he also attended a lecture titled ‘Theosophy, Goethe and Hegel’ by Rudolf Steiner – then chairman of the German branch of the Theosophical Society. Mondrian’s far-reaching interest in theosophy was formalised in May 1909 when he took up membership of the society, something he retained to the end of his life. [fig. 2] The conceptual framework he set out in his aesthetic theories published from 1917 onwards were partly borrowed from theosophy. The best-known example is the concept of evolution, although interest in it was not limited to theosophy but also played a role in other ideologies of the fin de siècle.

2 Mondrian’s membership certificate for the Theosophical Society, 1909. Image courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven (CT)

The supreme teacher
Annie Besant’s lecture was titled ‘The Coming Christ’. The topic was the theosophical concept of the ‘supreme teacher’: a spiritual leader who can be found in different guises in various religions down the centuries. Some of the early examples of ‘supreme teacher’ named by Besant were Buddha, the Egyptian god Horus and Christ. The last brought Besant to her real subject: ‘As we look at the dominant Greek thought of the time, we find that that thought embodied its highest triumph in a certain institution known as the Mysteries. In those Mysteries there was this grade, the Christos, the anointed one. It was the grade of the Initiate who had triumphed over suffering, the grade of the Initiate who had carried the cross, the grade of the Initiate who was to know no more compulsory death or compulsory birth, that which marked him as having crossed the threshold of the superhuman, and being ready to enter on that higher grade of manifested life. Natural, inevitable, that in a time when Greek thought was marking the highest point of human attainment and dominating Europe, the Greek name should be taken to describe the mighty One revealed as Teacher upon earth.’ According to Besant, the supporters of theosophy were the contemporary equivalent of Jesus’s disciples, ‘the anointed ones’ at the dawn of the Christian era. Through regular periods of quiet study of occult literature and sources, the theosophist would eventually be able to reach the same level of spiritual enlightenment as the ‘supreme teacher’.

3 Portrait of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, c. 1900. Piet Mondrian Archive, RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History

‘Becoming God’
In January 1910 Mondrian wrote a letter to the author and translator Arnold Saalborn. Mondrian writes: ‘I read again that you write: being alone is most pernicious, especially for great and noble people. I must tell you frankly that I would argue the exact opposite. Being alone is (for the great) infiltrating and knowing the Self, the true person, the god-man and god, on the highest plane. And from that becoming greater, becoming aware – and in the end becoming God.’ The meaning of this passage falls into place if it is seen in the light of ‘The Coming Christ’. For in her lecture Besant encouraged theosophists to develop themselves in the ‘Spirit of the Christ’.

Earlier in 1909 Mondrian had written to the critic Israël Querido that he was studying occult sources. Among these would certainly have been the most important texts of the founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Many years later he declared that she remained an inspiration to him. The small portrait photograph of Blavatsky reproduced here comes from Mondrian’s estate, that is part of the RKD collection.[fig. 3] It highlights once again the enormous value that Mondrian attached to what he called ‘Theosophy in its true significance’. He is making a distinction here, contrasting it with ‘Theosophy in its usual manifestation’: the superficial brand of theosophy with which most theosophists contented themselves.

With thanks to Sterre Collee, intern working on the Mondrian Edition Project, 2020.

The complete article ‘Mondrian and “The Coming Christ”’ appeared in First look, then see. Essays on Mondrian, November 2020, edited by Sjoerd van Faassen, Wietse Coppes and Benno Tempel.