• Sirje Helme



Abstract Art, Theosophy, Religion, Void, Estonian Art at the Trun of 1960/1970


This article focuses attention on a marginal topic that has received little attention in art history to date – the great interest shown by the avant-garde artists in the early 20  century in the occult sciences, especially theosophy, and the infuence of these occult sciences on the development of modern art, and first and foremost, on non-representational art. Although, as a result of the modernisation in the 19 with its whirlwind of rapidly developing scientifc discoveries and technological processes people increasingly turned their back on Christianity, it would be wrong to describe this time as one when religion was totally abandoned. Alongside Christianity, the study of Far Eastern and Middle-East religions and philosophical systems became popular, and in the cultural sphere, Christianity started to be treated as a purely cultural phenomenon, and not as the centre of absolute truth and morality. Spiritualism, occultism, and theosophy, the latter being a mixture of philosophical, religious and scientifc views that was moving in the direction of a systematic set of beliefs, became extremely popular in the second half of the 19 pressure of a materialistic worldview. In the early 20 avant-garde artists were gripped by these ideas, including Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, whose work formed the basis for different trends in abstract art. The infuence of the occult sciences on both artists was decisive in the development of their theoretical points of departure and creative principles. Attention was focused on the infuence of the occult sciences on the oeuvre of these artists already in the mid-1960s (Sixten Ringbom, Robert Welsh). When the works of Hilma af Klint, which had been unknown to date, were made public, a topic, which had been relatively marginal in the study of the spiritual sources for abstract art, increased in importance. A question developed, not only about abstract art as a radical innovation of form, but as a search for new spiritual meaning, which sought fll the void that resulted from the abandonment of Christianity. The strong interest in Far-Eastern religions that developed in the youth culture of the 1960s also spread to Estonia, although in a modest form and for diferent reasons than in the West. This interest was realised in the abstract works of several artists (Tõnis Vint, Leonhard Lapin). The activities of Linnart Mäll, a scholar of Buddhism, who worked at the University of Tartu, also infuenced this process. Therefore, material related to Estonian art also exists that can form the basis for examining, when and how the spiritual vacuum that has developed in today’s world has been replaced/supplemented.


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Author Biography

Sirje Helme

Sirje Helme (PHD) is Director-General of the Art Museum of Estonia. Her main research feld is post-war art (modernism and avant-garde) in Estonia and East-Central Europe. Lecturer at the university of Tartu and the Estonian Academy of Arts, professor at the university of Tartu from 2012 to 2013. Articles have been published in several international journals; the author of A Concise History of Estonian Art, 1999 (co-author Prof. Jaak Kangilaski, translated into Finnish in 2001); Popkunst Forever. Estonian Pop Art at the Turn of the 1960s and 1970s, 2010; co-author of History of Estonian Art 1940-1990, volume 6, 2013; organizer of many conferences and seminars; editor of collections of critical essays (Nosy Nineties. Problems, Themes and Meanings in Estonian Art on 1990s, 20 01; Lost Eighties. Problems, Themes and Meanings in Estonian Art on 1980s, 2010); and the Proceedings of the Art Museum of Estonia (“Diferent Modernisms, Diferent Avant-Gardes. Problems in Central and Eastern European Art after World War II”, 2009; “Art and Political Reality”, 2013).