Delving into the arcane: the legacy of Æ’s hidden murals

A new show has its roots in occult groups, such as Dublin’s Theosophical Society, and celebrates their influence on pop and counter culture

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

The title for Pádraic E Moore’s curated exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery is intriguing – A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of Occultism in Dublin. It is, as he’s quick to point out, a show of contemporary art. But it has its roots in one of the stranger episodes of Irish cultural history: the flowering of the Dublin branch of the Theosophical Society.

Established in New York in 1875 by a small group of people centred on Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott and Dublin-born William Quan Judge, the society held that a body of ancient, hidden knowledge lay behind all the world’s religions and, similarly, that hidden laws lay beyond the bounds of conventional scientific thought.

In Ireland, George Russell (Æ), James M Pryse and others set up a branch in Dublin, based at number 3 Ely Place. “It was a kind of commune and in many ways idealistic, even utopian,” says Moore. “The theosophists were, and are, completely non-sectarian. They believe in universal freedom and equality.”

Though it sounds as if it might be a religious cult, he points out: “It’s not. It ambitiously aimed to synthesise elements of science, philosophy and religion.”

Too ambitiously, perhaps. Some of Blavatsky’s claims were at best fanciful and outlandish, at worst fraudulent – as many detractors forcefully argued – and, almost from the beginning, the movement was beset by rows and splits. The Irish society was no different, and Russell parted company with it in 1898, not before he’d had a hand in painting murals on the walls of 3 Ely Place.

They were discovered quite recently under layers of wallpaper. They feature in A Modern Panarion, partially revealed, in photographs by Dorje de Burgh, that seem to offer a glimpse into a murky, teeming underworld inhabited by fantastic, perhaps comically threatening creatures. This menagerie has been linked to some of the beings described in Blavatsky’s sprawling, two-volume work The Secret Doctrine. The show also incorporates some of the Dublin Society’s formidable amount of published material.

Moore was impressed by the murals. He might, at first glance, have sprung from the era in which they were created – he looks as if he’d be at home in the late-Victorian world. Originally, Moore studied art history and English at UCD then, about 10 years ago, he went on to complete a master’s in curatorial practice at Dún Laoghaire IADT.

There followed two years on a post-graduate programme in Stockholm – an interesting, useful experience, he says. He’s good at offering carefully measured observations and not elaborating. Consistently busy throughout his studies and ever since, he’s brought a distinctive curatorial sensibility to the Irish cultural landscape.

 

Outside the mainstream

That sensibility might be best exemplified by his gravitation towards things outside, or perhaps at a slight angle to, the mainstream of cultural convention. He warms to the alternative, the unorthodox, the indefinable, the arcane. Where might that inclination have come from? “I don’t know,” he says, frankly, and considers the question.

 

“But when you are not baptised into any religion, as was the case with me, I guess you try to find your own, in whatever sense. Not necessarily in terms of an organised religion, but perhaps in terms of some form of interconnectedness, of oneness. I think it’s important not to reject all ideas of spirituality because we are disposing of discredited institutions.”

With that in mind he thought that there wasn’t much point in just doing an historical exhibition, based on Russell and the Dublin Theosophical Society. “I began to think about how theosophical ideas had been absorbed into mainstream culture.” Absorbed in ways that were not necessarily recognised. “There is,” he argues, “a legacy of occult thought in contemporary art that has not often been acknowledged by artists.”

The legacy is evident particularly in pop culture and counter-cultural movements from the 1960s on, he suggests, and artists absorbed many of those ideas without being especially aware of their source: they were in the air. As Rosa Abbott argues in her essay Full Circle, which forms part of a forthcoming publication on the exhibition: “modernist painting, New Age philosophy, sci-fi television, mass media and 1960s counter-culture” are just some of the cultural phenomena that bear the imprint of theosophical thought, “to the point where many of the theories and visual elements now seem familiar”.

Through the work of six artists, Moore’s show aims to explore some of the reverberations of theosophical ideas in modernity. A key work in the exhibition is Derek Jarman’s Super 8 film A Journey to Avebury, which has a dreamy, hallucinatory quality. It taps into a venerable mystical tradition encompassing the English landscape, druids, alchemy and wizardry, through a haze of “neo-romantic psychedelia”. Jarman was tuned into this tradition to begin withand the film is quite beautiful and rough-edged.

Abbott sees a similarity in Garrett Phelan’s attraction to prehistoric sites. His presence at Newgrange during the winter solstice in 1986 was, she says, “formative for his artistic career”. Besides which, he was a fan of the 1970s children’s television series Children of the Stones in which the inhabitants of a small village built in the midst of a megalithic stone circle turn out to be guardians of ancient secrets. It was filmed, as it happens, at Avebury.

Phelan’s diagrammatic drawings hint at hidden links between structures and locations, patternssuch as ley lines, and he has provided a soundtrack that you can activate by tuning in: it’s an FM broadcast.

You don’t have to tune in to Richard Proffitt’s Cosmic Drift: Elevations of a Fried Mystic. It’s a repetitious, incantatory drone that fills the gallery space, not unpleasantly, and rather hypnotically. He has made a tape loop of a line from Pink Floyd’s Chapter 24 from the album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

The reference is to chapter 24 of the I’Ching – a reflection, Abbott elaborates, on the significance of the number seven. It’s a number that is also close to the hearts of the theosophists. The chanting is juxtaposed with a tremendously atmospheric installation: a shrine-like, New Age-inspired construction composed of various bits and pieces. It manages to convey something of the intense, obsessive need to bring together a multitude of disparate elements, to find and celebrate a unified spiritual something, a cosmic meaning to existence.

 

The influence of the occult

For Moore, the notion of synthesis is perfectly exemplified in theosophist and socialist Anne Besant’s book Thought Forms. Its explorations of the synesthetic nature of the world may not hold together theoretically, but you can see how her coloured, abstract visualisations of emotions and moods would have interested Kandinsky, and perhaps Mondrian, and influenced the development of abstraction in mainstream art.

 

“People tend to think of abstraction as emerging from the machine age, as being purely materialist,” Moore says. “But from the beginning it involved this yearning for something beyond the material.”

Gunilla Klingberg’s lunar wallpaper, made up of repeat patterns of the phases of the moon, is a kind of optical version of Profitt’s musical chanting, at first unsettling and then lulling us into a trance-like state. Hung on Klingberg’s wallpaper, Bea McMahon’s drawings, The Self-Pleasuring Series, made during a residency in Milan, allude to the confluence of visionary religious experiences, abstract thought and sensual pleasure, something most famously illustrated by interpretations of Bernini’s virtuoso sculpture The Ecstasy of St Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel in Rome.

Moore is keen that we acknowledge the contribution of the Theosophical Society and, more generally, the alternative, mystical tradition, to our cultural make-up. He points to the example of mythologist Ellen Young, who was involved in the Celtic Revival and emigrated from Ireland to the US in 1925. She lectured on Irish mythology at the University of Berkeley, California attired in druid’s robes and was open in expressing her belief in the spirit world.

“What I’d like is to reignite discussion of the Theosophical Society and individuals like Ellen Young.” Moore is himself leaving Ireland, to take up a funded, year-long research residency at the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht. There he will pursue ideas related to, and following on from, A Modern Panarion. A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of Occultism in Dublin, curated by Pádraic E Moore with work by Derek Jarman, Gunilla Klingberg, Bea McMahon, Richard Proffitt, Garrett Phelan and Dorje de Burgh, is at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Parnell Square, until September 7th. hughlane.ie

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