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Richard Smoley's Blog

The Future of Thought Forms

Located in a three-story bank building from the 1920s in Chicago’s scruffy South Side, in a neighborhood mostly made up of brick row houses in various states of repair, Stony Island Arts Bank is one of the city’s newest and most interesting art venues. Serving partly as a community arts center, it is also the resting place for the archives of Frankie Knuckles, the “godfather of house music.

Currently it is featuring the exhibit “Intention to Know: The Thought Forms of Annie Besant,” focusing on images based on clairvoyant visions of the Theosophist Annie Besant. These were most prominently featured in her 1901 book Thought Forms, a work she produced in collaboration with another Theosophist, C.W. Leadbeater, and one of the most influential of all works on twentieth-century art.

The intention behind Thought Forms was not initially an artistic one. In the early days of the Theosophical movement at the end of the nineteenth century, some members were interested in delving into the unseen realms of the psyche—what Theosophists called the “astral” and “mental” planes. The idea was to cultivate one’s awareness of these realms and to be able to apprehend them clairvoyantly. This proved to be possible after a certain amount of discipline and training. Some of these perceptions had a visual character, usually involving colors and shapes that could be seen by the inner eye, but not by the physical one.

These images were perceived in the auras of certain subjects. Besant defines the aura as “the outer part of the cloud-like substance of [man’s] higher bodies, interpenetrating each other, and extending beyond the confines of his physical body, the smallest of all.”

In 1896 Besant published an article in the Theosophical journal Lucifer delineating some of her visions. Watercolor illustrations were also provided. She described the process thus: “Two clairvoyant Theosophists [Besant and Leadbeater] observed the forms caused by definite thoughts thrown out by one of them, and also watched the forms projected by other persons under the influence of various emotions. They described these as fully and accurately as they could to an artist who sat with them, and he made some sketches and mixed colours, till some approximation of the objects was made.”

Besant went on to explain some of the principles involved: “1. Quality of thought determines colour. 2. Nature of thought determines form. 3. Definiteness of thought determines clearness of outline.”

To illustrate these ideas, consider one image illustrated in the Lucifer article. In brown and dark orange, it is, in Besant’s words, a “lurid flash from dark clouds . . . taken from the aura of a rough and partially intoxicated man in the East End of London as he struck down a woman.” The muddy brown and dark orange reflect the negative nature of the man’s thought, while its sharp form, like a thunderbolt, indicates its hostility.

Another form, a splotch of blue, is the result of “vague, dreamy devotion,” as Besant describes it. By contrast, a “beam of blue light, like a pencil of rays,” resembling a blue lotus, “was a thought of loving devotion to the Christ from the mind of a Christian.” (According to Besant, blue is the color associated with religious feeling.)

Besant and Leadbeater would develop their work further in their Thought Forms, published in 1901. This book contained a more elaborate description of the theory behind these manifestations as well as providing more illustrations. Unlike the first series of images in Lucifer, which reproduced watercolors printed against a white background, the Thought Forms series consisted of gouaches painted against a black background, which give a more sinister aspect to many of the images.

One way of exploring these insights is to look at the images themselves and attempt to see what direct reactions they provoke in oneself. Trying to do this at the exhibit, I felt a general though not exact correspondence between my own responses and Besant’s descriptions. Certainly it was the case that the more definite the shape was, the more precise a response it invoked, and the correlations to the feelings were more or less what one might expect: as we’ve seen, a jagged form like a lightning bolt correlates to anger, whereas a form with hooked figures indicated attachment of a negative kind, “loving but appropriative,” as one image in the Lucifer article is described. But I felt less of a correlation between the colors and the feelings they were equated with.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Thought Forms on twentieth-century art. This book, along with another book by Besant and Leadbeater, Man Visible and Invisible (1906), would become one of the major influences on the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, whose book On the Spiritual in Art, published in 1912, provided “perhaps the most influential doctrine by an artist of the twentieth century,” according to Maurice Tuchman, senior emeritus curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Kandinsky insisted that in his time, the viewer had become inured to any kind of inner meaning, what he called Stimmung, in art. This deeper apprehension, he contended, was impeded by the fact that art was preoccupied with representing forms in the natural world. The art of the future, he said, would break through this barrier through the use of pure color and shape — in a word, abstraction. Abstract art was born. Through Kandinsky and other channels, including the Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, the thought forms of Besant and Leadbeater would shape the world of twentieth-century art.

This much cannot be denied; it is a matter of historical record. But the implications of these developments are harder to fathom. In the first place, they confront us with an intense dichotomy between the subjective and the objective. Abstract forms and colors are intended to produce a subjective effect in the viewer; that much is clear. But to what extent is this objective — meaning in this sense, creating roughly similar effects in everyone? This is by no means so easy to grasp.

To take color, for example: Besant and Leadbeater see cobalt blue as indication of “pure religious feeling.” (A key to the correlation of colors with emotions is placed in the frontispiece of Thought Forms.) Kandinsky would appear to agree, characterizing blue as the most “spiritual” color, “the typical heavenly colour.” But the agreements are by no means total. Besant and Leadbeater tell us that a bright yellow is correlated with “highest intellect,” whereas for Kandinsky, yellow is “the typically earthly colour. It can never have any profound meaning.” Indeed for Kandinsky, the color scale is characterized by a polarity between the earthly color yellow and the spiritual color blue.

Red is another color that illustrates the problem. What does red symbolize? In Russian, “red,” krasnii, means both “red” and “beautiful.” There is the red of a Valentine’s Day heart, the red of a stop sign, and the red of the communist flag. The color key in Thought Forms seems to reflect this ambiguity when it says that a bright red characterizes “affection,” whereas a red that is only the slightest bit darker reflects “anger.”

In the end, I doubt that we will be able to compose a definitive chart of one-on-one correspondences between a color and the emotions it provokes. The question is complicated still further by the fact that our perception of a color is greatly influenced by the other colors that surround it.

A more fertile realm of discussion has to do with synesthesia in relation to these images of thought forms. Synesthesia essentially means a correlation or identification of the experiences of one sense with another. Thought Forms provides some good examples: it reproduces paintings of the very different visual images evoked by the music of Mendelssohn, Gounod, and Wagner. Here sounds are perceived as colors. In the case of clairvoyant perceptions of thought forms, it is a matter of a correlation between an emotion (as perceived by another) and a specific form with color and shape.

The power of the synesthetic effect varies widely from person to person. Only a very few experience things to the extent of being described as synesthetes. But at the same time I believe that most people have this capacity to one degree or another.

This considerations lead me to think about clairvoyance in different terms from the usual. In the first place, very few people are able to perceive auras and thought forms visually. Although I have known and known of a few, most of them have had this capacity from childhood — indeed they have been trained in this capacity since childhood. A well-known example was the late Theosophical visionary and healer Dora Kunz, one of the founders of Therapeutic Touch. She had been trained as a clairvoyant by C.W. Leadbeater since she was a little girl.

Thus clairvoyance in the familiar sense may be an art that is closed to most of us. But it may not be as closed as it seems. If we look at the matter another way, we can see that most people do in fact perceive what Besant and Leadbeater describe as thought forms. But we perceive them kinesthetically rather than visually.

We often hear statements to this effect. “I had a creepy feeling about that place.” “This gives off bad vibes.” “I had a good feeling about her.” These statements are all rather inarticulate, not because the experiences are necessarily vague, but because present-day language does not offer any really precise terms for describing these feelings. It is no coincidence that all of the examples I have just given are from colloquial speech rather than from the formal written language.

Thus, if we are to open to the world of thought forms, I think we will do so most readily and easily through the kinesthetic approach. The feeling for good vibes and bad vibes is far from infallible. But it does provide us with a starting place, and one from which, I am convinced, we can work most effectively. If we want to open ourselves to the higher capacities that are latent in us all, this may be the best way to do it.


Besant, Annie. “Thought-Forms.” Lucifer 19 (1896), 65–75.
Besant, Annie, and C.W. Leadbeater. Thought Forms. Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1901.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Translated by M.T.H. Sadler. New York: Dover, 1977 [1914].
Tuchman, Maurice. “Hidden Meanings in Abstract Art.” In Tuchman, ed. The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890–1985. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986.
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