Modernism—Some Left-Out Narratives

by Kalpana Sahni

Just as a man sees an elephant pass by before his very eyes but doubts its existence, then, noticing its footprints, ceases to doubt. 
—Kalidasa, Shakuntala

Kalpana Sahni​ talks about her findings for the article below.


The text below is graciously given to us by the author Kalpana Sahni. This is but one chapter in the book A Mediated Magic, available in our bookstore. Reprinted with the permission from book's publisher: Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation

A Mediated Magic: The Indian Presence in Modernism 1880–1930


Hilma af Klint "Svanen, nr 17, grupp IX/SUW, serie SUW/UW", 1915. Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk. Photo: Moderna Museet/Albin Dahlström.
Hilma af Klint, "Svanen, nr 17, grupp IX/SUW, serie SUW/UW", 1915. Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk. Photo: Moderna Museet/Albin Dahlström.

 The elephant did indeed pass by, crossing continents and oceans and leaving behind footprints. Its presence had undeniably attracted many leading European and American intellectuals of the time. In Sweden, there was Hilma af Klint and August Strindberg, both Modernists; both fascinated by alternative perception of spaces; both familiar with Theosophical ideas—af Klint perhaps more than Strindberg—the pioneer of new vistas in dramaturgy and stagecraft. He opened the first Intimate Theatre. The dramatist’s engagement with the East was reflected in his writings including his 1907 play, The Ghost Sonata, subtitled Kamaloka: A Buddhist Play

These deep linkages and marvellous interconnections between the East and the Modernist movement, largely unexplored, came about from the reactions to Europe’s cataclysmic and violent history. Fortunately, scholars today are attempting to find the keys that were hidden away, to hear the voices silenced by official histories and to recover the memories of many protagonists who were unnecessarily vilified. This essay attempts to lift the veil from some misleading narratives and rejected histories of Modernism to reveal the seminal influences of non-European cultures on Modernism. The essay also suggests the possibilities of a new reading of Eastern contributions that had been dismissed as pseudo-spiritualism and mysticism.

Since the extent and reach of such inputs is enormous and its impact considerable, this essay is limited to some art practices of Russian Modernism pollinated by Eastern cultural perceptions at the turn of the 20th century. It illustrates a few examples of the wide range of Eastern influences on theatre directors, painters and poets, all of whom were engaged in an extraordinary vibrant search for new creative paths at the turn of the century. The second part of the essay discusses the reasons that provoked such a growing interest in the East. It briefly explains how the turbulent events in 19th-century European history became the primary cause of a search for alternative routes and how Theosophy played a vital role in disseminating non-Western perceptions among those who were searching for solutions to the perpetuation of violence. 

Scene from Shakuntala. 1914. From A.Ya Filippova, compiled and ed., Kamerny Teatr: Kniga Vospominanii, Moscow: GITIS, 2016.
Scene from Shakuntala. 1914. From A.Ya Filippova, compiled and ed., Kamerny Teatr: Kniga Vospominanii, Moscow: GITIS, 2016.

One cold, wet, overcast evening, on December 12, 1914, a new theatre opened its doors to the audiences of Moscow with Shakuntala, a play written by a 5th-century Indian playwright, Kalidasa. An odd selection, since the repertory of most theatres in Moscow and Saint Petersburg included contemporary dramatists: Henrik Ibsen, Maurice Maeterlinck and August Strindberg. Moreover, even the timing of the new theatre’s opening seemed inappropriate. The First World War had been raging since July. Russian troops were being battered and there was a pervading sense of gloom and doom.

Shakuntala got rave reviews. Magical, poetic and sublime were terms used to describe the opening performance. Some marvelled at the poignant love story, others at the novelty of the bare stage, the use of changing colours of the backdrops which synchronized with the different moods, the scantily clad actors’ painted bodies. Most seemed to agree that with Shakuntala, Alexander Tairov had introduced a new language into the world of theatre.

Tairov had embarked on a journey with an Indian classic, and his stagecraft was based on some fundamental concepts expounded in the ancient Indian treatise, Bharata’s Natyashastra—an epic work, composed sometime between the 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD, encompassing every aspect of drama and production, including genre, poetics, gestures, mime, decor, costumes, vocal and instrumental music, colour symbolism and, importantly, rasa, the inner states of being. Many concepts taken from the Natyashastra played a seminal role in Tairov’s subsequent productions, his theatrical aesthetics and philosophy. Within a decade of the performance of Shakuntala his theatre was hailed as one of the foremost Modernist theatres in Europe. Fernand Léger, the French painter and one of Tairov’s many admirers, clearly discerned the fusion of Eastern and European elements in his productions. Incidentally, Tairov called his theatre The Kamerny (Intimate) Theatre, undoubtedly inspired by Strindberg.

It is in his book, Notes of a Director (1921), that Tairov acknowledges his indebtedness to traditional Indian theatre, even though he never mentions the Natyashastra. However, we have reason to believe that he was well aware of its existence. In the summer of 1914, before beginning rehearsals, he had travelled to Paris to consult the French Indologist Sylvain Lévi, whose book on Indian theatre (published in 1890) relied on the Natyashastra. By 1914 Lévi had acquired the complete Sanskrit text of this classic from Nepal. 

From Tairov’s unpublished lecture notes it is apparent that he regularly read out to his actors excerpts from Lévi’s work expounding details from the Natyashastra: the bare stage, colour symbolism, the theory of rasa and bhava (rendered by Tairov as “emotions”), the different types of drama, the pivotal role of the actor on stage, the importance of an actor’s rigorous all-round physical training. 

Lévi had also been in close touch with Shakuntala’s translator—the poet Konstantin Balmont, who ecstatically repeated Lévi’s words, “The Indian genius created a new art which is symbolized by the word rasa and can be briefly formulated as: ‘The poet does not express, but suggests’.”1

In 1897 Balmont, one of Russia’s leading poets and translators, came across Helena Blavatsky’s book, The Voice of the Silence (1889), which included selections from the Upanishads and Buddhist treatises. Balmont called this work “the morning star of his inner flowering”. It opened the doors to the East and inspired him to compose his first poems on India. Between 1913 and 1915 he translated from English all of Kalidasa’s plays, Ashvaghosha’s The Life of Buddha, as well as stanzas from the Vedas and the Upanishads. “I rejoice in everything concerning India,” exclaimed Balmont, who at one time had insisted on being addressed by the Sanskrit name “Vayu” (air).

Tairov appointed Vladimir Pohl as the composer for his production of Shakuntala. A strict vegetarian and yoga practitioner, Pohl had been given but a few months of life by the doctors who had operated on him to remove one TB-infected lung. He lived a long healthy life till the age of 87 following his yogic practices. 

Pavel Kuznetsov, "Morning. A New Man is Born," (1905), Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Pavel Kuznetsov, popularly known as the Russian Gauguin for his paintings of Central Asia, was approached for Shakuntala’s set designs. He was a member of the World of Art organization, set up by Alexandre Benois and Serge Diaghilev and which included Nicholas Roerich, Léon Bakst and Konstantin Korovin. Kuznetsov’s works were included in the Russian avant-garde exhibition at the 1906 Parisian Autumn Salon, organized by Diaghilev. 

The poet Jurgis Baltrušaitis, Kamerny Theatre’s literary head, had studied Sanskrit and translated Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali in 1913. Baltrušaitis remained a dedicated student of Indian culture, yoga, literature and philosophy. Another great admirer of Tairov’s Shakuntala was Alexander Scriabin, Russia’s foremost Modernist composer. In 1914, he was still working on his magnum opus, Mysterium (begun in 1903). It was conceived as a syncretic performance of music, colour, light, dance and poetry in a theatre that was to be specially constructed for the occasion in India. Incidentally one of Scriabin’s most treasured possessions was Helena Blavatsky’s The Voice of the Silence.

Poster for the Kamerny Theatre’s 1923 tour in Germany, advertising performances for the week of April 7–23. Designers: G. Stenberg, V. Stenberg, K. Medunetsky. From Irina Antonova and Jorn Merkert (project directors), Moskva Berlin: 1900–1950, Munich and
[left] Poster for the Kamerny Theatre’s 1923 tour in Germany, advertising performances for the week of April7–23. Designers: G.Stenberg, V.Stenberg, K.Medunetsky. From Irina Antonova and Jorn Merkert (projectdirectors), Moskva Berlin:1900–1950, Munich and NewYork; Moscow:  Prestel; Galart, 1996, p.173.  [right] Cover for Kamerny Theatre’s Album, “Who, What, When at the Moscow Kamerny Theatre, 1914 x 1924 (Productionsofthelasttenyears)”. 1924. Designers: G. Stenberg and V. Stenberg. Album, paper, 34.7 x 26.4 cm. soviet-constructivism/3952- constructivism-theater.

Within walking distance from the Kamerny Theatre, another director was testing his ideas on acting techniques by making actors practise pranayama or breathing techniques, exercises for muscle relaxation, single-pointed concentration, meditation, transference of “prana” or energy rays, and tapping into super-consciousness. “In a successful performance prana rays pass between actors and their partners and between actors and their audiences.”2 From 1911 yoga was taught at the Moscow Art Theatre by the renowned acting guru, widely acknowledged as the father of contemporary theatre, Konstantin Stanislavsky. In fact yoga became an integral part of Stanislavsky’s teaching system. Yet this was one of the best kept secrets of the 20th century. Towards the end of the 1920s all experimentation in the arts was being frowned upon by the cultural commissars. Stanislavsky, by now an iconic figure for the Soviet state, was coerced to delete from his publications all references to terms such as yoga, prana, rays, emanation, intuition, spirit and super-consciousness, as “According to the beliefs of Stalin’s ideologists, the great man of socialist realism in theatre could not be inspired by the mystical studies of Indian hermits.”3 The word “yoga” was edited out in the 1926 edition of My Life in Art. Prana appears only once in the “Commentary” of Stanislavsky’s Collected Works (1955), where it is explained that “the term ‘prana’, borrowed from the philosophy of Hindu yogis, has been replaced with a clearer and more scientific term ‘muscular energy’ or simply energy.”4

These omissions in the Russian texts extended to all Stanislavsky’s translated works. Only recent access to his personal archives—including his copies of Yogi Ramacharaka’s books, Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga, with copious margin notes, and his lecture notes, which clearly have been taken straight from these yoga books—and the recently published memoirs and interviews of his actors like Vera Soloviova, recalling the yogic exercises and prana emanation,5 reveal Stanislavsky’s long and serious involvement with yoga. Ramacharaka’s books on yoga were compulsory reading for student-actors including Stanislavsky’s young protégés, Yevgeny Vakhtangov and Mikhail Chekhov at the First Studio, where exercises on improvisation alternated with readings from Hatha Yoga.6 Incidentally, Yogi Ramacharaka, author of the most popular books on yoga, was a Chicago-based American attorney, William Walker Atkinson (1862–1932). He never set foot in India, yet his dozen-odd titles on yoga remained popular till recent times.7

Equally popular amongst the avant-garde painters M.K. Čiurlionis and W. Kandinsky was Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater’s 1901 richly illustrated book, Thought-Forms. It explained links between thoughts, radiating vibrations, auras and colour. The enthusiasm for yoga and meditation, prana, emanation of rays, auras and colour symbolism attracted poets and writers, painters and composers. Poet Andrei Belyi insisted that his creativity flowed effortlessly when he was in a “state of emptiness” and meditation. His lectures and essays underlined that meditation was neither the aim nor the end but rather a means to self-realization. Scriabin, holidaying in the countryside, complained of his inability to keep his mind still during meditation.8 Each person dipped into the wealth of Eastern perceptions: studied it, adapted it, and then re-created it.

Such engagement with the East was not without controversies. One such event took place in August 1913 at an art gallery not far from the Moscow Art Theatre. A tall young woman with a serene expression was at the centre of a storm. This was nothing new. She had earlier horrified onlookers with her outlandish outfits and painted face; she had outraged the squeamish art critics with her nudes at her art exhibition which had been shut down on the very first day and the painter taken to court on charges of obscenity. This time, however, the press attacked the heterogeneity of her exhibited works—761 in all. She was accused of eclecticism and inconsistency. Her exhibits included styles from Russian folk and street art, icon paintings, works with Egyptian, Japanese, Persian and Indian influences, and also those inspired by Gauguin and van Gogh. In addition, two rooms in the gallery were devoted to her works on “rays”. 

Natalia Goncharova, Green and Yellow Forest, Rayist Construction. 1913. Oil on canvas, 102 x 85 cm. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017.
Natalia Goncharova, "Green and Yellow Forest, Rayist Construction." 1913. Oil on canvas, 102 x 85 cm. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017.

This was the second solo exhibition of 32-year-old Natalia Goncharova, both the namesake and a direct descendant of Alexander Pushkin’s wife. Despite the controversy surrounding her, both her detractors and her admirers had to concede that she was the most outstanding avant-garde painter in Russia. Her so-called “eclecticism and inconsistency” was, in fact, her conscious and principled stance against conventional beliefs in the linear progression models in art. Goncharova celebrated inclusiveness in art. What mattered to her was art’s intrinsic beauty independent of time and space. Her partner and fellow traveller Mikhail Larionov underlined, “He who claims to look to the future, believing in a linear development of time is consigning himself to insignificance and is completely blind.”9

Goncharova, an avid collector of Indian miniature paintings, was candid about her choices. In the Preface to her 1913 exhibition catalogue she wrote: 

At the beginning of my journey I learnt the most from my French contemporaries. They opened my eyes to the great importance and value of the art of my country, and through that the enormous value of the art of the East. Whatever the West had to offer up to the present moment I have imbibed. Now I shake off the ashes from my feet and leave behind the West, considering its vulgarizing influence too shallow and insignificant. My path currently leads to the primary source of all arts—the East…. I turn my back to the West because for me personally it has dried up and my sympathies lie with the East. The West has shown me one thing: all that it has comes from the East.10

Natalia Goncharova, Emptiness. 1913. Oil and gouache on canvas, 80 x 106 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Natalia Goncharova, "Emptiness." 1913. Oil and gouache on canvas, 80 x 106 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

In her footnotes Goncharova elaborates that Impressionism is indebted to the Japanese, Gauguin to India, Matisse to Chinese painting and the Cubists to Africa. In another essay, “Indian and Persian Miniatures”, Goncharova explains that it is not just the “source of art” that attracts her to the East but the philosophy inherent in the Eastern approach to art and life. Eastern cultures like Persia, India, Japan and the Slavs share a “great love…for synthesis in their understanding of the world that surrounds them; they do not copy nature, do not improve it, but recreate it.” And that, according to her, leads to “stupefying monumentality” and freedom.11

Goncharova and Larionov’s Rayist (also known as Rayonist) paintings can be considered as explorations in the depiction of Eastern perceptions of a unified, interdependent world: of prana or emanations and interconnections whereby luminous, dynamic coloured rays intersect. The painting is revealed as a skimmed impression…it is perceived out of time and in space—it gives rise to a sensation of what one may call, the “fourth dimension”.12 Kazimir Malevich was drawn to the concept of “zero” and its importance in the understanding of Indian, Buddhist, Zen and Taoist concepts in which emptiness or shunyata, no-thing, issimultaneously the source of everything. For Malevich his Suprematistblack square was the “zero of form”, the basic building block in a painting,whereas his white on white represented clear space and emptiness.

He explained that “It is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of beingbegins.” Compare this to the saying of the 6th- century Chinese philosopherLao Tzu: Tao is a great square with no angles...a great sound which cannot be heard, a great image with no form....Tao produced Unity; Unity produced Duality; Duality produced Trinity;and Trinity produced all existing objects.13

In Saint Petersburg the Union of Youth was led by Mikhail Matyushin, who was a musician, composer and painter, together with his wife Elena Guro. She too was a painter and poet. Following the concept of unity andinterdependence of all matter in the universe, this group had, since 1910, pursued practices in yoga and meditation. By doing so they hoped to reacha level of super-consciousness to be able to “see” from all sides of the body and then create a new art. They termed it“expanded vision”. Like Larionov, Goncharova and Malevich, they wanted to integrate the latest scientific discoveries with ancient wisdom. The British mathematician and professor at Princeton University Charles Hinton’s book The Fourth Dimension (1904) had been translated into Russian in 1910 byanother mathematician, P.D. Ouspensky, the author of the well-known Tertium Organum.

Hinton, Ouspensky and the American architect and writer Claude Brandon propounded Eastern perceptions about the inherent abilities of a human being to perceive beyond the Euclidian limits into the fourth dimension through training. All three were Theosophists. Ouspensky had been actively involved in the Theosophical Society, contributing articles to its journal and delivering lectures. Incidentally, Serge Diaghilev’s aunt, Anna Filosofova, was one of the organizers of the Theosophical Society in Saint Petersburg. Numerous poets and artists weredrawn to it, including Nicholas and Helena Roerich.

It was a time at the turn of the century when a vibrant, pulsating cultural scene existed both in Russia and Europe. For Russia this was undoubtedly the Golden Age—a period of intense search in the wake of arejection of conventional canons. Roman Jakobson termed those heady times as “a period of cataclysms in the visual arts, in poetry, and in science, or rather, in the sciences.… For us there was no borderline between Xlebnikov thepoet and Xlebnikov the mathematical mystic.”14

Journals, art and literary groups were mushrooming along with alternativecultural spaces—café cabarets in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and other towns.Lectures and heated discussions and debates on a variety of subjects were held in private homes (salons or soirees) and offices,basement cafés and in the pages of journals. The subjects ranged from Wagnerto Anarchism, Buddhism and Marxism, Buddhism and Christianity, Nietzsche and Tolstoyan ideas. There were study circles on Baudelaire and Mallarmé, Theosophy, Hegel, Kant and Schopenhauer. It was also a time when art collectors like Sergei Shchukin were thriving. He had the largest collection of contemporaryEuropean art.15 Once every week the doors of his This fascination for the East in Russia had “arrived largely on the wings of a European passion”.

It was a Europe that had experienced a long era of continuous wars, revolutions followed every time by waves of destruction. Running parallel to it all was colonization, extermination andpillage, along with industrialization at home, and dispossession of one’s own population. Life everywhere, according to George Sand, was ripped from its very foundations. Initially, leadingEuropean intellectuals set out as firm believers in the Enlightenment ideals of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality.

Many had even fought at the barricades: Richard Wagner during the 1849 May uprising inDresden, Charles Baudelaire and the fiery socialist poet Leconte de Lisle in Paris during the French Revolution of 1848; the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine along with the painterGustave Courbet at the barricades in the Franco- Prussian war and in the siege of Paris in 1870–71. In autocratic czarist Russia, Fyodor Dostoevsky faced the firing squad for merely being a member of a discussion group of Utopian Socialists. At the last minute his death sentence wascommuted to imprisonment and exile. The France that had experienced the Revolutionremained, for a time, the beacon of hope for populations under the tyranny of despotic regimesin Europe.

Gradually, those revolutionary blueprints for a new society began to fade. The ways to overturnexisting despotic regimes into some ideal model of equality began to falter. As Isaiah Berlin stated, The failure of the French Revolution to bring about the greater portion of its declared ends marks theend of the French Enlightenment as a movement and a system.17

By 1829 Victor Hugo, an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, was lamenting, “the scaffold is theonly edifice which revolutions do not demolish”.18

Across Europe more and more intellectuals turned their backs on the senseless ongoing violencesurrounding them and began to question conventional principles of the Enlightenment including the linearmodels of steady progress. Charles Baudelaire’s dreams of a utopia had crumbled. By 1855 he viewed the “idea of progress” as a“gloomy beacon”, a “grotesque idea”, “darkness that has gathered in that unhappy brain” that understands progress as “steam, electricity and gas”.19 In My Heart Laid Bare (written between 1857 and 1865) Baudelaire exclaimed, “There can be no progress… save in the individual and by the individual himself.”20


Utagawa Hiroshige, The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido. Edo, eleventh month 1857. Paper, colour woodcut, 37 x 25.4 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation). b Vincent van Gogh, Tracing of “The Plum Tree Teahouse at Kameido” of Hir
[left] Utagawa Hiroshige, "The Residence with Plum Treesat Kameido. Edo, eleventhmonth," 1857. Paper, colourwoodcut,37x25.4cm., VanGoghMuseum,Amsterdam(Vincent van Gogh Foundation).
VincentvanGogh, "Flowering Plum Orchard afterHiroshige)." 1887. Oil on canvas, 55.6 x 46.8cm., Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincentvan Gogh Foundation).

Western artists took inspiration from different non-European sources. Japonisme is a well- understood concept in arthistory, referring to the inspiration of Japan on European art. Vincent van Gogh confessed, “Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence—all the Impressionists have that in common….” Others took inspiration from ideas Indian, African, Middle-Eastern or Chinese.


His despair was shared by Gustave Flaubert who witnessed “relentless barbarism” and “wholesale murder” by “civilized savages” during the Franco- Prussian 1870–71 war. In his letter to George Sand, Flaubert writes…I don’t think that there is in all France a sadder man than I am!… I am dying of grief.... What a cataclysm! What a collapse! What misery! What abominations! Can one believe in progress and in civilization in the face of all that is going on? … Poor Paris! … All the friends that I had there aredead or have disappeared. I have no longer any center. Literature seems to me to be a vain and useless thing! Shall I ever be in a condition to write again?21

In 1862 after long years of soul- searching, Fyodor Dostoevsky visited Paris, the “birthplace of hisyouthful dreams”. He jotted down his thoughts in his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: What is liberté? Freedom. What freedom? Equal freedom for all to do anything one wants within thelimits of the law. When can a man do anything he wants? When he has a million. Does freedom give everyone a million? No. What is a man without a million? A man without a million is not a man who does anything he wants, but a man with whom anything is done that anyone wants.22  Dostoevsky concluded that if freedom is only for the rich then the question of equality and brotherhood does not arise.

Paul Gauguin, Poèmes Barbares. 1896. Oil on canvas, 64.8 x 48.3 cm. Courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest from the Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906. b Paul Gauguin, Femme Caraïbe – Caribbean Woman. 1889. Oil on panel, 66.7 x 55.3
[left] Paul Gauguin, "PoèmesBarbares." 1896. Oil on canvas, 64.8 x 48.3 cm.C ourtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest from the Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Class of 1906.
[right] Paul Gauguin, "Femme Caraïbe–Caribbean Woman." 1889. Oil on panel, 66.7 x 55.3cm., 
Private Collection. Courtesy Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo.

The influence of Buddhism on Paul Gauguin is now becoming much better known. From 1889 onwards Gauguin turnedincreasingly towards Buddhist philosophy,incorporating Buddhist imagery and mudras or gestures in his paintings and sculptures. They became a recurring feature, like the abhaya mudra (illustrated here), a hand gesture that expresses a-bhaya—fearlessness, protection, peace,benevolence. He had photographs of Buddhist frieze carvings in the Borobodurtemple. These he had acquired at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. Gauguin said, “…I murmur these words of Buddhato myself, ‘By kindness you mustconquer anger; by goodness evil; and by the truth lies.’” (From Gauguin’s Tahitian journal Noa Noa.)


Romanticism had taken the first step in critiquing the central dogma of the Enlightenment, its projection of single, universal unalterable sets of principles governing theworld. By the end of the 19th century little of that larger narrative remained. The authority of existing institutions, the imposition of aesthetic models and the idea of there being some “objective criteria” and unified answers for everything were being increasingly questioned and rejected. These monocentric models were replaced with alternative notions of multiple truths andmultiple paths, in other words—pluralism. Much of the Modernist movement across Europe and Russia was linked to this counter-Enlightenment reaction and also a move against the arbiters and controllers of taste—the State and its Academies.

The attraction for a non-European worldview since the early 19th century (in the works ofGoethe, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Nietzsche and many more) grew along with the spread of the counter- Enlightenment voices. This coincided with the arrival of information on other cultural practices and philosophies from the colonies and the Far East.

One of the most important turning points in the history of European art was inspired by the discovery in 1867 of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints that European viewers saw for the firsttime at the Paris International Exposition. Subsequently Japonisme in the works of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists changed the trajectory of modern European art. The Parisian painters were confronted with a totally new yethighly sophisticated art form in the works of Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Hiroshige and otherJapanese painters: asymmetrical compositions, the absence of shadows, the use of flat colours. An alternative path had been discovered to confront the Academy. In an 1888 letter from Arles, van Gogh confesses, “Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence–all the Impressionists have that in common….”23 Van Gogh, alongwith other Impressionists, collected hundreds of Japanese prints and learntfrom Hokusai especially. He admitted to his brother, “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art….”24 The painter evenmade tracings of Hiroshige’s works and enlarged them.25

Artists drew on two sources for inspiration: the obvious and the subtleor hidden. Gauguin’s paintings can only be fully understood if they aretaken together with his writings. His Intimate Diaries and Noa Noa have abundant references to Buddhist ideas. Similarly, van Gogh’s work can be appreciated when taken together with his letters. This search for answers drew more and more intellectuals to Eastern thought as made evident by Jules Bois in his book Les Petites Religions de Paris (1894): “There are a hundred thousand friends of the Buddha in Paris and at least ten thousand followers.”26 According to Bois, who befriended Vivekananda, most writers and artists were Buddhists. There was a flood ofliterature and translations on Eastern subjects, both academic and popular. Countless paths and possibilities opened up in one’s creative search. New concepts of atonal music were ushered in by Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Scriabin; poetry was liberated fromthe constraints of “appropriate” language and subject matter by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud; alternative spaces were created for performances by Strindberg’s Intimate Theatre, the café cabarets; techniques of Chinese, Japanese and Indian theatre and yoga were explored in the productions of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, Mikhail Chekhov and Alexander Tairov. 

These were all integral to Modernism, a glorious period of syncretism, synthesis between the arts,between the East and the West. Both in Europe and Russia there was a proliferation of Buddhist themesand ideas in plays, short stories, poetry, operas, ballets and paintings. Again Theosophy played asignificant role in the popularization of Buddhism.

This brings us to the role of Theosophy, whose intermittent presence can be felt throughout this narrative about Modernism. Its teaching and physical presence across many countriesprovided valuable support to those who had begun to question the values of the Enlightenment. The Theosophical Society was formed in New York in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky. By 1908 there were 631 branches including 86 across the USA, 48 in the UK, 29 in Scandinavia, 23 in France, 37 in Germany, 20 in Holland, 16 in Italy, 7 in Hungary, 8 in Russia and 266 in India.27 Russia’s first Theosophical branches, though formed in 1901, were allowed to be officially registered in 1908. The literature of the Theosophists was initially available through French, English and German publications and, subsequently after 1883, through Russian translations.Its growing popularity across Europe and Russia was symptomatic of the times.

Nicholas Roerich, Padmasambhava, Banner of the East. 1924. Tempera on canvas, 73.66 x 116.84 cm. Courtesy Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York.
Nicholas Roerich, "Padmasambhava,Bannerofthe East." 1924. Tempera on canvas, 73.66 x 116.84cm. Courtesy Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York.

Theosophy had become one of the most important catalysts and acted like aspringboard for the study of ancient wisdom. It disseminated and popularized, as earlier mentioned, texts from the Upanishads andthe Vedas, Buddhist texts and those of Zen, Sufism and Islam, through vast networks of publicationsand translations. Its ever-increasing appeal owed a lot to its adherence to theideals of equality of all races, faiths and genders; its condemnation of colonialismand racism; and importantly, its espousal of non- violence as a means forimproving society.

Neither was Theosophy prescriptive nor anti-science, as it was made out tobe by its detractors. Instead it criticized the ossification of scientific attitudesand rigidity on matters for which science had no answers. Theosophy engagedactively with science and drew parallels between the latest scientific discoveriesof x-rays, the telephone, electricity and the ability to access one’s super-consciousness through yoga and meditation. Not surprisingly, many scientists andmathematicians were also drawn to Blavatsky’s teachings, for instance Thomas Edison.

Theosophical lodges across Europe facilitated meetings, debates andcollaborations between intellectuals, all of whom were reaching out to newways of seeing and experiencing the world around them. The resultant diversity of styles and forms that emerged is apparent in the works of the Modernist painters:Goncharova and Malevich, Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Alphonse Mucha, Roerich, Hilma af Klint and Gustav Klimt.Many of them were bonded together by common aspirations of a unifiedpeaceful world—aspirations largely inspired by non-European cultures. Thecomplexity of these interactions and their outcomes needs to be exploredfurther for a better understanding of Modernism.



This essay forms part of a larger study on Modernism in preparation by the author.

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  2. Sharon Marie Carnicke, Stanislavsky in Focus: An Acting Master for the Twenty-First Century, London and NewYork: Routledge, 2009, p. 178.
  3. Sergei Tcherkasski, Fundamentals of the Stanislavski System and Yoga Philosophy and Practice, Stanislavski Studies 1, 2012, https:// (accessed May 5, 2019).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Carnicke, Stanislavsky in Focus, pp. 176–79.
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  7. In 1909 Stanislavsky acquired the Russian translation of Ramacharaka’s book, Hatha Yoga: Yogi Philosophy of Physical Well being, translated under the editorship of V. Singh and published the same year. Other sources on yoga available in Russia included the works of Vivekananda, Helena Blavatsky, Paul Sedir, Annie Besant, the Bhagavadgita and the Lalitavistarasutra on the life and teachings of the Buddha.
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  9. Mikhail Larionov, Predislovie: Vystavka kartin gruppy khudozhnikov “Mishen”, Moscow: Khudozhestvenny Salon, 1913. Such thoughts were shared by many intellectuals at the time. Osip Mandelstam in his essay, “On the Nature of the Word” (in Collected Critical Prose of Osip Mandelstam, ed. Jane Garry Harris, trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link, Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1996, pp. 72–85) wrote, “The theory of evolution is particularly dangerous for literature, but the theory of progress is nothing short of suicidal.”
  10. Nataliya Goncharova, Vystavka kartin Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova 1900–1913, Moscow: Tipo-lit, 1913, nodes/3552-goncharova-n-s-vystavka-kartin- nat...(accessed May 5, 2019).
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  15. Sergei Shchukin bought his first Impressionist painting in 1897, a Monet. By 1914 he owned over 200 paintings which included 14 Monets, 37 Matisses, 51 Picassos, along with other Impressionists, Gauguins and Rousseaus.
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  25. These included Hiroshige’s print, The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido. See figures 8a–c here.
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