In the late nineteenth-century, artists like Paul Gauguin famously traveled the globe hoping to find a primitive refuge from the modern world. But what was he looking for? What did he think he might find? The answers to these questions lie in the rise of Theosophy and other syncretic religions around the turn of the twentieth-century. Theosophy, founded in 1875, aimed to unite all faiths, all peoples, and all knowledge. Its adherents attempted to find aspects of divine truth in all religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Theosophists believed in equality irrespective of race, gender, or national origin. In the context of the time, this was a radical, ultra-left-wing position and they were virtually alone in asserting it. Theosophically-inspired periodicals mixed anti-colonialism and anti-racism with their articles on auras, numerology, and traveling on the astral plane. As Leela Gandhi argued in her recent book, Affective Communities, this position of radical equality relied on the cultural politics of empathy, on the assumption that all human life was equal and interconnected. As a result, it corresponds to the "wagon wheel" model of human community proposed by Tom Yellowtail and Rodney Frey. While art historians have studied the politically conservative strands of Symbolism, few have explored the left-wing cultural politics of Theosophy and its French variant, Martinism, in the art of Gauguin and his followers among the Symbolists. In this paper, I analyse the art of Gauguin, Paul Ranson, Claude-Emile Schuffenecker and others to reveal how their art is steeped in religious and cultural syncretism. I argue that their art reveals both a yearning for a pre-modern golden age of human connection with nature and the divine, as well as the anti-colonialism and anti-racism that were characteristic of Theosophy and Martinism.
Marco Deyasi is the art historian at the University of Idaho. He is a graduate of Duke University and has a held a number of awards for his research: a Chateaubriand Fellowship, a SSHRC dissertation fellowship, and a Kress Travel fellowship, among others. His research focuses on the reception of Vietnamese and Cambodian art and culture in France, especially in relation to the interplay between politicized modernism and colonial ideology. He is working on a book, Modern Primitives and Primitive Moderns: French Visual Culture and "Indochina", 1863-1968.
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