The Energies of Modernism: Art, Science, and Occultism in the Early Twentieth Century

The Energies of Modernism: Art, Science, and Occultism in the Early Twentieth Century

Linda Henderson


From Albert de Rochas, L'Extériorisation de la sensibilité (Paris, 1895).

"The idea of an all-pervading medium is not a wild dream or mere speculation. If we study observed facts we are forced to admit the reality of the aether. The scientist is as sure of the existence of the aether as he is of his own existence."

Charles R. Gibson, Scientific Ideas of To-Day Popularly Explained, 1909


Histories of modern art have generally been written by scholars far removed from the context of the early twentieth century and for whom the term “science” has invariably signified Einstein and Relativity Theory. Yet, with the popularization of Einstein and his theories occurring only after the 1919 eclipse expedition, artists operated in a milieu quite different from that of the 1920s onward. The ether of space, for example, dismissed by Einstein as irrelevant, was basically lost to cultural history during most of the last century. Yet, as Charles Gibson’s 1909 statement documents, the ether was still at the center of the popular understanding of the nature of reality in this period. In addition to a conception of space as filled with vibrating ether, matter had been reconceived in the wake of the discovery of X-rays, the electron, and radioactivity in the 1890s. Just as radioactivity offered the prospect that all matter might be dematerializing into the ether, it was widely suggested that the ether might be the very source of matter—from Lord Kelvin’s “vortex atom” to the “electric theory of matter” propounded by Sir Oliver Lodge and others.

How can we comprehend the works of modern artists and their theories without a better grasp of the popular understanding of science and the nature of space and matter in the first decades of the century? This book project, The Energies of Modernism: Art, Science, and Occultism in the Early Twentieth Century began to remedy this situation. In addition to examining scientific writings aimed at the general public, Linda Henderson also explored texts by various occultists as vehicles by which scientific ideas were often promulgated in this period. Russian-born Expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky, for example, drew on both scientific and occult sources and tied his ideas about the possibility of abstract painting to the dissolution of material objects, a topic of much discussion at this moment. Beyond Kandinsky and his fellow pioneers of abstraction, the Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich and Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, the project included the Parisian Cubists Pablo Picasso, and George Braque, along with Marcel Duchamp (the artist most fully grounded in both contemporary science) and Czech painter František Kupka, Duchamp’s mentor for a time. In addition, it will consider such artists as the American Cubist Max Weber, the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni, and English Vorticist Wyndham Lewis (along with his poet colleague Ezra Pound, who was deeply interested in electromagnetism). For all of these figures, the early twentieth century represented a moment for redefining the very nature of artmaking, and new developments in science and their occult applications offered critical stimuli for that process.