Jenny McFarlane: Concerning the Spiritual

Steven Miller

 

Concerning the Spiritual: The influence of the Theosophical Society on Australian Artists 1890–1934
by Jenny McFarlane
Australian Scholarly Publishing, $49.95 pb, 225 pp, 9781921875151

 

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’.

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