DescriptionEmil James Bisttram (American, 1895-1976)
Acrylic on canvas
56 x 50 inches (142.2 x 127 cm)
Signed lower right: Bisttram
Signed, titled, and inscribed on stretcher: (Brotherhood) E. Bisttram Taos N.M.
Emil Bisttram (1895-1976) is known primarily as a Taos, New Mexico artist. He became interested in alternative thought, philosophy and its relationship to art early on when as a young artist in NYC he was introduced to Theosophy. The Theosophical idea that religion, spirituality and even geometry are inter-related intrigued Bisttram. Seduced as well by an obscure system of picture composition called 'Dynamic Symmetry' (based on Euclidean geometry) he approached his work as a considered and tangible alignment with a greater spiritual order. He developed these ideas into a formal approach to his painting, which he then espoused in his larger teaching career. When Bisttram settled in Taos in 1931, he found a receptive audience for his ideas, and indeed his own spiritual home. He lived and worked in New Mexico until his death in 1976.
Emil Bisttram's painting Brotherhood exemplifies his late-period abstractions, yet it draws on the style, philosophy, and symbolism that he began to explore early in his career. Bisttram was an avid student of dynamic symmetry, theosophy, and the occult, whose concepts he examined while living in New York City in the 1920s. During this time, he taught at Nicholas Roerich's Master Institute of United Arts and studied with Jay Hambridge, author of The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry. These influences greatly impacted his understanding of mathematics and geometry and formed the foundation of his unique style of abstraction that he developed in the 1930s. Unlike many abstract and nonobjective painters of the time, Bisttram always imbued his works with subliminal meaning--nothing was arbitrary or simply decorative. Indeed, Bisttram's works can be interpreted, or decoded, based on his influences.
The most predominant feature of Brotherhood is the group of six rectangles surrounding a central square. The contents of these shapes are paintings in-and-of themselves reflecting his works from the 1930s and '40s, specifically the Time Cycle Series. Each contains a unique construction of points, lines, and planes--they are essentially the same, but visually different. The rectangles generally appear to be Golden Section rectangles. The placement of these seven central forms recalls a tarot reading, where the order of the "cards" is essential to their meaning. The outside rectangles are arranged in the form of a Star of David. The inclusion of the central card transforms the composite shape into the "Merkabah," a three-dimensional Star of David consisting of two interlaced tetrahedrons. Jewish Merkabah mysticism began around 100 BCE and is centered on stories of prophets ascending to the heavenly realm and bringing divine powers down to earth--as recounted, for example, in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel. Although accounts differ, the Merkabah is roughly the throne-chariot of God in prophetic visions. Thus, the Merkabah is primarily a device through which the divine and earthly are connected.
The seven central quadrilaterals in Brotherhood have a unique significance when viewed from a theosophical perspective, as well as a Jewish mystical perspective. According to theosophy, all of existence is divided into seven planes, or "folds." The nature of man is sevenfold, and macro and microcosms are divided along the same lines. H.P. Blavatsky described these as the "seven principles," which are separated into a "Higher Triad" and a "Lower Quaternary." The Higher Triad consists of the divine, the spiritual, and the intellectual. The Lower Quaternary is the passionate, the vital, the astral, and the physical. It is important to note that in theosophy, these traits are not arranged in a hierarchical manner--higher and lower are used as a convention of language and not to convey importance. Each of the seven folds is a unique aspect of existence, and existence as experienced by humans is composed of all seven.
Viewed through the lenses of theosophy and Jewish mysticism, Brotherhood takes on new meaning. Humankind is equal in that we all have the same potential. Some prefer to stay in the lower folds, while others move to higher ones, but no one is better than the other. We are all brothers in existence--each person is unique but composed of the same fundamental principles. Similarly, in Brotherhood, the seven quadrilaterals are composed of the same elements--points, lines, and planes--while retaining a unique identity. This is also the case of the Merkabah, a tool for traveling between the human and divine realms, integrating the different aspects of existence, and showing that the boundaries between the two are self-imposed. Overall then, the painting is a sophisticated commentary on human existence.
We wish to thank scholar Matthew Rowe for contributing the essay for Brotherhood.
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