Colleagues, Friends, Students, and Influences
Bisttram flourished in stimulating cultural contexts in New York in the 1920s, and in Taos, New Mexico, from 1931 until his death. The brief biographies that follow give a sense of the range of his relationships and influences in both New York and New Mexico.
ALICE BAILEY (1880-1949) was a theosophist and occult writer. She expanded on the ideas of H. P. Blavatsky through her communication with The Tibetan, D.K., who guided her work. While Bisttram knew of Bailey’s writings while he was living in New York, as they appear on Keskar’s reading list, it was probably under the influence of Dane Rudhyar in the 1930s that Bisttram studied her works in depth. Bisttram probably also took her correspondence course. Bailey’s books, especially Letters on Occult Meditation (1922) and A Treatise on Cosmic Fire (1925), were highly influential on Bisttram’s theosophical and transcendental paintings. Another indication of Bisttram’s affiliation with Bailey is the fact that Harriet Richards (b. 1884), one of Bailey’s financial supporters, spent the summer of 1937 meditating with Bisttram in Taos, and funded a meditation loft and studio for him. Richards also provided Bisttram’s student Horace Pierce with funds to purchase an air brush and compressor.
ADOLPHO BEST-MAUGARD (1892-1964) was a Mexican artist, art historian, and theosophist, whose teaching methods were influential on Bisttram. His book A Method for Creative Design (1927) describes his innovative teaching method which utilized seven motifs – spiral, circle, half circle, “s” shape, wave, zig-zag, and straight line. He identified these motifs from primitive art while studying ethnographic artifacts under the anthropologist Franz Boaz in 1910, and later by studying objects in museum collections. Best-Maugard also associated his seven motifs with the logarithmic spiral, and in his book cited both Jay Hambidge and Claude Bragdon.
EMIL BISTTRAM (1895-1976) was born in Nadlak, Hungary, and baptized in the Romanian Greek Orthodox Church with the name Emilian Bistran. He immigrated to the United States in 1906 with his family. He grew up on the east side of New York and got involved with gangs and was expelled from school. Later he was enrolled in a vocational school and received some art training. He eventually worked his way up in advertising, having his own firm by 1920. He then sought out more art training under Howard Giles, who introduced him to the people and ideas who would be influential in his life – Jay Hambidge and his theory of dynamic symmetry, Denman Ross and his color theory, Nicholas Roerich, and Claude Bragdon. Bisttram made his first trip out West during the summer of 1930, visiting Taos, and then made application to the Guggenheim Foundation for a fellowship, which took him to Mexico City to study with Diego Rivera in 1931. Bisttram experimented with different styles, and by 1933 he was working with abstraction, by 1936 was making some overtly occult works, and by 1937 non-objective works influenced by Kandinsky. In 1938 he was instrumental in founding the Transcendental Painting Group made up of a group of 9 artists whose goal was to band together in order to promote their work and make a larger impact than any of them could do individually.
After World War II, TPG members went in different directions, and the Group disbanded. Bisttram went out to Phoenix (1941-1944) and then to Los Angeles (1945-1951) to teach in the winters, always returning to teach the Taos Summer School in the summers.
MAYRION HUTH BISTTRAM (1898-1984). Mary Huth studied fashion design at Cooper Union. The couple met when Huth came in to apply for a job at Bistran, Caldwell, and Hill. They married in 1920. She was also interested in the occult, and similarly changed the spelling of her name from Mary to Mayrion when Emil changed the spelling of his name from Bistran to Bisttram, following the advice of the numerologist Nancy Landsdale.
Mayrion’s father, Gustav Huth, was born in Badkomburg, Austria, in 1872, and was a musician. Her parents had a restaurant in Hoboken that was frequented by artists and musicians. Her father presumably died early since her mother was living with the couple by 1930, and remained with them until her death sometime in the 1960s.
In the summer of 1931 Bisttram installed his wife and mother-in-law in Taos while he went to Mexico City to study with Diego Rivera. Afterwards, because of the Depression, they decided to remain in Taos. Mayrion was an excellent typist and took shorthand. She handled all of Bisttram’s correspondence as well as all the details of packing and shipping paintings for exhibitions.
H. P. BLAVATSKY (1831-1891) founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 in New York with W. Q. Judge and Col. Olcott. She posited that that science and religion could be reconciled by an examination of ancient mystical wisdom teachings. Her most important books were Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1886). Among her arguments were many that depended on number and geometrical form, ideas that artists were able to apply. For example, her concept that creation could be expressed as a sequence of geometrical forms, point, line, plane, solid, was the basis for Kandinsky’s book Point and Line to Plane (1926), which became the basis for non-objective art, and explains much of the symbolism in Bisttram‘s transcendental paintings. Blavatsky’s concept of God as the grand creator architect in the macrocosm, who becomes man the initiate, magician, and divine geometer in the microcosm, was appealing to many writers and artists including Bisttram.
CLAUDE BRAGDON (1866-1947), a theosophist and architect, moved from Rochester to New York City in the early 1920s to take a position as theater designer for Walter Hampden, enabling him to focus on experiments with light and color. His interest in the relationships between color, light, music, and form resulted in the design of a color organ about the same time as those of Thomas Wilfred and Van Deering Perrine; later he designed Wilfred’s laboratory on Long Island.
Bragdon’s interests in design, geometry, the fourth-dimension, and the occult followed the model set out in Blavatsky’s concept of the divine geometer. Bragdon knew and was in sympathy with Denman Ross’s mathematical approach to art as early as 1901. Bragdon was also a devoted supporter of dynamic symmetry and understood it as an occult system. Bragdon was also a keen supporter of Roerich’s aesthetic ideals, and edited and wrote the introduction to Roerich’s travel diary, Altai Himalaya (1929). In New York Bragdon lived at the Shelton Hotel where he met and became close friends with Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. Through them he met Dorothy Brett with whom he carried on an extensive correspondence, in which, among other things, he gave her lessons on dynamic symmetry.
Bragdon’s influence on Bisttram was considerable. Bragdon lectured frequently at the Master Institute, and in 1930 Bragdon lectured to Bisttram’s class. Bragdon’s The Beautiful Necessity (1910) was an important component of Bisttram’s teaching in Taos.
LADY DOROTHY BRETT (1883-1977) was born into English nobility, and studied at the Slade School of Art. She first visited Taos in 1924, with D. H. (d. 1930) and Frieda Lawrence, as a guest of Mabel Dodge Luhan. She soon settled permanently in Taos. Mrs. Bisttram recalled that their first friends in Taos were Dorothy Brett, the Blumenscheins, and Eleanor Kissel. These three, with the addition of Victor Higgins, Ward Lockwood, and Bisttram, joined together to establish Taos Heptagon, a cooperative gallery that opened in May 1933. Brett, in two letters to Stieglitz, claimed to have originated it. Brett and Bisttram were good friends in spite of the fact that both Mable Dodge Luhan and Stieglitz disapproved of him. Brett studied dynamic symmetry with Bisttram, and, by correspondence, with Claude Bragdon.
JERRY BYWATERS (1906-1989) graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1926 with a degree in comparative literature. After studying art in Mexico with Diego Rivera and in Spain and France, he returned to Dallas where he established himself as an artist. Between 1943 and 1964 he served as the director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts while teaching art and art history at SMU.
Bywaters helped Bisttram establish a reputation in Texas. They met in Taos in 1932 while Bywaters was on a ten-day visit to assemble material for his short-lived magazine Contemporary Arts of the South and Southwest, for which Bisttram wrote an article. He and Bisttram had a mutual interest in dynamic symmetry and in Diego Rivera. Bisttram served as one of three jurors for the Sixth Allied Arts Exhibition held at the Dallas Art Museum in 1933. The jury awarded Bywaters the prestigious Keist purchase prize for a portrait of the Dallas architect David R. Williams, executed in a style recalling Florentine 15th c. painting, a style and format Bisttram was also working in at this time.
EDITH CARLSON (1923-2007) studied with Bisttram between 1954 and 1956. She left a 50-page manuscript of notes taken while she was studying with him. Carlson and her husband, the novelist Frank O’Rourke, were living in Taos when Carlson applied to Bisttram to take a few classes. Bisttram insisted that she take the entire course or nothing at all. Her notes are among her papers housed at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City.
The manuscript also recalls fellow students Bernard Stone, John de Puy, George McCheanly, and Dean Delgado. Her notes also provide a context for the “Scratch Series” that Bisttram was working on during this period. Carlson’s papers also include an important letter from Mrs. Bisttram describing the thinking behind TICO (Taos Institute of Creative Orientation, Inc.), a partially successful educational initiative founded by Bisttram in 1957, aimed at the business community. They also contain a number of excerpts from Bisttram’s notebooks not found elsewhere. Bisttram gave Carlson the copy of Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art that he had purchased in 1947.
DAVID GILES CARTER, director of the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design between 1959 and 1964, organized Dynamic Symmetry: A Retrospective Exhibition (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Feb 5-Mar 12, 1961). The exhibition traveled to the Currier Gallery of Art, and the Carpenter Art Galleries, Dartmouth College. The exhibition included his aunt Evelyn Carter (Mrs. Howard Giles), Howard Giles, Bisttram, Leon Kroll, Denman Ross, Mary Crovatt Hambidge, and others. David Carter was introduced to dynamic symmetry while a teenager by Howard Giles.
L.D. CASKEY (1880-1944), curator of classical antiquities at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, was one of the biggest supporters of Hambidge’s theory of dynamic symmetry, writing The Geometry of the Greek Vases in the Museum of Fine Arts Analyzed According to the Principles of Proportion Discovered by Jay Hambidge (1922) and the introduction to Hambidge’s Parthenon (1924).
Other scholars who supported Hambidge include Edward Huntington, president of the American Mathematical Association, and professor of mathematics at Harvard; R. C. Archibald, professor of mathematics at Brown University, who prepared some of the notes for Hambidge’s Greek Vase (1920); and W. H. Goodyear, curator at the Brooklyn Museum.
Another important supporter was the Dutch art historian Karel H. de Haas, who heard Hambidge lecture in New York in 1918, and then published some of his theories in Holland in 1920. Most important perhaps are the writings of the mathematician Matila Ghyka (1881-1965), who in The Geometry of Art and Life (1946) acknowledged Hambidge’s seminal mathematical discoveries, and provided a larger context for Hambidge’s ideas.
Hambidge’s critics included David Smith, professor of mathematics at Columbia University, Rhys Carpenter, classical scholar at Bryn Mawr College, and the mathematician Edwin M. Blake. The exchanges in the scholarly press between the two sides became heated, especially when Hambidge’s side had difficulty getting their opinions in print: The Nation, which had published Smith’s attack, refused to publish Goodyear’s article, which was subsequently published in The American Architect. Then The Journal of American Archeology, which had published Carpenter’s attack, refused to publish Caskey’s rebuttal.
Bragdon’s explanation of dynamic symmetry that appeared in the October 1924 issue of Architectural Record, following Hambidge’s death in January, however, was a sign that many architects, designers, and artists had adopted the system.
JAMES CHILLMAN, JR. (1891-1972), founding director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, organized a three-city exhibition of Bisttram‘s work that opened in Houston in February 1933, and subsequently traveled to the College of Industrial Arts, Denton (now Texas Women’s University), where Alexander Hogue was teaching, in March, and to the Witte Museum, San Antonio, in April. While making a lecture tour of all three cities, Bisttram also served on the jury for the Sixth Annual Allied Arts Exhibition in Dallas. Accompanying newspaper coverage launched Bisttram into the Texas art scene. It was probably Jerry Bywaters who introduced Bisttram to Chillman.
VIOLA DE GRUCHY (Mrs. Mortimer Staley, d. 1986, Montclair, NJ) studied dynamic symmetry with Howard Giles and Bisttram, and in 1930 was teaching a private class in dynamic symmetry at the Master Institute. In 1936, she was given access to some geometrical diagrams drawn by George Henry Felt. Felt ( 1831-1906) was one of the co-founders with Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, and had derived a system of geometry based on ancient Egyptian principles. Blavatsky thought they were authentic and discusses them in Isis Unveiled (1877). De Gruchy showed these diagrams to Howard Giles, who then referred her and the drawings to Claude Bragdon, who described his meetings with her to Dorothy Brett in 3 letters dating from 1936. The Felt diagrams derived the golden section and other root rectangles from the circle. The discovery of the Felt diagrams undoubtedly strengthened Giles and Bisttram’s belief in dynamic symmetry as an ancient mystical system based on cosmic principles. De Gruchy provided the illustrations for “The Twin Sisters – Religion and Science,“ the final chapter of James Churchward’s The Sacred Symbols of Mu (1933). For an in-depth discussion of the Felt material, see http://www.ehbritten.org/docs/felt_working_group_status_report_7-18-12.pdf
MARTIN DIAMOND and his wife Harriette owned a gallery in New York City. They “discovered” the artists of the Transcendental Painting Group in 1979 and started selling works by these artists at their gallery in New York City. Diamond purchased a group of works from Mrs. Bisttram and sold them in his gallery between 1980 and 1985. He also wrote “Who Were They? My Personal Contact with Thirty-Five American Modernists Your Art History Course Never Mentioned,” a typescript dated 1995.
MAYNARD DIXON (1875-1946) and his wife, the photographer Dorothea Lange, were in Taos between September 1931 and January 1932 as a guest of Mabel Dodge Luhan. Dixon produced some 40 paintings during this short period. He attended Bisttram’s Taos lectures and subsequently began experimenting with dynamic symmetry. Dixon’s most widely reproduced work from this period, Earth Knower, 1931, was constructed with three vertical side-by-side golden section (whirling square) rectangles.
WILLIAM DELEFTWICH DODGE (1867-1935). Bisttram studied with Dodge at Cooper Union in the 1920s. According to Bisttram, Dodge asserted that the compositional system he learned in Paris in the 1890s was identical to dynamic symmetry. In Dodge’s class, Bisttram learned how to build an intermediary model of wood and clay with the drapery folds dipped into thin plaster and then draped over it, so as to be able to work from consistent drapery folds.
NIKOLAI FECHIN (1881-1955) and LEON GASPARD (1882-1964)., Russian expatriate artists living in Taos, kept Bisttram in contact with Russian theosophy. Fechin studied with Ilya Repin at the Imperial Institute in St. Petersburg, graduating in 1908. Fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution, Fechin with his wife and daughter arrived in New York in 1923, and moved to Taos in 1927. In 1933, upon his divorce from his wife, he left Taos, went to New York, eventually settling in Santa Monica, CA. He is known for his loosely painted old master style portraits. Fechin’s daughter Eya (d. 2002) was briefly married to Dane Rudhyar. In the 1970s Eya returned to Taos and restored the family home, which is now open as a museum.
MARIE TUDOR GARLAND (b. 1870) was an important member of the New Mexico occult scene. Her books include The Potter’s Clay: Poems (1917), Hindu Mind Training (1917), The Winged Spirit, and Other Poems (1918), and The Marriage Feast (1920). Hindu Mind Training was written in London; it reflects a course of study she took with S. M. Mitra, who wrote the introduction to the book. Marie Louise Tudor was from a wealthy Boston family, being the granddaughter of Frederick Tudor (1782-1864). In 1893 she married James A. Garland; they had 5 children. In 1912, she caused a sensation when she forfeited a the estate of her deceased husband so as to marry her second husband, Francis Cushing Green, whom she divorced in 1914. In 1921 she married the NY lawyer and poet Swinburne Hale, which lasted only a short time. One of her daughters was Hope Garland (Mrs. W. Fitch Ingersol). One of her sons was Charles Garland, who, because of religious views, at first refused $1,000,000 from his father’s estate. He then changed his mind and established the Garland Fund which supported many socialist causes. Rudhyar was a guest at Garland’s ranch in New Mexico during the summers of 1933 and 1936.
CLYDE GARTNER (1900-1967) founded Arsuna, a gallery and school in Santa Fe in 1937 that featured paintings by Nicholas Roerich and supported the activities of the Transcendental Painting Group. The Arsuna School was modeled on Roerich’s concept of uniting all the arts in one school, with its name derived from the Latin phrase meaning “art is one.”
Mrs. Gartner, whose husband was a wealthy Tulsa oilman, purchased a large number of paintings by Roerich through Maurice Lichtmann, vice-president of the Roerich Museum, for the purpose of spreading the Roerich gospel in the Midwest. She showed Roerich’s paintings in Oklahoma and looked around Tulsa for a location for the school. Dissatisfied with locations in her home state, she brought her venture to Santa Fe, opening the Arsuna Galleries at 922 Canyon Road in August 1937. This location included two galleries, one devoted to paintings by Nicholas Roerich and the other to paintings by Santa Fe artists. Lichtmann made the move to Santa Fe upon the establishment of Arsuna and guided the development of the school along Roerich’s principles and headed the music department. The August showing featured piano recitals by Lichtmann, and lectures and readings. One such event was a reading by Alexandra Fechin, dressed in native costume, from her recent book Ancient Russian Legends. Additionally, thirteen of Roerich’s paintings, depicting “lonely lamaseries against towering mountains or of snow covered peaks of the Himalayas, of unusual color and composition” were shown one weekend in Taos in Blanche Grant’s studio.
The following summer Mrs. Gartner opened the school in a 200 year-old Spanish hacienda at 435 Manhattan Avenue in Santa Fe, again with two galleries, one devoted to Roerich’s paintings, the other to changing exhibitions of works by Southwest artists. The facility included a Russian tea room with courses featuring music, writing, speech and dramatics, crafts, and fine arts, and lectures on anthropology and Pueblo art. This summer Bisttram offered a course in dynamic symmetry. In 1939 the location of the school changed again when Mrs. Gartner purchased La Casa Querida, the former home of the writer Mary Austin, on Camino del Monte Sole.
All of the members of the Transcendental Painting Group were included in group exhibitions at Arsuna at one time or another. Lawren Harris had a solo exhibition in May 1939 and Raymond Jonson taught painting. When World War II broke out, Clyde Gartner closed Arsuna to volunteer with the Red Cross.
TEMIMA (FANNY) NIMTZOWITZ GESARI (1905-2009), Giles’s teaching assistant at the Master Institute, studied with Bisttram at the Moriah, NY, summer school sponsored by the Master Institute in 1928, and in Taos in 1932 and 1933.
EVELYN CARTER GILES (1881-1965) took art lessons at the Master Institute with Giles and Bisttram, and was included in the dynamic symmetry exhibition organized by her nephew David Giles Carter at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1961. She and her cousin Howard Giles married in 1933, but did not have any children. She loaned works by van Konijnenburg to an exhibition at the Roerich Museum in 1930, had her portrait painted by him in 1932, and bequeathed works by him and by Bisttram to the Hood Museum, Dartmouth College.
HOWARD GILES (1876-1955) was Bisttram’s teacher and mentor in New York. His grandfather was the esteemed 19th century Swedenborgian theologian Chauncey Giles (1813-1893), which gave him entrée to the third generation circle of transcendentalists in Cambridge. Giles was teaching at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts when Bisttram began studying with him. Giles advised Bisttram to concentrate on watercolor painting, and Bisttram began painting at Monhegan Island in the summers. Bisttram’s immersion in Swedenborg formed the basis for his use of symbolism in landscape painting, biblical subjects, and abstract works.
Giles introduced Bisttram to Jay Hambidge and his theory of dynamic symmetry. In classes at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts, with Giles as teacher, and Bisttram as student and then assistant instructor, they experimented with applying the principles of dynamic symmetry to the figure. Giles then recommended Bisttram to the Master Institute where Bisttram began teaching, and together they developed the Three-Year Course in Fine Arts that became the curriculum there. Giles also encouraged Bisttram to make the trip to Cambridge to meet Denman Ross and learn his color theory for use in their Three-Year Course.
Giles and his wife made a trip to Taos in 1936, and acquired a number of works by Bisttram, which are now at the Hood Museum, Dartmouth College.
ROBERT GRIBBROECK (1906-1971), was studying with Bisttram when he joined the Transcendental Painting Group. Born in Rochester, New York, he studied at the Rochester Institute of Technology and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before going to New Mexico in 1929 where he lived at Isleta Pueblo. His studies with Bisttram began in 1936.
MANLY P. HALL (1901-1990) was an important force within the occult movement in the United States, especially through his encyclopedic book, Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbol Philosophy (1928). Bisttram attended his lectures in New York and later in Los Angeles. In New York, Hall attended some of Bisttram’s classes, and in Los Angeles, Hall lectured to Bisttram’s classes. Hall’s Philosophic Research Society, established in Los Angeles in 1934, served to disseminate his ideas and writings to a wide audience. Bisttram also knew the occultist Paul Foster Case (1884-1954), who wrote widely on the tarot, in New York and later in Los Angeles.
JAY HAMBIDGE (1867-1924) claimed to have “rediscovered” the system of picture composition he called dynamic symmetry, based on the golden section and other rectangles, which he asserted was used in antiquity and was based in nature, specifically in the logarithmic spiral found in plant, animal, and human life. In 1919 Hambidge was working at Harvard courtesy of the Samuel Sachs Research Fellowship, which enabled him to research Greek vases at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, to measure skeletons at the Harvard Medical School, and to lecture to the student body.
Hambidge’s research was first published in 1919 in his magazine The Diagonal, and was followed by The Greek Vase (1920). The subsequent publication of Dynamic Symmetry in Composition (1923), showed the application of his principles by contemporary artists including Ross, Henri, Bellows, Kroll, Giles, and Christine Herter. These books were published by Yale University, which also provided him with a grant to continue his research in Greece that formed the basis of his book The Parthenon, published posthumously in 1924. His lectures in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia were widely attended by artists, and were the subject of much controversy by art historians. A number of New Mexico artists heard his 1921 lecture series in Chicago.
Bisttram heard Hambidge lecture in New York, and by dint of his relationship with Giles, was able to meet with Hambidge informally, and had some of his drawings published in Hambidge’s magazine The Diagonal. While Hambidge was only interested in the mathematical and scientific elements of dynamic symmetry, Bisttram and Giles saw in it a spiritual dimension, which they embedded into their Three-Year Course for the Master Institute. Bisttram was so taken with dynamic symmetry, that he used it in all his works, taught it in all his classes, and prepared a manuscript on it, which, however, was never published.
MARY CROVATT HAMBIDGE (1885-1973) accompanied Jay Hambidge to Greece in 1920 while he was doing research for his book The Parthenon (1924). While there Mary Crovatt met the American heiress Eva Palmer Sikelianos (1874-1952), wife of the Greek revolutionary poet Angelos Sikelianos (1884-1951). The couple were involved in reviving the Delphic Festivals. Eva was a dancer and weaver and introduced Mary to weaving, which eventuated in Mary taking up weaving professionally, using dynamic symmetry in the designs. Eva returned periodically to New York, establishing a salon at her Greenwich Village townhouse, which was called “The Ashram.” This is where Mary met Orozco and introduced him to dynamic symmetry. After Hambidge’s death, Mary moved to Rabun Gap, Georgia, and established the Hambidge Center, where she worked with local women to revive the art of weaving. She also operated a shop in New York, which provided an outlet for the weavings produced in Georgia. The Hambidge Center is still operating.
CLIFF HARMON AND BARBARA SAYRE HARMON (b. 1927) met at Bisttram’s Los Angeles art school in 1947. Bisttram had opened the Bisttram School of Art in Los Angeles after World War II to take advantage of the G.I Bill. Bisttram would teach in Los Angeles during the winters and return to Taos for the summers. After their first year, Cliff and Barbara followed Bisttram to Taos for his summer school, married in 1948, and settled in Taos. They built a home on land given to them by Duane Van Vechten, another of Bisttram‘s students.
LAWREN HARRIS (1885-1970) met Raymond Jonson in Santa Fe in 1938 while making a cross-country trip. On his return he joined the Transcendental Painting Group. Harris was a well-established Canadian artist and an avowed theosophist. He was well connected in the art world. He had arranged for an exhibition from the collection of the Société Anonyme to be shown at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1927. His membership in the Canadian “Group of Seven” was a sign of his interest in collaborative undertakings. During his Santa Fe residency (1938-1940) he became completely won over to abstraction based on geometry, partly influenced by his study of dynamic symmetry with Bisttram. Jonson was familiar with Harris’s work, having seen the “Exhibition of Paintings by Contemporary Canadian Artists” at the Roerich Museum in March 1932. Also, Harris and Rudhyar would have been familiar with each other, since both published articles in The Canadian Theosophist in the 1920s.
One of the indications that Harris thought very highly of Bisttram was that a number of the Harrises’s Canadian friends studied with Bisttram. Among these were Isabel McLaughlin, Yvonne McKague Hausser (1897-1996), and Alexandra Luke (1901-1967): Isabel McLaughlin in the summers of 1938 and 1939, and Hauser and Luke in 1939. McLaughlin acquired three works by Bisttram and one by Rudhyar. Harris also acquired two drawings by Bisttram.
MAX HEINDEL (1865-1919) based the ideas in his book The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception or Mystic Christianity : An Elementary Treatise upon Man’s Past Evolution, Present Constitution and Future Development (1909) on direct teachings from an “Elder Brother.” While his teachings did not depart from Blavatsky’s, his presentation is simpler and more organized. He established the Rosicrucian headquarters in Oceanside, CA between 1909 and 1911. The Bisttrams were attending meetings of the Rosicrucian Order in 1928 in New York.
WILLIAM PENHALLOW HENDERSON (1877-1943) and his wife ALICE CORBIN HENDERSON (1881-1949), artist and writer respectively, settled in Santa Fe in the spring of 1916. Alice had been an associate editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Modern Verse, and attracted numerous writers to Santa Fe including Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Harriet Monroe.
The Hendersons were also the primary supporters of dynamic symmetry in Santa Fe. Alice Corbin’s dynamic symmetry proof of the old mystical challenge of “squaring the circle,” based on her interest in “the Pi relation said to exist between the height and perimeter of the base of the great Pyramid of Gizeh,” located at the back of Bisttram’s teaching notebook and in her papers, indicates that her interest was sophisticated, and suggests that there was a close relationship between the Bisttrams and the Hendersons.
An examination of Alice Henderson’s papers suggests that her interest in geometry, like Bisttram’s, was tied to questions of ancient ornament, mysticism, and Oriental and Native American art. Her notes on geometry show that she was interested in the three geometrical problems most widely discussed by the ancients – the trisection of an angle, the doubling of the cube, and the squaring of the circle. Her fascination with these subjects is shown by her meticulous drawings and formal presentations of proofs. One of her notes indicates that she was interested in the connections between geometry and decorative motifs on ancient artifacts. She wrote “The decorative symbol used by Hindus and Chinese (see Boaz) contains the secret of the Pythagorean theorem (square on hypotenuse of right angle triangle = sum of squares on their sides). Many symbols or decorative designs used by so-called primitive man may have been devised by the priesthood–i.e., the learned man. I think it is a mistake to assume all primitive men of any one time on same level!”
The Hendersons’s interest in Oriental art is shown by their having acquired some 400 Japanese prints during their lifetimes. Their interest in mysticism was undoubtedly inspired by their friendship with the Indian poet Rabindranth Tagore (1861-1941), whom they met in Chicago in 1912. William Henderson painted Tagore’s portrait at that time.
EDGAR HEWETT (1865-1946), founding director of the School of American Archaeology (1907) and the Museum of New Mexico (1909), was a great friend to New Mexico artists and a great supporter of the ideals of Nicholas Roerich. Bisttram met him in Mexico City while he was assisting on Rivera’s murals. Hewett, who met Roerich on his visit to Santa Fe in 1921, showed his support of Roerich’s ideas and his antipathy to Rivera’s in a lecture he gave at Arsuna in 1937 titled The Utility of Beauty. “The great Russian philosopher-artist, Nicholas Roerich, has long contended that art will unify humanity. For a generation he has borne aloft a steady oriflamme of goodwill through art that no tumult of a discordant world has ever caused him to lower. European, American, oriental, world-thinker, he has proclaimed art to be the unifying world-force. With Roerich’s thesis, I am in full accord, understanding, of course, that by art is meant all those agencies that bring beauty and harmony into the lives of men. Art that does not do that is misnamed. Ugliness, strife, propaganda (another hateful word), do not belong to the province of art. This eliminates the work of the much publicized Diego Rivera, he of the vast murals dedicated to strife, unrest, war spirit. The propagandist who incites the mob to violence is no friend of mankind. The artist who brings beauty into life is a bearer of peace and joy.”
FRANK (1906-1992) and MARGEL HINDER studied with Bisttram and Giles at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, the Master Institute, and the Moriah summer school between 1929 and 1931, and with Bisttram in Taos in the summer of 1933. Frank recalled that the teaching atmosphere was suffused with an interest in the classics, particularly ancient Greek culture and ideas. In 1934 the Hinders returned to Australia, Frank’s place of birth, and became important members of the avant-garde art scene in Sydney. Their son is currently teaching at the University of New Mexico.
ALEXANDER HOGUE (1898-1994) began visiting Taos in the 1920s, and beginning in 1932, he ran an annual summer school art class in Taos for students from the College of Industrial Arts, Denton. Bisttram and Hogue had a lot in common; Hogue had worked as a commercial artist in New York between 1921 and 1925. Also, Bisttram and Hogue shared a spiritual attitude towards the landscape and Indian culture, an approach that Hogue found compelling after breaking with organized religion. Furthermore, Hogue, like Bisttram, made prints on Joseph Imhof’s lithography press in Taos, and was good friends with Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, who loaned Hogue rare books on ethnology and anthropology.
Bisttram continued his friendship with Hogue in Tulsa, where Bisttram often taught classes, after Hogue’s appointment as chairman of the art department at the University of Tulsa in 1945. Olivia Marino, Hogue’s daughter, confirmed that Hogue and Bywaters were both interested in dynamic symmetry, and that Hogue used it in his painting and taught it in his classes.
RALPH HARRIS HOUSTON (1908-1976) was a painter and a “messenger” for the Roerichs’s Agni Yoga movement. He traveled around the country working with various study groups that he established. Beginning about 1960, Houston made trips to Taos where meetings were held at the Bisttram home. While Bisttram was aware of the Agni Yoga movement when he was teaching at Roerich’s Master Institute, in New York in the 1920s, he was not a member of the Roerichs’ inner circle. Meeting Houston and joining his group, reinvigorated Bisttram’s spiritual approach to painting. Houston’s students compiled his teachings in Talk Does Not Cook the Rice, Samuel Weiser, 1985.
JOSEPH IMHOF (1871-1955) probably provided Bisttram with his first insights into Pueblo culture. Imhof and his wife Sallie moved to Taos in 1929 from New York, after having lived in Albuquerque between 1907 and 1912, during which time Joe had been initiated into the Turquoise Clan at Cochiti Pueblo. Imhof had established intimate relationships among the Taos Pueblos and was a great collector of artifacts. His research culminated in a series of 60 paintings that recorded the role of corn in Pueblo cultural and religious life.
The Imhofs took a parental interest in the Bisttrams. The Bisttrams were only a few years older than the Imhofs’s daughter who tragically committed suicide soon after the Bisttrams’s arrival in Taos. Imhof and Bisttram had a lot in common–both had worked in commercial art in New York; both had even worked for the American Lithography Company. Imhof also had the only lithography press in Taos, a Rutherford flatbed hand press, which he purchased from Currier & Ives, where he had started his career in commercial art. Imhof allowed Bisttram and others to use this press. Most important, however, was Imhof’s devotion to dynamic symmetry, an interest that predated his move to Taos. While there is no record of how Imhof became interested in dynamic symmetry, it was surely discussed at the annual gatherings of 14th Street artists at the Imhof studio at 28 East 14th Street, just down the way from Howard Giles’s studio at 35 West 14th Street.
After Bisttram’s initial talks on dynamic symmetry in Bert Philips’s studio, a group of artists continued to meet for discussions at Imhof’s studio. One of their activities was examining Imhof’s collection of Anderson of Rome reproductions of old master paintings, looking for confirmations of dynamic symmetry in the compositions. They were undoubtedly aided by Irma Richter’s Rhythmic Form in Art (1932), which provided geometrical analyses of old master paintings as well as Greek and Egyptian examples. Although Richter utilized Hambidge’s concepts, her analysis of Egyptian and Greek art, as well as old master paintings, were based on inscribing a pentagon in a circle. The basis for this idea was that the pentacle, the five-pointed star inscribed within the pentagon, contains exclusively golden section ratios. The presence of golden section ratios in the pentacle had of course been known since before the time of Euclid and was so noted by Hambidge. Richter’s in-depth discussion of Plato and Pythagoras would have kept classical concepts in the forefront of Bisttram’s mind.
RAYMOND JONSON (1891–1982) was the first Transcendental Painting Group member to meet Nicholas Roerich. Jonson saw Roerich’s April 1921 exhibition in Chicago and the Chicago production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden for which Roerich designed the sets. Jonson’s strong response to Roerich’s paintings was based on a similar use of symbolism in his own painting at that time, which was also derived in large part from the work he executed as a stage designer. When the two met Jonson was involved in founding Cor Ardens (the burning heart), a brotherhood of Chicago artists with idealistic aims similar to those of Roerich’s. The organization was officially established in July 1921, with Jonson as President; Roerich was appointed Honorary President for Russia when the organization added international affiliations.
Jonson and his wife Vera moved to Santa Fe in 1924, was commuting to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico by 1934, and then moved permanently to Albuquerque in 1950 to live permanently in the house he built on the UNM campus which served as a gallery and repository for works by members of the Transcendental Painting Group.
Bisttram and Jonson undoubtedly met soon after Bisttram’s arrival in Taos in 1931. Their work developed in a parallel way as it moved towards the abstract and the non-objective. While the idea for the Transcendental Painting Group was proposed by Bisttram in Taos to his students, and then to Lumpkins and Jonson, it was Jonson who enrolled the other members – Lawren Harris, Agnes Pelton, and Stuart Walker, and did most of the organizational work. Jonson also enrolled Dane Rudhyar and Alfred Morang as writers for the group, and founded the American Foundation for Transcendental Painting (AFTP) to support the aims of the TPG.
Dane Rudhyar began painting under Raymond Jonson in 1938; they collaborated on a series of images of the zodiac, with Rudhyar providing the drawings and Jonson adapting them into watercolor. (Robert Hay, Dane Rudhyar and the Transcendental Painting Group, M.A. Thesis, University of Michigan, 1981, p. 80.)
C. G. JUNG (1875-1961) was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. He developed the concepts of the collective unconscious and archetypes. Mabel Dodge Luhan was in correspondence with Jung and considered therapy with him in Europe. When he did make the visit to Taos, she was in New York, and never met him. Jung visited Taos in January 1925 for about two weeks, accompanied by Mabel‘s friend Jaime de Angulo. Jung spent time at Taos Pueblo and had intense conversations with Antonio Mirabal. Jung, like so many others at the beginning of the 20th century, was interested in native peoples, their rituals, ceremonies, and symbols.
Bisttram was undoubtedly introduced to the ideas of Jung by Rudhyar, and the most influential text was undoubtedly The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life, translated and explained by Richard Wilhelm with a European Commentary by C. G. Jung (1929), trans. Cary F. Baynes, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931. In this book Jung explains that he used art with his patients, and that when they produced mandala images, that it was a sign of their healing. He also asserted that the unconscious can only be reached and expressed by the symbol, an idea that was held also by Bisttram and Rudyar. Most interesting for interpreting art, Jung held that unconscious contents were always projected.
LEO KATZ (1887-1982), artist and art historian, lectured to Bisttram’s class at the Master Institute in New York in 1929 on the history of art. Katz’s theories, which formed the basis of Bisttram’s ideas about the development of art styles, were based on Oswald Spengler’s (1880-1936) theory of the morphology of history developed in Decline of the West (1918, 1922). Katz’s sequence “geometric, classic, impressionist, expressionist” implies a decline, a break-up of a civilization, and follows Spengler’s assertions that classicism was a sign of an age’s decline, and impressionism and expressionism were degenerate styles. Both Spengler and Katz gave precedence to the geometric period because of its universal qualities, and because the great religions developed in the earliest periods.
Katz wrote the introduction for the catalogue of Bisttram’s exhibition at the Delphic Studios in New York, Dancing God Series: Water Colors of the Indians of the Southwest (1933), and reproduced one of the works from this exhibition in Understanding Modern Art (1936). In 1932 Katz assisted Orozco, who used dynamic symmetry in his painting, with his murals at the Dartmouth Library.
SHRI VISHWANATH KESKAR (b. 1880), lectured to Bisttram’s classes at the Master Institute in February and March 1930. Keskar, a Hindu mystic, theosophist, and art theorist who lived in the United States off and on between 1927 and 1936, occupied the top floor apartment of the Master Institute when Bisttram knew him. Keskar was Bisttram’s primary source for a practical application of Eastern ideas in his thought and work during his New York period and introduced Bisttram to meditation. Keskar self-published two books, Pillars of Life (1931) and The Universal Gospel (1936).
NANCY LANSDALE was a psychic who gave a reading to the Bisttrams in the 1920s in New York, which convinced Bisttram to change the spelling of his name from Bistran to Bisttram. Lansdale’s powers are described in an article by Gina Cerrninara (1914-1984), “The Candid Camera of the Cosmos,” The Searchlight (Association for Research and Enlightenment, Inc., Virginia Beach, Virginia), May 1954, Vol. VI, no. 7, pp. 1-8.
MABLE DODGE LUHAN (1879-1962), first visited Taos in December 1917. She was escaping from what she saw as the emptiness and materialism of life in Greenwich Village, where she knew many of the writers, socialites, political activists, and bohemians of her time. In New Mexico she was immediately attracted to the ceremonial dances at the pueblos and native life in general, and in 1923 married Tony Luhan, a native from Taos Pueblo. Her life in Taos was sustained by a prediction that a New York occultist had made, that she had a mission in Taos, to act as a bridge between the Indians and the Anglos, and that her charge was to heal the world by becoming a conduit for the “secret doctrine” possessed by the Indians. (Lois Rudnick, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984, p. 165)
Like many in Taos, she believed that there was a connection between the Pueblo Indians and the Tibetans, seeing a similarity in the two languages. Luhan believed that Taos was a utopia that could nurture the creative spirit of America, and to this end she ceaselessly promoted Taos, writing to famous writers and artists inviting them to visit. Some who responded included C. G. Jung, Georgia O’Keeffe, D. H. and Frieda Lawrence, Dorthy Brett, John Marin, and Andrew Dasburg.
Luhan was the social arbiter in Taos, and she and Bisttram did not get along. This was mainly due to Bisttram‘s espousal of dynamic symmetry which went against her idea that art should be more emotional and less mathematical. Shortly after Bisttram’s arrival from Mexico City in 1931, she offered him the use of one of her cabins as a studio, but they quickly had a falling out, Bisttram not being willing to cater to her socialite ways. They must have made up because Luhan did include him in her book Taos and its Artists (1947).
WILLIAM LUMPKINS (1910-2000), the only member of the Transcendental Painting Group to be born in New Mexico, brought an interdisciplinary energy to the Group. In addition to painting, he was an architect specializing in active and passive solar design, having received his degree from the University of New Mexico in 1934. Lumpkins took an intuitive approach to painting, working in a proto-abstract expressionist style similar to John Marin’s. He was also interested in Zen Buddhism, which led him to write koans to accompany his paintings. Lumpkins, like many of the other artists in the TPG, felt that he was engaged in scientific research:
“We are not transcendentalists in the sense that Emerson was one… We are not interested in the philosophy. We are interested in esthetic transcendentalism… Transcendent esthetics is the doctrine of space and time as the [a] priori forms of sense perception. You know something of Einstein’s theory of space and light? Art must keep up with science, that is creative art must, and as science discovers new angles in life, the creative artist must discover new forms of expression… We are not, like the early masters, religious painters, we are scientific painters. We are trying to reach beyond the illusory forms of materialism into the reality of form of the immaterial. We certainly are not trying to formulate a philosophy of life or religion.”
SUE PETTEY MARTIN (1896-1945) of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was a devoted student of Bisttram‘s in the 1930s. She gave the lecture accompanying his 1936 exhibition in Tulsa.
MARION KOOGLER MCNAY (1883-1950) was Mrs. Donald T. Atkinson when Bisttram met her in 1932 in Taos. She was helpful to Bisttram, because it was she who underwrote his Witte Museum exhibition and lecture in San Antonio in 1933. Bisttram met Mrs. Atkinson while she was in Taos looking for Santos paintings for her collection. It may have been Victor Higgins who made the introductions since the two were married between 1937 and 1939. Mrs. Atkinson, who was a watercolorist herself and an avid collector of works in this medium, may have purchased Bisttram’s watercolor Knight of the Evening, 1928, during their first meeting. On their 1933 trip to San Antonio, the Bisttrams stayed at Mrs. Atkinson’s home, which, with its extensive art collection, opened to the public as the Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute a few years after her death.
ALFRED (1901-1958) AND DOROTHY (1906-1994) MORANG moved to Santa Fe from Maine in 1937. Alfred played the violin, wrote short-stories, and painted, and Dorothy played the piano and painted. It was in his capacity as a writer that Alfred assisted the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG). Like Rudhyar, he was an elected officer of the American Foundation for Transcendental Painting (AFTP), the TPG’s administrative and publishing arm, with Rudhyar as one of two vice-presidents, and Morang as publicity director. Morang was particularly close to Raymond Jonson: his pamphlet on Rudhyar was dedicated to Jonson, and he wrote more articles on Jonson than on any other member of the Group. Both Alfred and Dorothy were also vitally associated with Arsuna, the Santa Fe gallery and school founded on the principles of Nicholas Roerich‘s Master Institute in New York. Alfred taught writing and Dorothy served as an assistant to Maurice Lichtmann and taught piano privately. In December 1940 Dorothy was appointed secretary to the school through the WPA. Dorothy studied dynamic symmetry with Bisttram.
JOHN O’NEIL (1915-2004) received a BFA and MFA in painting from the University of Oklahoma (1936, 1939). In the early 1940s, he studied with Bisttram. He served as professor of painting at the University of Oklahoma (1939-1965) and as Chair of the Art Department, Rice University, Houston (1965-70).
P. D. OUSPENSKY (1878-1947) was a theosophical writer whose concept of art and the artist was highly influential on Bisttram’s thinking. Ouspensky wrote, for example, “Only that fine apparatus which is called the soul of an artist can understand and feel the reflection of the noumenon in the phenomenon. In art it is necessary to study ‘occultism’ – the hidden side of life. The artist must be a clairvoyant: he must see that which others do not see; he must be a magician: must possess the power to make others see that which they do not themselves see, but which he does see.” (Tertium Organum: A Key to the Enigmas of the World (1911), 3rd ed., New York: Knopf, 1945. p. 145) “Cosmic consciousness is also possible of attainment through the emotion attendant upon creation – in painters, musicians and poets. Art in its highest manifestations is a path to cosmic consciousness.” (p. 301) Bisttram often quoted the last two sentences, “The meaning of life is in eternal search. And only in that search can we find something truly new.” (p. 306) Bisttram even executed a work titled Eternal Search. Claude Bragdon assisted with the translation of Tertium Organum from Russian into English, first publishing it in 1920.
RALPH M. PEARSON (1883-1958) developed the Correspondence Course in Critical Appreciation. These lessons were incorporated into a book The Modern Renaissance in American Art (1954), which includes an entry on Bisttram. Bisttram and Pearson were close friends. Pearson had a ranch near Taos. Their relationship probably didn’t begin until after Bisttram’s move to Taos even though both were in New York at the same time.
AGNES PELTON (1881-1961) lived in a studio on Long Island in the 1920s. She was a reader of Helena Roerich’s books, first mentioning Agni Yoga in a notebook entry of January 23, 1930. Later that year she gave a lecture at the Roerich Museum as part of their Monday evening Academy of Creative Arts series begun in October 1930; Thomas Hart Benton, Bragdon, Giles, and Bisttram also participated in this series. While Pelton did not reside in New Mexico during the TPG period, she was the first of the Group to make the pilgrimage to New Mexico, visiting Mabel Dodge Luhan in 1918 and 1922.
Pelton became a member of the Transcendental Painting on the recommendation of Dane Rudhyar, who had met her in New York after having seen her Nov. 1929 Montross Gallery exhibition. Following upon correspondence between Jonson and Pelton, she was included in an exhibition at the Museum of New Mexico with Jonson and Cady Wells in September 1933. Each artist had a separate alcove; their works were related by Rudhyar’s catalogue essays. Jonson became completely won over to her work after visiting her in Cathedral City, California, in 1935. She never met with the Group, but sent paintings for their exhibitions. Her spiritual approach to painting was admired by all the members, and is reflected by her appointment as honorary president of the Foundation; her inclusion in the 1913 Armory Show gave her additional status.
BERT PHILLIPS (1868-1956) was the founding artist of the Taos Art Colony. After studying art in New York and Paris, he and Ernest Blumenschein set out on a trip out West where their wagon famously broke down near Taos in 1898. Having grown up on James Fenimore Cooper novels and stories about Kit Carson, Phillips became fascinated with the local culture and became known for romantic paintings of Indians in native settings. He also painted pictures of the Penitentes, a subject that Bisttram also painted.
Bisttram and Phillips were good friends as Phillips participated in a number of Bisttram’s projects, and was interested in dynamic symmetry. According to Eya Fechin, Bisttram held his first lectures on dynamic symmetry in Philips studio. Phillips was one of four artists who collaborated on the mural project in the Taos County Courthouse, in 1933. The murals were executed in true fresco; Ward Lockwood and Bisttram had experience with fresco, while Phillips and Victor Higgins did not. The project was financed by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). Phillips also exhibited at the art gallery which Bisttram organized in 1939 in the La Fonda Hotel, owned by the Karavas Brothers, located on Taos Plaza.
HORACE TOWNER PIERCE (1916-1958) and FLORENCE MILLER PIERCE (1918-2007) met in Bisttram’s studio and they both joined the Transcendental Painting Group. Florence Miller studied at the Phillips Studio School in Washington, D. C. before going to Taos to study with Bisttram for the summer of 1936; she returned the following winter. Horace Pierce studied at the Maryland Institute of Art before going to Taos to study with Bisttram in September 1936.
One of Horace Pierce’s most interesting projects was The Spiral Symphony, a group of thirty watercolors executed under Bisttram using the airbrush that was purchased for him Harriet Richards when she was in Taos visiting Bisttram in 1937. The concept for this project was that these works were to be the basis for a film for which music would be composed using similar principles. Horace Pierce and Florence Miller married in Bisttram’s studio in April 1938. In 1940 they left for New York to pursue the making of Horace’s film. They succeeded in getting a few of the paintings from the series exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940. The film, however, was never made.
RAYMOND PIPER (1888-1961), professor of philosophy at Syracuse University, had a long-standing interest in spiritual art and corresponded with Bisttram at length about his work. Piper’s book Cosmic Art (1975), which features two of Bisttram’s works, was published posthumously, assembled in large part by his wife and Ingo Swann, and represents only a fraction of the material Piper amassed during his lifetime. His notes and correspondence with hundreds of artists are preserved in 171 boxes at Syracuse University, where he was Professor of Philosophy. Bisttram and Piper began corresponding in 1949.
HILLA REBAY (1890-1967) came from a German noble family, was trained as a painter, became interested in theosophy and non-objective art, and relocated to New York in 1927. She met Solomon Guggenheim (1861-1949), encouraged him to collect non-objective art, and was appointed director and curator of his collection, opening as the Museum of Non-Objective Art in 1939. The museum was renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1952. She promoted a spiritual approach to art by acquisitions, exhibitions, and catalogues that primarily featured works by Kandinsky and Rudolph Baur. These catalogues were highly influential on Bisttram and other members of the Transcendental Painting Group. Rebay also exhibited and collected works by the more spiritually-oriented members of the American Abstract Artists, and exhibited some works by members of the Transcendental Painting Group, including Bisttram.
ALMA REED (1889-1966) met Angelo and Eva Palmer Sikelianos in Greece, became involved with their project of recreating the Delphic Festivals, and translated some of Angelo’s poetry. In New York Reed shared an apartment with Eva Sikelianos known as “The Ashram.“ In 1928, Reed met Orozco and mounted an exhibition of his work. In the fall of 1929 Reed opened her gallery, The Delphic Studios, on 57th Street, ostensibly to represent Orozco, whose fame in New York culminated with his mural cycle, A Call for Revolution and Universal Brotherhood, executed at the New School for Social Research between November 1930 and January 1931. In these murals he utilized dynamic symmetry, to which he had been introduced by Mary Crovatt Hambidge. He also included four members of the Delphic Society circle – the French philosopher Paul Richard, the art critic Lloyd Goodrich, the Dutch poet Leonard Van Noppen (1868-1935), and the Palestinian-Jewish painter Reuben Rubin – in The Table of Universal Brotherhood, the central panel of his New School murals. Others who frequented the Ashram, included followers of Mahatma Gandhi, Greeks, Russian exiles, and other foreigners, including the Lebanese poet and artist Kahlil Gibran.
Bisttram had his 1933 exhibition of Native American abstractions at the Delphic Studios. Leo Katz, who had lectured to Bisttram’s class at the Master Institute, wrote the introduction to the catalogue. Katz also assist Orozco on the Dartmouth murals (1932-4). Additionally, Reed commissioned and published Katz’s book Understanding Modern Art (1936), which was first issued in serial form as lessons for use in Delphic Society meetings.
Giles included Rubin in an exhibition he organized at the Master Institute. Bragdon knew Gibran and was familiar with Reed’s translations of Sikelianos’s poetry.
DIEGO RIVERA (1886-1957). Bisttram studied with Rivera in Mexico City in 1931 on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Rivera was introduced to Platonic aesthetics and the use of the golden section in picture construction while a student in Mexico City by teachers schooled in the German Nazarene tradition. Mondrian, who was an avowed theosophist and whom Rivera met in 1912, was an important influence on Rivera’s transition to Cubism. Rivera’s interest in theosophy was sustained in Paris by a salon of Russian expatriates which he frequented. His friend Adolpho Best-Maugard, whose portrait he painted in 1913, was also a theosophist. Rivera’s friendship with Picasso, beginning in 1914, was based on a mutual interest in Platonic aesthetics and mathematical systems. In 1917 Rivera built a “machine” of floating gelatin planes to study the fourth dimension. According to André Lhote, Rivera was attempting to depict “Platonic essences” by depicting the silhouettes and shadows of objects. By the time Bisttram studied with him in 1931, he had taken up a realistic style in support of his political views. He was a great collector of Mexican antiquities.
HELENA ROERICH (1879-1955), the wife of Nicholas Roerich, translated Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (1886) from English into Russian in the early 1930s. She also wrote the books that became the core of the Agni Yoga teachings, an occult movement that took hold in the U.S in the 1920s. She wrote her books with the assistance of Master Morya, who started communicating with her in 1920 while she and her husband were living in London. While Bisttram was aware of Agni Yoga during the 1920s through Mrs. Roerich’s publications, he didn’t come under its direct influence until he met Ralph Houston, whose Agni Yoga group in Taos was meeting at the Bisttram home by about 1960.
NICHOLAS ROERICH (1874-1947), a Russian theosophical-symbolist painter, promoted his ideals in New York in the 1920s, by establishing a school, the Master Institute of United Arts, where Bisttram and Giles both taught, and a museum, Corona Mundi, which collected and showed works promoting his approach, which was that all the arts were related and interdependent. Roerich’s activities as a stage designer – most famously his sets for the 1913 Paris production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – show the importance of this idea for him, which essentially derived from Wagner‘s concept of the gesamtkunstwerk, which posited that the musical elements of rhythm, harmony, and tone, underlay all of the arts, and that an integrative feeling of depth harmony could be produced when all of the arts were brought together in one production such as an opera.
Roerich’s arrival in New York in 1920 was heralded by a large exhibition of his paintings that opened at the Kingore Galleries in New York and then traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago and twenty-eight other American cities. The strength of Roerich’s New York school was music; his collaborators, Maurice Lichtmann, vice-president of the school, and his wife Sina Lichtmann, were both pianists. After Roerich’s departure for India in 1923, the New York school was left in the main to be carried out by Louis Horch, Roerich’s financial backer, and the Lichtmanns. Roerich returned to the United States briefly in 1924, and again in 1929 for about a year. His final visit was in 1933. Roerich’s efforts in New York culminated in 1929 with the opening of a twenty-four story art deco “skyscraper” at 310 Riverside Drive which housed the school, museum, library, auditorium, and restaurant, with apartments on the upper floors. Bisttram designed the restaurant and elevator lobby.
Roerich also exerted a wide influence in New Mexico. His 1921 visit to study Pueblo artifacts resulted in a long-lasting friendship with Dr. Edgar Hewett, Director of the Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, based on their mutual interest in anthropology. Hewett was one of Roerich’s most devoted advocates, and served as an honorary advisor to Corona Mundi. In 1925 Louis and Nettie Horch made a follow-up trip to Santa Fe, where they made arrangements to acquire Raymond Jonson’s Earth Rhythms I, 1923, for the Roerich Museum. Another important aspect of Roerich’s influence in New Mexico was Arsuna, a school and gallery based on Roerich’s teaching principles established in Santa Fe in 1937 by Clyde Gartner. It featured a permanent installation of Roerich’s paintings and served as a center for the activities of the Transcendental Painting Group.
DENMAN ROSS (1853-1935) was a writer, color theorist, and artist. His book A Theory of Pure Design (1907) was an important source for Bisttram’s ideas, and Bisttram used Ross‘s color system in all his works. Ross was a lecturer on the theory of design at Harvard, a specialist in Oriental art, and served as a trustee of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where he influenced the expansion of its Oriental collections. He drew and painted because he felt that direct experience with procedures and techniques was necessary to critically judge a work of art. On Giles’s suggestion, Bisttram visited Ross in Cambridge to learn his color theory for use in the Three-Year Course which Giles and Bisttram developed for their course at the Master Institute.
As a thank you to Ross for explaining his color theories, Bisttram sent Ross a T-square with the triangles set into a single instrument, presumably of his own invention.
Ross also used dynamic symmetry in his own work. Ross became acquainted with Hambidge in 1919, while the latter was working at Harvard courtesy of the Samuel Sachs Research Fellowship. Ross wrote a letter of recommendation for Bisttram’s Guggenheim Fellowship application. Ross’s color theory involved the use of “set palettes,” a series of scientifically- determined color combinations that Bisttram adopted in his own work.
DANE RUDHYAR (1895-1985), theosophist, musician, astrologer, and painter, was born in Paris, studied law at the Sorbonne, then turned to music. In 1915, he served as secretary to Rodin. After arriving in New York in 1917, Rudhyar traveled frequently between New York, California, Chicago, and Boston pursuing his composing, performing, lecturing, and publishing activities, primarily for occult and music organizations.
Rudhyar was aware of the cultural renaissance brewing in New Mexico and was corresponding with Mabel Dodge Luhan as early as 1925, to prepare for his entrance into her milieu. Complimenting her efforts, he wrote to her, “When the magnetic center, the Purpose, the clear vision and the will are there, one by one the individuals are drawn into the magic circle.”
Bisttram undoubtedly met Rudhyar in New York, when Rudhyar gave the lecture series, “Four Essential Types of Forms: their characteristic historical representations and their significance for artists today,” at the Roerich Museum during March and April 1930.
In 1933, Rudhyar began spending summers in New Mexico. He wrote The Astrology of Personality in the summer of 1936, while staying at Marie Garland’s ranch in New Mexico. In 1938 he became close to Raymond Jonson, who gave him painting lessons. Rudhyar prepared a manuscript on transcendental painting, and was appointed to become one of two writers for the Transcendental Painting Group. Rudhyar also recommended Alice Pelton, whom he had met in New York, to Jonson, who then invited her to become a member of the Transcendental Painting Group. At that time Rudhyar was developing his theory of transcendental painting by combining ideas from Jung and theosophy.
Rudhyar was a close personal friend of Alice Bailey’s. Robert Hay, who interviewed Rudhyar for his master’s thesis, explained Rudhyar’s relationship with Bailey as follows: “…in 1933-34 he [Rudhyar] began to write articles which Alice Bailey, noted theosophist, had read in American Astrology. She asked him to write a book incorporating them which she published under the title The Astrology of Personality in 1936.” (Robert Hay, Dane Rudhyar and the Transcendental Painting Group of New Mexico, 1938-1941, Michigan State University, 1981, p.30.)
Rudhyar’s The Astrology of Personality: A Reformulation of Astrological Concepts and Ideals in Terms of Contemporary Psychology and Philosophy (1936), shows a strong influence from the writings of Carl Jung. The Lucis Trust, founded to publish Bailey’s books, also published Rudhyar’s New Mansions for New Men (1938) as well as Alfred Morang’s booklet Dane Rudhyar: Pioneer in Creative Synthesis (1939) which reproduces 3 of Rudhyar‘s paintings, includes a reference to a book he translated titled Book of the Living God by the “great German mystic and painter Bo Yin Ra,” and the statement that he gave 30 lectures in Santa Fe and Taos between 1933 and 1934. Rudhyar’s article “The Indian Dances for Power” (1933) reflects his initial interest in New Mexican culture – the music, dance, and customs of the indigenous peoples.
Rudhyar was probably the single-most important influence on the development of Bisttram’s theosophical works in the 1930s. It was probably Rudhyar who sparked Bisttram’s interest in Alice Bailey’s writings, and it may even have been Rudhyar who prompted the visit of Harriet Richards, the Alice Bailey devotee, to Taos in 1937.
GEORGE SCHRIEVER, curator of the Anschutz Collection, acquired a substantial number of works by Bisttram for the Denver collector, and a smaller number of works for himself, which he later donated to various museums.
EMANUEL SWEDENBORG (1688-1772) was a mystical theologian, who presented a concept of the heaven-world that included angels and life on other planets. Swedenborg was most famous for his theory of correspondences, which meant that each thing in this world corresponded to something in the other world, in a macrocosmic-microcosmic relationship. For example he proposed a “grand man of the universe” which was made up of human beings, so that each human being had a place in the larger scheme. He also believed in redemption through the “unification of opposites” which was often represented as the androgyny. These concepts are also found in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky and Alice Bailey.
Giles and Bisttram applied dynamic symmetry to Swedenborg’s theories by, for example, applying the rhythmic relationships of dynamic symmetry’s rectangles to Swedenborg’s correspondences between the mathematically proportional macrocosm and the microcosm. Swedenborg’s theory of redemption and regeneration involved ascending by proportional steps. In all the spiritual writings, the creative act is considered to be redemptive, both personally and for the larger group. This is the essential attraction of mysticism for the artist.
OLIN TRAVIS (1888–1975) was the primary source for dynamic symmetry in Dallas. He graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1914. Returning to Dallas in 1924, he founded the Dallas Art Institute in January 1926, and remained the director until 1941. Bisttram’s Dallas friends Jerry Bywaters and Alexander Hogue both taught at the Dallas Institute.
WILLEM A. VAN KONIJNENBURG (1863-1943) was a Dutch symbolist painter who used a grid system and focused on drawing. His mystical aesthetic, which used mathematics, proportion, and rhythm to symbolize the opposition and struggle between good and evil was remarkably similar to Giles and Bisttram’s approaches. Van Konijnenburg was much admired by Howard Giles and his wife Evelyn Carter Giles. The Giles’ made at least one trip to Holland, visiting van Konijnenberg, probably in 1932 when Mrs. Giles had her portrait painted by him. She bequeathed some 43 works on paper by van Konijnenburg to the Hood Museum, Dartmouth College.
The link between Giles and van Konijnenburg is provided by the tonalist painter Alexander Shilling (1860-1937), who was friends with both, which is shown by a book of appreciation, The Book of Alexander Shilling (1937), to which both contributed. A fascinating reference indicates that Shilling had a studio in New York in the Fleishmann Building where H. P Blavatsky also had a studio for a season. Another contributor to the book, the art critic Karel H. de Haas who was based in Rotterdam, made a trip to New York in 1918 to hear Jay Hambidge lecture, and then published Hambidge’s ideas in a book he published in 1920 in Europe.
Bisttram was probably first introduced to Van Konijnenburg’s work at his exhibition at the Montross Gallery in New York in 1930. Leo Katz undoubtedly shared Giles and Bisttram’s enthusiasm for van Konijnenburg since he included him in Understanding Modern Art (1936) in the section on contemporary religious painters, and rated him higher than Roerich.
DUANE VAN VECHTEN (d. 1977) studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in France before moving to Taos in 1928. She entertained the Taos artists in her lavish home and purchased works by them, developing a substantial collection. Ms. Van Vechten studied with Bisttram both in Taos and later in Los Angeles. After her death, her husband Edwin Lineberry built a museum in her honor on their property. The Van Vechten-Lineberry Taos Art Museum holds a number of works by Bisttram. Ms. Van Vechten offered land to a number of Bisttram students so that they could settle in Taos. Only Cliff and Barbara Harmon accepted and remained.
STUART WALKER (1904-1940), a painter of ethereal abstractions, was ill when he joined the Transcendental Painting Group, and died shortly after the formation of the Group. After serving in the Navy and studying art in Indiana and Delaware, he moved to Albuquerque in 1925 for his health. In 1929 he served as president of the Art League of New Mexico. By the 1930s he was painting non-objective canvases based in part on Kandinsky’s Bauhaus works, art deco geometry, and a spiritual approach.
WILLIAM WARDER (b. 1920) studied with Bisttram in 1937. He assisted Mrs. Bisttram with making an inventory of Bisttram’s works after his death. Mrs. Bisttram entrusted him with some of Bisttram’s papers, which contain some documents not found elsewhere, including correspondence between Bisttram and Jonson about the founding of the TPG..
HARRY E. WOOD, JR. (1910-1995) studied with Bisttram in 1939. After he was appointed chairman of the art department at Arizona State University in 1954, Wood organized two exhibition of Bisttram’s work (1955, 1966), wrote a number of articles on Bisttram, and acquired one of Bisttram’s works for the museum.