“The house where nobody thought or talked politics was a house in Ely Place, where a number of young men lived together, and, for want of a better name, were called Theosophists … the reading room was a place of much discussion about philosophy and about the arts.”
— W. B. Yeats, Autobiography, 1922.
In the drawing room of 3 Ely Place, something lurks behind the wallpaper. Owned by Frederick and Annie Dick in the 1890s, this rather forlorn Georgian building was once a meeting place and de facto headquarters of the Irish branch of the Theosophical Society, frequented by Irish mystics including W. B. Yeats, Maud Gonne and George Russell. Now, in a neat coincidence, it is occupied by a homoeopathist.
It is presumed to be Russell, perhaps best known by his moniker Æ, who is responsible for the paintings underneath the wallpaper. Soft, abstract forms and curvilinear shapes form mystical vision-like murals covering the mass of wall. Segments of the wallpaper have been meticulously peeled away to reveal the phantasmagorical images underneath, though the majority of the papered-over surface remains intact, concealing these long-forgotten murals for perhaps a few decades more. It is a forgotten gem of Irish art history, and a rare glimpse into the artistic and intellectual life of fin-de-siècle Dublin and its upper classes’ flirtations with mysticism. Situated as it is on private property, the murals remain largely unspoken of, undocumented and unvisited.
A new discussion is opened, then, by the inclusion of a series of photographs of the murals, taken by Dorje de Burgh, in a new exhibition at The Hugh Lane curated by Pádraic E. Moore, A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of the Occult in Dublin. Placing the photographs in the context of modern and contemporary artworks which explore similar themes and ideas – albeit indirectly – to those discussed by the Theosophical Society, A Modern Panarion is set to delve into the largely untapped history of the Theosophical Society in Dublin and its continued influence on art and society, continuing into the 20th century and beyond.
Formed in 1875 in New York City, the Theosophical Society was headed by the charismatic, if a little erratic, Madame Blavatsky. The foundations of the society were based upon the study of world religions and philosophy. At its core was the goal of forming a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity “without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour”. The study of comparative religion, philosophy and science were central (Theosophy literally means “God wisdom”), with close readings of the Koran, the Upanishads, the Old Testament, etc, taking place; the third core tenant was “to investigate unexplored laws of nature and the powers latent in man”. As well as occultism and psychic ability, the Theosophists were interested in concepts like electromagnetism: many of their proposed theories, then disputed, are now backed by scientific evidence.
That’s not to say they didn’t have the odd wacko moment, however. Blavatsky for one is a somewhat controversial figure. Her assailants discredit her as fraudulent, and perhaps at best she was a little excitable with the truth. Blavatsky claimed to communicate with her alleged Tibetan masters through an “astral post office” – making bells ring and letters float down from the ceiling with her claimed psychic abilities. A report by The Society of Psychical Research in 1894 described her as “one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters of history”. Certainly, she knew how to put on a show, and it is perhaps largely creditable to her tremendous cult of personality that the doctrines of the Theosophical Society spread so rapidly across continents in an age where mass media was in its infancy.
Blavatsky was particularly fond of the Irish. In her major work Isis Unveiled, she outlines the seven ages of man, and places the Celts higher in the ranking than Brits, claiming them to be more attuned to emotion, the spirit world and ancient faiths than their Anglo-Saxon oppressors. Such theories no doubt appealed to Yeats and the Celtic Revivalists who typified aristocratic literary circles in Dublin, and she quickly became immersed in this clique: “I am glad go see such a genuine sincere thirst for knowledge in the Irish Fellows,” Blavatsky wrote. “It is the Irish invaluably who were and are the best members of the Theosophical Society and my best loved and trusted friends.”
But the infatuation was to be temporary. Yeats, initially president of the Dublin Hermetic Lodge (later to become the Irish branch of the Theosophical Society) left the Theosophical Society – or was asked to leave – in around 1890, just five years after he oversaw its formation in Dublin. Blavatsky passed away in May 1891, and a general decline in activity for the Theosophical Society would follow in the oncoming decades. After reaching a peak towards the close of the 19th century, the Theosophical Society, and particularly its Dublin branch, was very much on the wane by the outbreak of World War I. In Irish history it is studied mainly through the prism of W.B. Yeats, in whose biography it forms something of a footnote to his far more sustained involvement with the Order of the Golden Dawn. It’s perhaps not unfair to state that it is treated as a literary curiosity, or a fin-de-siécle perversion.
The ideas posited by A Modern Panarion, then, are not so much that a Theosophical Society is alive and kicking in Irish contemporary art, but that the traces of ideas raised by the Theosophists have perhaps been assimilated or passed down via pop culture. A lot of the Society’s thoughts on religion and philosophy would eventually resurface in new guises over the course of the 20th century – perhaps most notably during the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s, and the science fiction of the 1970s. Through these third parties, connections can be drawn to the artists participating in the show.
Through diverse media – Super-8 film, drawing, sound, sculpture, photography and installation – the selected artists touch upon spiritual and cultural ideas that whisper of the Theosophical Society’s legacy. Gunilla Klingberg will cover the gallery walls with a printed lunar cycle, repeated to optically paralysing effect. Her work hints not only towards the importance of symbols, rhythm and natural forces to spiritual movements like Theosophy, but also the consumerist substructures New Age discourse and paraphernalia has, by now, largely been absorbed by; Klingberg’s oeuvre has an ongoing preoccupation with the commodification of the spiritual. By mechanically reproducing quasi-spiritual symbology, she presents a subtly cynical 21st century take on New Age’s inherited ideas.
There’s a similar psychedelic appeal to be found in the sculptural installations of Richard Proffitt, a Liverpudlian artist based in Dublin. Proffitt amasses and arranges discarded cultural artefacts, ephemera and debris, reconfiguring them into shape-shifting sculptures with sort of talismanic properties. Proffitt engages directly with 1960s music, brushes with Eastern spirituality and hippydom: one sound piece included in the show is comprised of a tape loop of Pink Floyd’s 1967 debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Continually in flux, Proffitt’s sculptures are never quite completed, being constantly re-worked and transformed into new pieces even after they have been exhibited.
Bea McMahon’s series of colourful and abstract drawings bring to mind the mystical, visionary drawings of both William Blake and George Russell – both of whom relied upon visions as an integral part of their practice. McMahon’s drawings also appeared to her fully formed as visions. “Eastern mysticism and mathematics would have been a big part of my first 20 years… There is an aspect of mathematics that is very visual,” she told us. “It entails a lot of memory and density of thought. Making these images was of that feeling – recalling something in its entirety from an instantaneous arrival of an image, and keeping it intact even though it tended to keep slipping out of my mind’s eye…” A former physicist, and the daughter of a yoga teacher, McMahon’s drawings hint towards spiritual otherness, hidden forces and perhaps sexual energy: the series if titled the Self-Pleasuring Series.
For Garrett Phelan, the preoccupation is with electromagneticism and radio waves. Phelan will present a sound piece within the show, which visitors must tune in to via radio, emphasising the hidden presence of radio waves and the possibilities this opens up for human connectivity. Phelan’s work also explores the psychological impact of megalithic sites – stone circles and burial sites like Newgrange – and their deliberating effect on members of even a supposedly rational, scientific society such as our own: what is it about these ancient sites that makes us stop in our tracks? Some inherent spiritual power? Or simply an aura we bestow upon them ourselves, perhaps out of a desire for meaning?
A Super-8 video piece by Derek Jarman also muses somewhat quietly on ancient sites of worship, providing a documentation of Jarman’s 1971 visit to Avebury, home to one of Europe’s largest Neolithic sites, with three stone circles, including the largest in the world. Assembled out of vivid, burning red shots in his typically painterly approach to film, Jarman’s piece perhaps provides a missing link between the five contemporary artists in the show and the 1960s and 1970s pop culture through which the ideas of the Theosophical Society re-emerged: Jarman is the only non-living artist in the show.
These are combined with Dorje de Burgh’s aforementioned photographic works documenting sites of interest to the Theosophical Society in Dublin, including those elusive Ely Place headquarters. The only series in the show to engage directly with the history of the Theosophical Society, and not just to explore similar ideas to those investigated by it, one cannot help but find a metaphorical significance in those images of the papered-over murals. For one, it’s rather telling sign of the Theosophical Society’s legacy – long-obscured and largely forgotten, with only part of the bigger picture revealed even now. But for an esoteric society preoccupied with acquiring higher knowledge and hidden truths, perhaps it’s rather apt that Æ’s paintings should remain as they began: a subject of mystery and intrigue we’ll never fully have access to.
A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of Occultism in Dublin, curated by Pádraic E. Moore opens at Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane on Thursday 19th June until 7th September.
Words: Rosa Abbott
Feature Image: Gunilla Klingerg, Lunar Cycle for A Modern Panarion, Vinyl installation, 2014