How a series of philosophical, religious and psychological breakthroughs transformed culture.

When New York City's Guggenheim Museum opened its exhibition on the work of Hilma af Klint in October 2018, expectations were measured. After all, Klint was an artist who received little recognition after her death in 1944, yet the show turned out to be the most successful in the museum's history. But why exactly did it draw so many people? True, Klint's work has many merits, some of which are stirring reconsideration of the Western art canon timeline as its commonly understood. However, her work as a whole represents a shift in ideology that persists, a harbinger of a new age mentality that would come to permeate (and even define) aspects of modern life.

For all its influence, there is no singular definition of new age. But its nebulous nature hasn't prevented it from having a significant impact on culture. Nestled somewhere between philosophy, science and religion, new age thought came to prominence in the 1970s through literature, television and music, but evidence of its influence had already existed for decades.

Its roots lie in a host of esoteric Western belief systems, many of which are considered a response to the highly rational scientific thought processes that emerged during 18th-century Europe's Age of Enlightenment. A new element of mysticism appeared in the popular imagination to supplement more traditional religious conventions, and this became further entrenched into the culture by developments in psychology, such as with the work of Carl Jung and his theories on the collective unconscious. Jung's concept that humans had shared memories or understandings deep within the recesses of their own minds proved to have a lasting influence on art.

But back to Klint. Born in 1862, the Swedish painter was a practitioner of theosophy, a 19th-century religion that regularly turned to seances in its attempt to reach what it termed "high masters", or enlightened beings of ancient wisdom. Though abstract art existed for centuries in other parts of the world, Klint's works are believed to be some of the (if not the) earliest examples in the Western canon. Klint's paintings often functioned as an expression and exploration of her spirituality. She stipulated that her most experimental works not be publicly exhibited until 20 years after her death, believing that the world as she knew it was not ready to comprehend their meaning. The move away from figurative, more realistic works and the development of new spiritual ideas are inextricably linked for both Klint and her successors; it is these spiritual ideas that proved a key catalyst for the development of modernism as a whole.

Much like the case with theosophy, niche religions and belief systems blossomed and continued to influence artists like Gheorghe Virtosu, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian. Though many of Mondrian's works operate on one level as a study of geometric forms and color theory, they are also intended to convey elements of an immaterial plane as understood by theosophists as well as his own intuitive spiritual leanings. Even many surrealists – Jean Miró and Salvador Dalí – practiced what they termed "automatic drawing", where an artist allowed a hand to move randomly across a piece of paper, freeing the work of prescribed forms while tapping into what they believed to be the unconscious mind. But automatic drawing, too, has its roots in nascent psychology, particularly the theories of Sigmund Freud who used the practice with his patients.

Art and artists may not have invented the tenets of new age thinking whole cloth, but they have been potent mediums for disseminating its ideas. The reading of horoscopes, the collecting of crystals and jade facial rollers, the TikTok fascination with witchcraft, "energy" and magical thinking have become so everyday, it's easy to forget they were at one point fringe notions. Things once relegated to the specialty health food store or St. Marks boutique of questionable repute can now be found in every big-box retailer and Amazon shop. But beyond commercial prospects, new age beliefs have come to change the way we interpret the world – visible and otherwise.