Intention to Know: The Thought Forms of Annie Besant

Intention to Know explores the life and work of Annie Besant, a feminist activist, revolutionary thinker, and pioneer of modern abstract art theory. With Thought Forms, a book co-authored by Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater, as its centerpiece, the exhibition surveys the life and legacy of Besant and the Theosophical movement that influenced her thinking.

Theosophists believed in the equality of all people, regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity. Their ideas resonated with Besant’s distaste for the materialistic economic and social theories of her time. After joining The Theosophical Society in 1889, she was elected its president by 1907. Within theosophical intellectual circles, Besant gravitated to the power of thoughts as abstract embodied forms. As Christov-Bakargiev states, “According to Besant, thought has practical effects on life. Thought forms are embodied entities…perceivable in intense moments of awareness. Art cannot represent these thought forms adequately, [as Besant] explains in her book, and it is this failure of the adherence between the experience of them and their representation that lies at the core of modern art.”

From the first publication of her theory of thought forms – an 1896 essay in Lucifer, the theosophical review – Besant’s ideas were paired with richly hued abstract illustrations. Expanding on these ideas in 1905, when she published Thought Forms with Leadbeater, Besant explored thoughts and feelings through descriptions of shape, color, line, depth, and transparency. “Vague selfish affection,” is “deeply tinged with a…less desirable feeling. The dull hard brown-gray of selfishness shows itself very decidedly among the carmine of love.” “Vague Intellectual Pleasure,” is a spectrum of yellows, “generally speaking, it has a deeper and duller tint if the intellect is directed chiefly into lower channels, more especially if the objects are selfish.”

Occasioned by the recent discovery, in India, of 21 of these original gouache illustrations, Intention to Know: The Thought Forms of Annie Besant presents a complete series of framed prints from the first edition of Thought Forms alongside Danish artist Lea Porsager’s gouache paintings inspired by the book. Archival material from Besant’s life and times, including an intact first edition of Thought Forms, is presented alongside work by two contemporary artists, Erin Hayden and Cauleen Smith.

The exhibition is drafted by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev in alliance with Theaster Gates, presented by the Rebuild Foundation, and made possibly by the generous support of Rebuild’s individual and institutional funders. Special thanks to Elif Kamisli, the Theosophical Society in America, and the Theosophical Society, Adyar. Exhibition catalog available via Lulu.

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