Junior Research Seminar: Art & The Occult in the 20th-Century
Traditions of occult wisdom and magic played a crucial role in the most innovative art and writing of the 20th Century. Old and strange practices—astrology, alchemy, the Tarot, the kabbalah—became vital sources for poets, painters, filmmakers, composers, and choreographers; we will study how they made them new. This course will bring us from the last decades of the 19th Century to the first decades of the 21st, and from Sweden to Mexico City, from New York to San Francisco. We’ll encounter Kandinsky and Mondrian, Ezra Pound, H.D., and William Butler Yeats; we’ll see Hilma af Klint painting abstractions for the walls of a visionary temple, Leonora Carrington working out a new tarot, Robert Duncan playing with sacred letters, Harry Smith making mystical collages—and many others. Throughout, our central task will be to understand the relationship between the occult, aesthetic invention, and spiritual and political transformation.
The course is roughly divided into four units. They follow a more or less chronological order. In every unit, we will be putting our primary materials—poetry, painting, film—in conversation with ancient & modern texts on magic, the occult, and mysticism. Unit 1 focuses on Imagism’s innovations in poetry in the Theosophical milieu of London in the 1910s. Unit 2 focuses on the invention of abstract painting in relation to esoteric ideas about color & form. Unit 3 focuses on international surrealism around the time of the second World War & its efforts to summon the deepest images in the soul. In Unit 4 we’ll study how certain radical American poets & filmmakers of the 1960s turned to magical practices to transform their art.