FANTAST IN FOCUS: SASHA CHAITOW
In a way, Sasha Chaitow is following in the footsteps of the earliest philosophers. Many of them spent their lives in the sun-kissed Greek islands as educators and advisers, developing their theories in the presence of cypress trees and Homer’s famous “wine-dark” sea. Sasha however, has developed a more cosmopolitan approach to philosophy and learning, combining ancient Greek tradition with contemporary art and esotericism. Although she resides in Corfu (the site of her ICON gallery), Sasha has lectured and continues to lecture in several different countries. She’s also a leading authority on Joséphin Péladan, a French occultist and impresario who founded his own esoteric arts club in fin de siècle Paris. We caught up with Sasha to find out more about her art and research.
The Custodian: How did you first get interested in esotericism? Any book, quote, or experience(s) in Corfu that set off the spark?
Sasha Chaitow: My interest in esotericism really came through my art. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to make art that expressed a meaningful narrative and felt a profound disdain for art that was simply decorative. Whether it’s the narrative of a life (for example through a portrait), or a deeply symbolic work, I need art to tell a story or to ask a question that somehow brings the viewer into a dialogue. I also read voraciously since childhood and travelled widely with my family, so though I don’t recall a specific book or quote that influenced me, I must have picked up on various references – particularly mythical ones, that led me to an interest in esoteric ideas and their visual symbolism. From quite an early age I attempted to package double and triple entendres using my own brand of symbolism to explore the ideas that provoked my interest – usually in relation to human nature. Over the next few years I read around the topic somewhat haphazardly, so when I discovered the MA in Western Esotericism at Exeter in 2005, I jumped at the opportunity, since this finally helped me to systematise my understanding of the topic and to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Aside from my continuing work as an independent scholar, thanks to this more formal approach, I am now able to use esoteric symbolism more effectively in my artwork.
C: Can you tell us more about your research on Péladan? We’re very curious about his Comment on devient mage.
S: Joséphin Péladan (aka Sar Merodack, 1858-1918) was an incredibly complex and erudite character who has been neglected or mistreated by the history books in equal measure. His output was vast (over 100 books, plus hundreds of articles), but his core message – strongly based on Platonic thought and a kaleidoscope of esoteric teachings – was twofold: humanity could achieve its own salvation through the cultivation of the spirit and the intellect; this could be expedited through contact with symbolic art created by “artist-initiates”. A re-examination of Péladan’s work formed the focus of my doctoral thesis, in which I successfully identified and to an extent, clarified, his core messages, explored the value of his literary output and attempted to correct errors and gaps in previous scholarship, which often makes Péladan out to be a charlatan or eccentric of little import. If nothing else, he is worth examining as a particularly interesting esoteric thinker whose teachings had a powerful impact on better-known figures in the esoteric “canon” (Papus, Stanislas de Guaita, and even Crowley among others), on the development of Rosicrucianism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and on French Symbolist art at the turn of the century.
His theoretical manual for self-initiation, Comment on devient mage (1892) was designed as a handbook for young men to embark on the path of self-discovery and self-intitiation, and contains a complex mix of esoteric and philosophical teachings, social commentary, and a complicated initiatory system based on Kabbalistic and Platonic thought. He wrote a similar handbook for women (Comment on devient fée) and a third for artists (Comment on devient (ar(t)iste). Though often somewhat turgid and obscure, the key to understanding Péladan’s work is in fact through his novels, which complement and often clarify his theoretical work.
C: In the fifth volume of Abraxas you discussed Peladan’s “religion of art”. Would you say that a similar kind of religiosity or energeia goes into the creation of your icons?
S: Péladan did indeed draw parallels between the artistic life and religion, but this was mostly in reaction to his perception of religion in his time. For me, artistic creativity is an almost alchemical process, and I see it more as esoteric practice – as well as an ongoing dialogue with the viewer. It is not religiosity that drives me – since that suggests something a little too organised and dogmatic for my own tastes. I grew up with icons as part of everyday life, and I paint them because I find the symbolic language and stylized aesthetics of Greek iconography particularly enchanting and conducive to layering meaning and creating a complex narrative with deceptively simple forms. Something as simple as the position of a hand can convey a whole story that changes along with its placement in the composition. The style and symbolism of icons traces a direct historical lineage to pre-Christian art and expression, and iconography is still evolving among modern Greek artists, so it is amazing to be a part of such an ancient, yet living, tradition. This is why, although I do paint traditional icons following all the ecclesiastical rules (of which there are several!) I also “borrow” both the style and the symbolism for some of my more free-form artistic pieces.
C: As an artist, historian, and teacher, what’s your approach to the ancient idea of paideia?
S: It informs everything I do. The educational system in modern Greece is problematic, based heavily on rote learning, and academia in general seems to have become very commercialised and focused on marketable skills. For a while now I’ve been developing and adapting the Socratic method in my classrooms (for all ages), where I use a Q & A style of discussion wherever possible, rather than lecturing the students. Ever since I began doing this systematically, both student engagement, class atmosphere, as well as the achievement of learning objectives have skyrocketed (and it’s a lot more enjoyable for me as well!) Learning to guide students through inquiry-based teaching does require a little work at first, and may be difficult for educators accustomed to having full control of all elements of the lesson. However the results so far have been astonishing, and I’m delighted to see how younger students become empowered as they discover the value of critical thinking, while older ones realise how life experience and prior (often buried) knowledge can apply to the learning process, whatever the subject. This can be equally well-applied to practical (eg. marketing) as well as theoretical and factual (courses), as even the factual knowledge can be “pinned” to existing prior knowledge so as to make it more memorable and more relevant to the students’ understanding of the topic, while also making them more independent and able to critique their own work. Aside from this, I’m also developing a series of lifelong learning courses in collaboration with Andrioti educational centre in Corfu, focused on various aspects of the liberal arts.
C: What’s the AwE project and how did you first get involved?
S: The AwE project, established by LA-based artist Zhenya Gershman and colleagues is an ongoing exploration of the crossover between art and esoteric thought. The website hosts studies and essay series from a wide range of collaborating scholars and artists exploring this area, and also funds and supports artistic projects in a similar vein. I had discovered the project through colleagues and was keen to get involved – synchronistically another member of the project contacted me for information about Michael Maier (seventeenth-century alchemist and creator of alchemical emblem books), as I had conducted an in-depth study of his book of alchemical emblems, Atalanta Fugiens (1618). I mentioned that I was interested in writing for Project AwE and she put me in touch with Zhenya. I have published one article on Péladan with Project AwE and am preparing more. Though my current workload has delayed the next ones in the pipeline, I hope to resume work on this soon.
C: Where are you appearing next? Also, what are your upcoming projects/partnerships?
S: This September (2016) I’ve got a bit of a lecture tour lined up for the UK:
Tuesday 6/9: Sâr Péladan, Lucifer, Art & Angels Lecture at Treadwell’s Bookshop, London. There will also be a one-night-only previewing of my new art collection Saving the lives of Angels – based on Péladan’s work, and created for the Trans-States Conference at Northampton University.
Wednesday 7/9: A World of Mages and Fairies: Joséphin Péladan’s Initiation for the Masses at Watkins Bookshop, London
Thursday 8/9: Wellingborough School: Talking to 6th form art students about a career in the arts and giving another preview of my artwork.
Friday-Saturday 9-10/9: University of Northampton: Trans-States Conference. I’m participating with a conference paper and an exhibition of my latest artwork – both on Péladan.
When not teaching and painting, much of my time is devoted to running my gallery in Corfu Greece (ICON Gallery), which functions as an artists’ co-op and represents over thirty Greek artists specialising in icons, mythic and symbolic themes. This is an ongoing endeavour and in the next couple of years our focus is on establishing our presence and holding a couple of exhibitions in Greece and possibly abroad.
Upcoming personal projects include revising my doctoral thesis for publication (Brill Academic Press), and developing this art collection further, for a full-size exhibition sometime in the next year. I’m also due to start teaching an exciting new set of lifelong learning courses on myth, art, and philosophy in my native Corfu from October 2016 in collaboration with education centre Andrioti School. I am always on the lookout for opportunities to (a) combine my scholarly and artistic pursuits, (b) take my work to new venues, and am always keen to establish new friendships and collaborations.