Conference Description

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Portrait of Emanuel Swedenborg by Carl Fredrik von Breda, ca. 1817

In addition to holding a major place in western esotericism, the science, philosophy, and theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688—1772) has long catalyzed the thinking and creativity of a number of poets, painters, sculptors, and writers. “The works of this visionary are well worthy the attention of Painters and Poets,” the Romantic artist William Blake announced to the public in his  Descriptive Catalogue of 1809, “They are the foundations for grand things.”

Blake’s call-to-attention to use Swedenborg’s ideas for “building” with the aesthetic was given by subsequent artists, poets, and writers, beyond the period of Blake’s Romanticism and continuing up to the present day. As Blake and other artists knew, however, nowhere in Swedenborg’s voluminous writings does he ever explicitly articulate a theory of aesthetics or representation. How can we account for the ready transferability of Swedenborg’s theology into the aesthetic, in a variety of different cultural contexts and at different chronological moments?

This three-and-a-half day conference will be the first of its kind to explicitly address the substantial impact of Swedenborg’s ideas on the arts, broadly defined. More than merely tracing the historical dimensions of influence, we hope to uncover the particular dynamics of exchange that lie between various artists and their respective creative encounters with Swedenborg. What are the continuities and discontinuities in these disparate reception histories? Given their variedness—from French Symbolism to the Tonalism of George Inness—what can the case of Swedenborg and the Arts tell us about the broader constitutive relationship between religion, science, and the aesthetic?

We will be soliciting and inviting individual paper and panel proposals that will respond to any of the following:

  • Swedenborg and the Arts in the 18th Century (neoclassical aesthetics, Neolatin poetry, the vexed question of Milton’s influence on Swedenborg, Swedenborg’s rhetorical style)
  • The aesthetic iconography of Swedenborg’s engravings and illustrations in his first Latin editions
  • Swedenborg’s impact on individual artists and/or movements with aesthetic components (Transcendentalism, Symbolism, Theosophy, American Pragmatism). A partial list of such artists and figures influenced by Swedenborg can be found here, and seen in the gallery on the right-hand side of the website
  • Swedenborg, the Arts, and Esotericism
  • The relationship between particular artists and pseudo-scientific and alternative medicinal paradigms that came to deploy Swedenborgian concepts (in mesmerism, spiritualism, homeopathy, phrenology, psychometry, for example)
  • Swedenborg and forms of artistic (re)enchantment, and the aesthetic spaces of the post-secular
  • Theorizing the convergence and parallels between states of mystical experience and deep aesthetic contemplation (wonder, beauty, the historical sublime)
  • Swedenborg and the productive problem of Romantic periodicity, and the broader incorporation of his ideas into histories of the avant-garde (Charles Baudelaire’s Symbolism, Wassily Kandinsky’s abstraction)
  • Swedenborg and particular artistic media and genres: architecture (Arts and Crafts), sculpture (Hiram Powers, John Flaxman), poetry and poetics (Whitman, Blake, Czeslaw Milosz), the novel (Balzac, Dostoevsky), the Gothic (Sheridan Le Fanu, Edgar Allan Poe), dance and performance (François Alexandre Nicolas Chéri Delsarte, Ping Chong)
  • Swedenborg, Contemporary Art, and current artistic practice in a post-modern, (post)secular age
  • The Arts and the Swedenborgian / New Church