Concerning the Spiritual

Jenny MacFarlane Concerning the Spiritual: The influence of the Theosophical Society on Australian Artists 1890–1934 Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2012


“Jenny McFarlane, in this fascinating study of Theosophical influences upon Australian artists, attempts a ‘cross-cultural and interdisciplinary interrogation of modernity’. Rather than viewing modernism in the arts as the progression of a series of ‘isms’, leading by a linear narrative to abstraction, she presents a picture of multiple, interweaving modernisms. Her period of interest extends from the 1890s, when prominent Australians such as Alfred Deakin and Henry Parkes were enthralled by Annie Besant’s Australian lectures, through the early twentieth century, when many artists officially joined the Theosophical Society, to the Society’s decline after the death of C.W. Leadbeater in 1934. By focusing on the way Theosophy encouraged artists to probe the nature of the visible and invisible, McFarlane gives an account of Australian modernism that is ‘gendered, decentralised and alternative’.”

“This book, written by the art historian, writer and freelance curator Dr Jenny MacFarlane, is unique in that it presents, for the first time in one volume, the profound and extensive influence that the TS exerted on the cultural life of Australia in the first three decades of the twentieth century. It shows, among other things, how the visits by Col. H. S. Olcott, Annie Besant and C. Jinarājadāsa to that country attracted the interests of artists, poets, young politicians and musicians. An entire chapter is devoted to the influence of C. W. Leadbeater on different artists who later on collaborated with him in giving artistic form to his clairvoyant insights….

Dr MacFarlane says: ‘This book follows a select number of artists who found in the Theosophical Society an organization which represented their concerns. … Australian artists recognized an alternative knowledge system by which they could make sense of their lived reality. … These artists sought to reconcile science with spirituality, the visible with the invisible, academic rationality with a concept of inner truth through the formal means of their practice. … They are connected not by a formal or stylistic relationship but by a common conceptual response to the representation of a Theosophical, non-visible reality.’

The chapter on CWL is quite interesting. The author refers to him as ‘the influential proponent of radical visuality’. Although there were controversies surrounding his time in Sydney, Dr MacFarlane says that ‘no one to date has examined the effect that this charismatic and complex man had on the artists of the city which he came to call home.’ She mentions particularly three artists: Judith Fletcher, Alfred Edward Warner and Gustaf Köllerstrom. The author writes:

Leadbeater’s intense relationship with these artists had in each case surprising ramifications. They have previously figured as conservative and parochial exponents in their chosen fields. Yet in collaboration with Leadbeater, their work blossoms into expressions of radical Modernism in ways which offer unique insights into broader contemporary practice. These three artists shared a conviction that the visible and invisible worlds were interlinked; that the transcendental was immanent and active in the visible world. In their work, the separation of the disciplines of science, religion and art, promoted by the Enlightenment, was explicitly and programmatically ignored.

Dr MacFarlane’s book is a scholarly, thoughtful and important contribution to our understanding of the widespread influence of the TS on the cultural panorama of Australia in the first three decades of the last century. It shows how Theosophy captured the imagination of a significant number of artists of that period and how it helped them to find the means and the way to express their own creative vision of the deeper realities of life.”

From: Pedro Oliveira at; originally published in The Theosophist, July 2012.

Dr MacFarlane’s PhD thesis A visionary space. Theosophy and an alternative modernism in Australia 1890-1934 (Australian National University, Canberra, 2006) has been digitalized and is available on-line:


See also: Jenny McFarlane “The Agency of the Object: Bishop Leadbeater and the Pectoral Cross” in Carole Cusack and Alex Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production [Brill, Leiden, 2012] pp. 133-152.


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