Professor explores occult themes during art history symposium

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Travis Clark, instructor of art history, presented on images of the occult, or “hidden knowledge,” in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and Marina Abramovic’ Spirit Cooking during the biennial art history symposium in the Fulton Library Feb. 24.

“I’ve had a long fascination with the occult. I think the reason I enjoy [it] is the same as everybody else who gets into the occult,” said Clark. “Everybody has this unique love of magic. … this ability or desire to want to influence their environment.”

The Garden of Earthly Delights contains a plethora of occult symbols that show Bosch’s obsession with alchemy, the medieval precursor to chemistry. His painting contains symbols like bell jars, dendritic (tree-like) forms and symbols for metals such as lead and gold.

Clark asserted that occult symbols in Bosch’s painting were not intended to be satanic or evil; they were a way of seeking meaning through the arcane before modern science. In fact, alchemy and science were once intricately linked.

“Many of the great scientists were in fact occultists. … For Isaac Newton, calculus, cosmological objects and laws of motion were side pursuits,” said Clark. “He spent far more energy on the alchemical properties of antimony and his diagrams on the Temple of Solomon, which he thought was a cosmological diagram of past, present and future.”

Clark went on to explain that public opinion of alchemy and the occult fell after science broke away. This is when the occult began to be associated with evil, even though it was about exploring the light and dark aspects of humanity. Many occultists were artists, and they used art to explore themes of will, identity and harmony.

“It’s not Harry Potter stuff. It becomes philosophy. It becomes deeper,” said Clark. “I think artists naturally gravitated to that because so much of what they discussed, particularly in the modern period, is about the expression of the self. The occult is all about the expression of the self, so why not the art?”

Themes of “will” and self-expression are prevalent in the works of performance artist Abramovic, who is famous for her multimedia installation Spirit Cooking.

“In [Abramovic’s] work, oftentimes people are integrated. She deals with themes of her will relative to the will of others,” said Clark. “She’s even ritualized her own practice. There’s a thing called the ‘Abramovic Method,’ which you can actually go and do.”