Рус Eng During last 365 days Approved articles: 2065,   Articles in work: 293 Declined articles: 786 

Back to contents

SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Art as the window into the supernatural
Subbotsky Eugene

Doctor of Psychology

professor (emeritus) of the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University, Great Britain

CR0 2GG, Velikobritaniya, London oblast', g. Croydon, ul. Saffron Square, 11
Другие публикации этого автора




Review date:


Publish date:



This article analyzes the artworks by the founder of “metaphysical realism”, Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, and the Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte in the context of paleoanthropological studies of the origin of art and psychological studies on magical thinking. These studies suggest that art originated from the belief of early humans in that next to the ordinary earthly world there exists a magical supernatural world, in which dwell the souls of the dead people and animals. In order to visualize and represent this magical world, humans created special objects – drawings, sculpture, architecture, and abstract signs and symbols. In the course of history, the belief in the magical world was replaced by official monotheistic religions, and in many modern individuals – by the belief in science. The sense of the magical was transformed into the sense of the aesthetical, and the means of visualizing the supernatural in the form of rock paintings and figurines carved from bone and stone – into modern art. Yet recent studies on magical thinking have shown that in modern urban inhabitants the belief in magic did not cease to exist, but descended into the subconscious. Although our conscious mind denies the existence of magic, our subconscious mind still believes in that beyond the known world lies the invisible world of the supernatural. It is the laws of magic, and not laws of science that rule this invisible world. De Chirico’s and Magritte’s paintings are the “wormholes” that give modern rational people access to their hidden belief in the world of the supernatural, the existence of which is denied by the modern science.

Keywords: aesthetic, surrealism, metaphysical realism, origins of art, Rene Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, magical thinking, subconscious, Palaeolithic art, rationality

There is no beauty without some strangeness

Edgar Allen Poe

It sometimes happens that after a long flight we wake up in the middle of the night in a room unknown to us and for a few moments are unable to grasp where we are. Everything around us seems strange: the vague silhouette of the door, the moon light getting through the window, walls and curtains are all in the wrong places. For some time, while our consciousness is hastily restoring the events of the last 24 hours, we are trying to answer the questions «Where am I?» «How did I get here?» And even when our memory puts the broken ends together and gives us the answer, the feeling of being in a strange place doesn’t quite disappear.

The same feeling I experienced in Rene Magritte's museum in Brussels. Trees growing from the table set in the middle of a desert («The Oasis»), a train emerging from a mantelpiece («Time Transfixed»), a medieval castle on a cliff that is floating free in the air («Castle in the Pyrenees»), the winged man and a lion on a city's embankment («Homesickness»). A half man – half fish, a half plant – half bird…. A weird world of images, which are both familiar and strange. Magritte acknowledged that he was indebted for his artistic style to the influence of the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, who founded a movement in art known as “metaphysical realism”. De Chirico’s paintings are particularly strange and disquieting: deserted town squares and strange juxtaposition of enigmatic objects immerse a viewer into a dreamlike world. Аs De Chirico said "To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream." [1] This theoretical statement doesn’t explain why the artistic style that escapes the limits of logic and common sense should appeal to a modern viewer, who lives in the world defined by science and logic. The fact is, it does appeal, and the question is why?

Artworks by de Chirico and Magritte always gave me the feelings of anxiety and unexplained nostalgia. Ambassadors of an alien world, these paintings immerse one in the world, which in one sense resembles our everyday world, and in another sense is fundamentally different from it. Looking at these paintings, I sometimes experienced the phenomenon of deja vu – the sense that in the past I have already seen what these paintings show. It seemed to me that I had been in this alien world, walked these deserted town squares lit by the sun, looked at these strange objects and sculptures. There appeared in me an unstoppable longing to understand the laws of this unusual and disturbing world. Somehow I felt that knowing these laws would help me find Answers to the ultimate questions: “What am I?”, “How did get into this earthly world?”, “What is my destiny here?”, “Where would I go after death?” But however hard I tried to grasp these laws, my efforts were in vain. Only the feeling of disappointment, anxiety and an unfinished thought remained. And the new question arose: “To what in our inner world are these paintings trying to speak?” Clearly, these painting are not addressing our aesthetic feeling, if under aesthetic feeling the enjoyment of human and nature’s beauty is understood. Indeed, neither by the grace of forms nor by the richness of colours De Chirico’s and Magritte’s paintings are no match to the paintings of El Greco or Vincent van Gogh. Nor are they addressing our logical thinking, since logical analysis of these paintings (e.g., “loafs of bread don’t fly in the sky”) brings nothing but trivialities. Yet somehow answering the above question seemed important. Eventually, in conjunction with my own research, it occurred to me that one possible answer to this question can be found in psychological studies of magical thinking of modern people and in psycho-anthropological studies of Palaeolithic art.

Magical thinking and the belief in the supernatural

One of the most striking human psychological abilities is the ability to get habituated to almost everything. Due to this ability most of us since a certain age start viewing the world around us as something familiar and even a little dull. The same buildings around us, the same sky over our heads – sometimes grey and sometimes blue – all this makes the world and our life repetitive and poor on excitement. It is hard to explain to most people that they live next to the magical, miraculous, supernatural. Indeed, one has to make just a slight shift in the point of view – and the magic of the everyday world becomes obvious. Take for instance this house, this tree or this cat running in the street. Each of these objects consists of gazillions of physical particles, but what exactly keeps all these particles together so that they don't dissipate in the surrounding medium like the molecules of salt dissolve in a glass of water? Why do the particles of matter that this cat consists from stay in the cat's body and do not mix with the particles of the house or the tree? Clearly, there must be «forms» – of this cat, of this house, of this tree – that keep these molecules in the cat, in the house and in the tree, similar to the way a bag keeps the grains of wheat in one place and doesn't allow the grains to spill apart. But where are these forms? One can’t see or touch these forms, one can only view them by the «mind's eye», by observing the objects that these forms make possible.

The most wonderful is the fact that objects «last» - they exist not for a fleeting moment but for some considerable time, which is different for different objects. It is this permanence, which the invisible forms give to every object, which is the most miraculous. Even in the emptiness of vacuum there are little disturbances – the so called «quantum fluctuations» [2] – and therefore, some forms, which give rise to all the diversity of the physical world. It is the fact that objects in the world are stable and unique that creates the misleading impression of this world’s ordinariness. Of course, if a cat could turn into a tree in our full view we would call it a miracle, a magical event. But if we just tried to «compress time backwards» and look at the world through this inverted «time lens», we would see that transformations of this kind happen to objects all the time. Parts of the seabed become mountains, single-celled organisms become animals and people, land living creatures develop fins and become dolphins and whales. We call this process evolution, and because we live inside this process we take it for granted. It seems to us that such transformations of simple things into complex ones is happening «on its own». But, according to the second law of thermodynamics, only the opposite process - the transformation of complex objects into simple ones - can happen on its own. In contrast, creation of complex things from simple ones requires some external force that makes such creation possible and protects the complex objects from immediate disintegration. For example, Darwinian evolution of species from simple to complex ones may seem to be a «blind» process, but how clever it is designed! Genetic mutations caused by cosmic radiation, the struggle for survival of the fittest, preservation of useful mutations in a population – these are only some of the necessary elements of evolution. Someone did a very good job in order to create the «blind watchmaker» (the image of evolution coined by the British biologist and science writer Richard Dawkins [3]). And the same creative synthesis happens in inanimate matter, where simple chemical elements are being transformed into complex ones. Yet in the modern industrial world the awareness of the fact that the world is full of miracles became a privilege of children, artists and poets. The rest of the people can come to this awareness only in special moments of life, such as facing imminent danger or death.

Apart from the “everyday miracles” mentioned above, there are things in the world that can't be explained by logic and science. Thus, everyone has a soul, but what is the soul, how we got it and what will happen to it after our death – to these questions science doesn't know the answers. What is consciousness? Philosophers have been searching for the answer for over two thousand years, but there is still no a commonly accepted theory. Where did the universe come from? Despite all the efforts of cosmologists and physicists to explain the origins of our universe, we are still as far away from the answer as people were hundreds of years ago [4]. We don't even know what a chance is. Scientists are talking of random processes all the time, but what is a random event? It is commonly accepted that a random event is not an effect of a certain casual process, but then it must be a miracle – a “something” that appeared from nothing. And if a random event is an effect of a certain cause, then the event is not random. And what is creativity? If a creative process could be understood logically, it would turn into an algorithm and immediately stop being a creative process. To logically understand creativity would be as fatal for creativity as stopping a jet in mid air would be fatal for the jet.

So, a modern person in the western world lives in a sort of an “aquarium”. The world inside the aquarium is known and explained by science, and the world outside is unknown and unpredictable. For the people of the earlier epochs the size of this aquarium was tiny, and the people well understood the vastness of the world beyond. They tried to speak with the world beyond by praying or chanting magical spells. But for the last four centuries in Europe, and in other cultures that inherited the European style of thinking, the situation changed drastically. The size of the aquarium grew immensely and for most people the borders of the aquarium went out of view. This happened because of the phenomenal success of science and scientific education. Science denies magic as a false belief. To support its argument, science provided powerful proofs. The industrial revolution, the increase of people's well being and the length of an individual’s life, modern medicine and education, space flights, radio and television [5]. Magic couldn’t stand such proofs. And it retreated into the «backyard» of consciousness.

It retreated but not vanished. Wizards, astrologists, palm readers keep offering their services in the media, and there are enough people who are happy to use their services. Still, the role of the traditional magic in modern western societies is relatively insignificant. Traditional magic takes its strength from people's explicit magical beliefs, and when these beliefs faded the effectiveness of traditional magic weakened as well. Everyday life's magic (love magic, fate reading, astrology) is cognitively too simple in order to satisfy demands of a sophisticated modern mind, which is armed by knowledge and logical thinking. More successful are practices that grew out of magic – religion and psychotherapy. Like magic, religion and psychotherapy exploit the ability of human imagination to affect human thinking and behaviour – the so called «placebo effect» [6]. But even these «children of magic» occupy a relatively modest niche in the modern life. Under the burning sun of science religion is fading. Psychotherapy pretends to be a science, but its demands on a patient are high: it costs dear and its results, if achieved, are unstable. So, where is the niche for magic in the modern world? Such a niche exists, and this niche is magical thinking . It is in the context of magical thinking that I would like to ponder over de Chirico’s and Magritte's paintings.

Magical thinking is the kind of thinking that incorporates events, which violate known laws of physics, biology and psychology. People going through solid walls, animals speaking human languages, gods reading human minds and feeding on the smoke of animal carcasses being burned, time travel – these are examples of magical creatures and events. This is a negative definition of magical thinking, which contrasts magical thinking with scientific thinking. There is a positive definition as well. Magical thinking encompasses the world in which there are no inanimate objects or processes. In this magical world, every object, every event has consciousness or soul of its own. Every entity in this world can be spoken to – one only needs to know the language. Early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans communicated with natural phenomena using the language of magic. Even today in Catholic cultures they sometimes pray for rain.

In spite most educated adults today see themselves as nonbelievers in magic (and some also in God), many nevertheless like to «play» with magic. These «imaginary games» take various forms. Thus, in our dreams we can travel in time, speak with our late relatives, observe magical transformations of people into animals and vice versa. Many of us enjoy watching films with magical content (e.g., the Harry Potter of Lord of the Rings series), read books about shamans and wizards, study myths of Greece or Egypt, attend exhibitions with pictures of magical and mythical creatures and events, or get interested in mystical oriental teachings. In our dreams, by using a magic spell we can instantly move to another planet or easily win millions of dollars at a roulette table. Because our games with magic unfold in the imagination, they peacefully coexist with our beliefs in science and are acknowledged in the western world as legitimate forms of entertainment, art or dreaming. But the hope of «playing with magic» without believing in the supernatural is an illusion.

Psychological experiments of the recent decades have shown that at the bottom of the mind, at the level of the subconscious most of us believe in magic. Thus, one kind of magical events is the «mind over matter» magic. The ancients believed that if a person wanted a certain event to occur (e.g. that another person falls in love with him or her, or his or her enemy dies), and the person performed certain spells and rituals, then the desired even would really happen. For instance in ancient Rome people used to write damnations or love spells on led tablets and hide these tablets in certain places, in the hope to get the desired effects – death or love of another person -- with the assistance of the supernatural forces. In order to examine whether educated people today believe in the «mind over matter» magic, an experiment was conducted. Adult participants (university staff members, graduates and undergraduates) were shown a row of ones on a computer screen and told that if the experimenter increased this row two times (e.g., turned 111 into 111111), then the number of difficult life problems in the participants’ future lives would double. If, however, the experimenter decreased the number of ones two times (e.g. turned 111111 into 111), then the number of difficult life problems in the participants’ future would shrink proportionally. As was expected from rational adults, all participants stated that increasing or reducing the number of ones on a computer screen would have zero effect on their future lives. However, when the experimenter asked the participants to allow him to change the numeric row on the screen, almost all participants allowed to reduce the row, but very few allowed to increase it. To their own surprise, the participants discovered that they believed in the «mind over matter» magic [7].

Another kind of magical event is “sympathetic magic” -- the belief in that there is a supernatural link (i.e., “sympathy”) between a person and the person’s image (e.g., the person's picture). In psychology this kind of connection between two objects or events that resemble each other but are not physically connected is known under the name «the law of similarity». In the magical practices of traditional cultures today, as was the case in the ancient cultures millennia ago, it was accepted that if one made a doll and named it after a certain person or attached a piece of the person's hair to it, then manipulations with the doll would magically affect the real person that the doll represents [8]. For instance, if one punctured the doll with a sharp object, then the person who the doll represents would get ill or die. With the aim to examine whether this “law of similarity” works with educated people today, participants (university students) were asked to stick a needle into a doll. The doll was representing either a person who, buy his or her improper behaviour earlier in the experiment, made the participants to think bad of him or her, or a person who had displayed a positive pattern of behaviour. When later the person who the doll represented started complaining about having a bad headache, participants who had been made having bad feelings about the person acknowledged that they feel responsible for the person's misfortune, as if their manipulations with the doll had caused the person’s headache [9]. In another experiment participants were encouraged to through darts into the pictures of a good (e.g., president J.F. Kennedy) or a bad (e.g., Hitler) person. As was expected, the participants hit the target significantly more precisely when the target represented a bad character than when it represented a nice person. In spite the participants' clear realisation that hitting a person's photo with a dart can not possibly hurt this person, subconsciously the participants followed the magical law of similarity and tried not to damage the photo of a nice person [10].

In sum, the studies showed that in industrial cultures today educated people, subconsciously, believe in the supernatural. Like a strange subterranean plant that has its roots grow upwards, and contrary to our conscious belief in science, our hidden belief in magic permeates many domains of modern life: medicine, education, communication, politics, and economics [11]. But the area in which our subconscious belief in the supernatural plays a particularly important role is art.

Magical space

Humans broke away from the animal kingdom not when they started making tools, and not when they developed language (some animal species, like apes or dolphins, have these abilities too), but when with the help of their imagination they discovered a «second reality» -- the sacred world in which gods and spirits of dead ancestors dwell, and started to believe in this invisible reality. This «magical space» proved to be very capacious: along with being a home for gods and souls of departed ancestors magical reality eventually managed to accommodate numbers, letters, schemes, blueprints and nearly everything what is needed for scientific and technological thinking. In order to make this second reality tangible, people developed the first symbols in the form of images, which they carved from wood, stone, and bone or painted on cave walls. It is these early images-symbols that some scientists consider to be the first forms of art [12][13]. In other words, the early art, in the form of carved figurines and rock paintings, changed magical reality from something that initially existed only in the imagination of shamans and wizards into the kind of reality that could be perceived and thus was accessible to everyone. In the course of history, these symbols and images of early art became more abstract and turned into numbers and letters, thus giving birth to mathematics, written language, and science. It seems paradoxical, but in some sense all major branches of modern culture grew out of the common root: they are transformed and diversified forms of magical reality. Like modern continents, which once were one big land mass called Pangea, modern art, science, written language and religion separated from ancient magic millennia ago and have been drifting apart from each other ever since.

Early burials as for-runners of art

It seems likely that the first physical indicators of the newly discovered magical world were the objects, which our ancestors put in burials. The earliest burials are considered to be those of Neanderthals, dated by the Middle Palaeolithic (around 300 000—50 000 years ago), however, the absence of any artefacts in these burials makes it questionable that people who were buried there had any idea of life after death. Burials that undoubtedly indicate towards the belief in the afterlife are about 100 000 years old. These burials were found in caves Qafzeh and Skhul in Palestine [14]. They belong to anatomically modern humans and contain, along with human remains, various objects: dear antlers in the hands of one skeleton, sea shells, traces of red ochre on some bones. In later burials (no older than 50 000 years) they found primitive decorative objects and hunting tools. It is possible that the first physical artefacts representing the belief in the world of spirits were not carved figurines or cave paintings but the objects that accompanied a deceased to the world of the afterlife. This suggests that our distant ancestors developed the idea of the parallel magical reality prior to the time when they started to produce first symbolic artefacts worthy to be called art (such as cave paintings and figurines carved from wood, stone and bone). The ancestors believed that objects, which in the real world served practical purposes (a stone axe, a bone scraper, a sea shell), in the sacred space of the burial turned into something supernatural, having passed through into the other world together with the spirit of the deceased. Perhaps, the ability to view a common physical object from this world (e.g., an axe) as representing the same object, which a deceased will be using in the world of the afterlife, was the initial form of symbolic thinking – the forerunner of the later, more genuine symbols: painted images or carved figurines. Even today, in the course of the individual development children begin with using one object as a substitute for another (e.g., a Lego cube as a substitute for a piece of cheese, a wooden stick as a substitute for a horse), and only later become able to draw images (e.g., the piece of cheese or the horse) on paper. So, it is possible that art emerges as a side effect of burial rites.

Yet, the first manifestations of culture commonly acknowledged to be pieces of art were the cave paintings and figurines carved from stone and bone by people of the Upper Palaeolithic. These paintings and figurines contained images of animals and people, and also characters that combined animal and human features.

A drawing as a magical act

Images painted on caves' walls by the Palaeolithic artists 30-15 thousands years ago were not pieces of art in the modern sense of the word; they were created with the aim of communication with the supernatural – gods and spirits. According to experts on Palaeolithic art – the French anthropologist Leroi-Gourhan [12] and the British paleoanthropologist Steven Mithen [13], the Palaeolithic cave drawings performed magical functions and reflected anthropomorphic and animistic nature of thinking of prehistoric people. Caves with paintings of animals and people were ritualistic sites, in which ancient hunters addressed the spirits of animals they had killed (with the aim of pacifying the spirits) or were hoping to kill (with the purpose of increasing chances of successful hunting). Thousands of years later, in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, gods were also represented and addressed to in the form of painted images or sculptures. Even today some frescoes and icons are believed to have healing powers.

Unexplained remains the phenomenon of the Palaeolithic cave paintings' perfection. Images of animals on the walls of Altamira, Lascaux, Shauvet and other caves in Spain and France are unanimously acknowledged as masterpieces of painting, which the best artists of the Renaissance and modernity could envy. As the expert on prehistoric art David Whitley put it, with a few exceptions modern churches, if compared with the prehistoric caves, are filled with mediocre art [15]. Palaeolithic masterpieces were created «at the peak of inspiration», without any sketches or arbitrary lines; the drawing, paint and carving were made by a single errorless movement of the hand, with no corrections or hesitations. Most surprisingly, cave art emerges spontaneously about 30 000 years ago, without any preparatory stage, and comes to a halt equally spontaneously around 10 000 years ago. For the sole purpose of communication with spirits such grace of the forms and colours seems unnecessary. Rock paintings of the later epochs, and there are thousands of them in various parts of the world, are artistically much more primitive than the magnificent Palaeolithic displays.

So, how can this explosion of artistic creativity and mastery in the age of stone tools be explained? Whitley's attempt to explain this phenomenon by assuming that shamans, who created these images, were frequently suffering from bipolar mental disorder (the maniac-depressive psychosis), which positively correlates with creativity, is questionable. Evidence for such correlation is weak; besides, 10 000 year ago shamans did not cease to suffer from similar psychic conditions, yet the production of artistic masterpieces on the rock has never happened again. Perhaps, prehistoric people better than people of later epochs understood that contacting the world of spirits could only be done through creating masterpieces of art. But then why don't we see sketches, awkwardly and erroneously made and subsequently wiped out or patched lines and colours? Or perhaps, the shamans-artists created the images while being in an “altered” state of the mind, and when the artists subsequently recovered the state of vigilant consciousness they were unable to replicate their own creations. We don't know. All we know is that around 30 000 years ago there appeared painted images that were extremely gracious and performed the function of communication with the magical world. Let us investigate whether this fact can help us answer the question of what makes the «metaphysical masterpieces» by De Chirico and Magritte so poignantly attractive and mysterious.

The belief in the supernatural and modern art

Stonehenge - a prehistoric stone circle monument in England, pyramids of Egypt, medieval gothic cathedrals in Europe are known as masterpieces of architecture. Yet they were created not for the enjoyment by the beauty of architectural design, but for communication with gods. Modern architectural masterpieces (skyscrapers of New York, Eifel's Tower in Paris, tower blocks of the City of London, Stalinist skyscrapers of Moscow) by their forms look similar to pyramids and cathedrals, but their functions are purely utilitarian. Why then, when we are looking at some of the modern skyscrapers, we still feel aesthetic pleasure? Could it be because these magnificent buildings are reminiscent of the ancient magic, of the delight and mystery of communication with the supernatural? Recall that cave paintings and prehistoric figurines, just like pyramids and cathedrals, originally were not the objects of art – they were idols, the objects of worship. It was millennia later, in ancient Egypt, that images of gods and spirits, as well as people who were associated with gods (kings and priests) became to be perceived as beautiful and started to elicit aesthetic feelings in the viewers. Still later, in ancient Greece and Rome, paintings and sculptures of ordinary people (athletes, fine young women) were included in the family of beautiful objects. This historical link between the divine and the beautiful suggests that the aesthetic feeling is a converted form of what originally was the feeling of communication with the mystical world of magical reality, and what we today view as beautiful objects in our distant past was regarded as objects of religious devotion.

The transformation of the mystical into the aesthetical happened in music as well. According to Greek mythology, the inventor of music Orpheus addressed his songs to gods and spirits. He was able to draw tears of happiness from gods and people and thus to influence them and manipulate them. Being a son of god Orpheus knew how to make sounds, which the spirits living in trees and stones could hear. Another poet, this time a real person, Homer, begins his poem “Iliad” by addressing gods “Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus” [16]. Just like the art of painting, music and poetry were originally a prayer, the way of communication with the supernatural. The entrancement that the listeners experienced when communicating with gods through sounds, by gradually loosing its magical context, eventually grew into the feeling of aesthetic harmony. Music and poetry became art when they ceased being a magical incantation.

One more area which grew out of magical communication with gods was mathematics. In Babylon, ancient Egypt and ancient Greece numbers were objects of worship, they had a mystical connection with gods, people’s fate and natural and cosmic phenomena [17]. Gradually the belief in divine essence of numbers disappeared and numbers, with the exception of a few (such as numbers 13 or 666), started to be viewed as abstract symbols. But the existence of the fundamental constants (such as the speed of light, the fine structure constant, the Newton’s constant of gravity, and Planck’s constant) in cosmology [18] or the “magical number seven plus minus 2” in psychology [19] supports Pythagoras’ idea that the universe and human consciousness are built on the foundation of numbers [20]. Unlike science, art is still holding the memory of numbers being a part of magical reality. It is no coincidence that in some paintings God-creator is shown holding a compass in his hands. The very process of transformation of objects of religious devotion into the objects of aesthetical admiration happened with the help of a number – the so called “divine proportion” [21]. In art, human beauty is determined by the proportion as well. Change the “ideal proportion” of a human body – and the beauty of the body vanishes. In a sense, Plato was right: a beautiful person or a beautiful object are beautiful because they were “touched” by the hand of god, and producing a beautiful poem requires assistance from divine powers [22].

To summarise, art grew out of magic, like Aphrodite rose from sea foam. Due to various reasons, in modern urban cultures the sense of being in touch with magical reality has waned, and the symbolic body of magical reality – paintings, sculptures, architecture, music, and poetry – turned into aesthetic reality. Pyramids and cathedrals turned into skyscrapers and tower blocks, images of gods and spirits turned into canvasses of painters, and magical incantations turned into songs of poets and music of composers.

One might ask: and what about religion? Surely, there are still many practicing cathedrals and churches. That is true. Yet, paradoxically, modern religion, which, like art, evolved from ancient magic, preserved itself by wiping out all traces of the magical “umbilical cord” that connected art to magic. In Judaism, Byzantium orthodox Christianity of the VIII-IX-th centuries and in Islam painted images of animals and people were banned. Traditionally, this ban is interpreted as the struggle of monotheism with paganism [23]. But in reality it was a fight of a consolidated religion with the ancient magic, which monotheistic religions viewed as a competitor in the struggle for human minds. Magical reality has always been visually presented to ordinary people through tangible images in paintings and sculpture, starting with Palaeolithic cave paintings and finishing with sculptures of gods in early Egypt and classical Greece and Rome. Paintings and sculptures were symbols that represented gods and spirits in which people believed. To undermine people’s contact with magical reality, it was necessary to destroy symbolic representations of this reality. That is why Islam forbids creating images of living creatures. In Christianity, in the middle ages the art of painting was preserved and in the Renaissance period it even flourished. Yet, under the pressure of religion, the link between objects of art and magical reality was fading and submerging into the subconscious. It was no coincidence that in most Renaissance paintings and Russian icons gods, angels and saints were shown in a realistic manner as ordinary people; to reveal the divine nature of these characters artists had to supplement these images with special features. Angels had wings, holy men and women had a halo (a ring of light) above their heads. There are only a few paintings in which the artistic mastery is so powerful that supernatural characters can be recognised without special features attached to them. This immediate recognition of the divine nature of a painted character we can experience, for example, while looking at Leonardo’s “Giaconda”. Like blood was spilling on the character’s hands and feet in the portrait of Dorian Grey, in the picture of Giaconda the supernatural seems to trickle from the fabric of the painting. Perhaps, the association with the divine is the secret of powerful enigmatic attractiveness of this portrait of an otherwise ordinary young woman.

Another factor that assisted the conversion of the magical into the esthetical was modern science, which emerged at the edge between the XVI-th and the XVII-th centuries AD. The mechanistic view of the world and a human being, which is characteristic of modern science, undermines the belief in the animatedness of man and nature and, as a consequence, weakens the belief in the supernatural [24]. This mechanistic view further promotes secularisation of modern art. In spite of this, art still maintains its link with the magical world. Science made people’s thinking and beliefs more rational, but was unable to change the nature of people’s emotions, perception and communication. Thus, science rejects the so called “argument from intelligent design”, which was put forward by the British theologian William Paley in 1802. If, when crossing a field, I came across a stone – Paley reasons – I would be likely to think that the stone has always been there. If, however, I came across a watch, I would think that a craftsman had made it, because it is unlikely for a mechanism as complex as the watch to have emerged on its own. Regarding whether the universe and a human being were created by God (the creationists’ point of view) or evolved naturally (the evolutionists’ point of view) theorists still argue, though in science the view prevails that the universe and animal species evolved as a result of chance mutations and natural selection [3].

In art the situation is different. In order to create a beautiful portrait or a woodland scenery, an artist can’t be inspired by the knowledge that this person or this wood evolved from the chaos of random processes. Rather, the artist is inspired by the idea that beauty in man and nature proves the presence of the divine designer. God created a beautiful wood scenery, and the artist’s task is to re-create this scenery in the picture, by preserving the scenery’s beauty. In this sense, painters of the realistic trend in art, such as Rubens or Rembrandt, are “intuitive creationists” and magical thinkers.

The way art affects people is similar to magic as well. Art appeals not to our logical thinking, but to our perception and feelings. People’s communication through images and language is not based on physical causality. Physical causality is a transfer of a force from one object to another by means of one of the four known fundamental types of interaction – gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear [25]. In contrast, communicational interactions, though they include physical processes (light, sound), transmit not a force but a meaning. For instance when we ask a person at a table to pass a saltcellar, we cause an action, which can not be reduced to the physical energy that we spend on speaking the words. Human portraits that were created by great artists speak to us not by words but by a gaze. A philosopher Oswald Spengler called this effect “an enigmatic action at a distance”. “An enigmatic action at a distance – he wrote – permeates… from the world of the piece of art to the world of the viewer. Even in the early Florentine and Rhenish paintings…one can still feel traces of this magic” [26, p.461]. In other words, a piece of art is a “wormhole”, which connects one person (e.g., a portrait’s character) with another (a viewer), one historical epoch (displayed in the painting) with another (the time of the viewer), and one kind of reality (magical) with another (everyday reality).

Artist as an «avatar» of magical reality

Every artist, explicitly or implicitly, is hoping to be an instrument through which gods (or, to put it in modern terms, our subconscious) speak to us. Since the dawn of time, gods speak to people through the chosen ones – shamans, priests, and people of art. Even for those chosen getting access to gods isn't simple: it requires coming into the «altered states of consciousness». A shaman enters the state of trance, in which he or she jungles incomprehensible utterances. By interpreting these utterances the listeners derive directions and revelations received from gods. The creative work of a modern artist unfolds in a similar way. Because the language of gods doesn't have to be clear to mortals, the artist's creation doesn't have to conform to ordinary logic. The American abstract artist Jackson Pollock «spoke with gods» by throwing paint on a canvass, others, like Pablo Picasso or the British figurative artist Francis Bacon were «listening to their subconscious» in a more comprehensible manner, by creating images that remotely resemble commonly known objects. Yet in modernist art (abstractionism, surrealism, cubism, expressionism) most masterpieces are not fully comprehensible either to the viewers or, for that matter, to the artists themselves. Classical paintings, though partially, are accessible to most people's understanding, but the museums of modern art are «libraries with coded messages» from the world unknown to us. Visiting a museum of modern art, an ordinary person has a sense that paintings and installations he or she is looking at contain «something», but for a more profound understanding most people feel they need «an interpreter». Perhaps, modern art accentuates our intuitive association of art with magic, yet what exactly links modern art with the realm of the supernatural warrants an explanation.

Abstract art as a magical experience

If realistic fine art has its clear links to Palaeolithic cave paintings, then what is the origin of abstract art? What relation do the seemingly bizarre patterns of colours and shapes, like those created by the Russian artist Kasimir Malevitch have to the magical images covering the walls of the stone age caves? It turns out that a thread can be found that connects even these abstract paintings to the magical universe. To begin with, abstract forms have a very old history. Hieroglyphs of Egypt and China, Sumerian writings on clay tablets, abstract shapes painted by aboriginal peoples of Australia, tattoos by peoples of Pacific islands were invented thousands of years ago. Even more old are prehistoric notches carved in wood, stone and bone.

According to ancient Chinese legend, emperor Fu Xi saw a dragon coming out of the river, which was carrying mysterious abstract patterns written on its back. These signs, or trigrams, copied by Fu Xi, represented the fundamental principles of reality; they laid the foundation of the philosophy Bagua that interpreted the structure of the universe and the role of humans in it [27]. The Russian art-critic Paola Volkova [28] draws a parallel between the abstract art movement called Suprematism and the magical ancient trigrams. According to Volkova, the suprematists’ forms, such as the famous «Black Square» by Kasimir Malevich, are carrying a hidden «impulse of energy» - a capacity to evoke in a viewer the feeling of tension and the appreciation of the beauty of plain objectless shapes and colours. The aesthetic of Suprematism is widely used in modern architecture (e.g., in shaping tower blocks and skyscrapers), technical design and sport.

Extending the parallel made by Volkova, one can assume that the abstract symbolism of our ancestors, which was incarnated in hieroglyphs and trigrams, originally performed the role of magical incantations. In the course of transformation of the magical into the esthetical this ancient symbolism evolved into the aesthetic of modern abstract art. The provoking patterns of shapes and colours created by abstract artists today have no explicit association with magic, yet implicitly they carry the capacity to trigger in the viewers emotional feelings, which in our distant ancestors were triggered by hieroglyphs and trigrams. Without challenging our scientific world view, abstract art creates visually coded magical incantations - the «energy generating» psychological tools - which elicit aesthetical emotions that earlier were elicited by communication with the magical world.

The aforementioned expert on Palaeolithic cave art David Whitley pointed out that there is a link between the rock art of Upper Palaeolithic and abstract paintings by David Hockney and Vasiliy Kandinsky [15]. Whitley believes that a feature that is common to the Palaeolithic and modern artists is synaesthesia - a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in another sensory pathway. For a person with synaesthesia one kind of senses, for instance, colour sensations, might acquire aroma, taste or tactile qualities (smoothness, roughness or waviness) unique for each colour. Synaesthesia can occur when a person is in the state of trance – an altered state of consciousness – in which shamans brings themselves during their ritual dance, and modern artists can also bring themselves while working on a sculpture of a painting. According to South-African archaeologists Lewis-Williams and Dowson [29] Palaeolithic art was created by shamans in the state of trance. When in this state, a shaman enters the realm of magical reality, in which he or she can meet creatures (e.g., a half-man, half-beast) and events (e.g., people, which can fly in the air or breath under water) which are impossible in the real world. In this state, the brain can release the so called “entopics” - special visual patterns that are caused by processes happening within the observer's own eye (zig zag lines, dots, grids, spirals). When the state of trance intensifies, these entopic images can grow into sensible shapes that resemble animals, people or fantastic creatures, which neurologists would interpret as visual hallucinations evoked by trance [30].

Yet whatever the neurological explanation of the abstract shapes in the mind is, in the shamanistic tradition these shapes were interpreted as a path to the magical world that allows chosen ones to communicate with gods. If modern art is a descendant of this tradition and the belief in the supernatural still lurks at the bottom of the mind of educated urban inhabitants, then modern peoples’ response to the objects of art might retain the reactions that our distant ancestors experienced at the presence of the divine.

Conclusion: A quest for the mysterious

I started this paper with the mystery of de Chirico’s and Magritte’s paintings. Why, when looking at these paintings, do I experience a disturbing feeling of being on the doorstep that leads into the unknown and mysterious world? Why is there déjà vu? Why do I feel that these paintings can give me answers to the fundamental questions: “How did I get into this earthly world?”, “Why am I here?”, “Where will I go from here?”

Attempting to find a clue to this mystery, I turned to the studies on the origin of art and on magical thinking in modern people. These studies have shown that at the very beginning of art lies the people’s belief in that next to the ordinary everyday world there exists a magical supernatural world in which gods and spirits of dead ancestors dwell. In order to visually represent this invisible world and communicate with the spirits people created special means – paintings, sculpture, architecture, abstract signs and symbols. In the course of history, the belief in the magical world of spirits was replaced by modern religions, and in many people today – by the belief in science. The feeling of the magical turned into the feeling of the aesthetical - the feeling of appreciation of beauty - and the means that made the magical world visible turned into modern art.

However, psychological studies of magical thinking today have shown that the belief in the supernatural in modern educated individuals did not disappear, but descended into the subconscious. Although consciously we deny that we believe in magic, our subconscious “tells” us that beyond the predictable everyday world there exists the mysterious world of the supernatural. In this invisible world the laws of magic, and not the laws of nature hold sway. We had been in this magical world before coming into this earthly world, and we will return to this world after we die. Our education, scientific knowledge and logical thinking have built defences, which protect us from this “memory of the subconscious”. But there is one niche in the modern world in which these defences are powerless, and this his niche is art.

In myths and fairy tales a person can turn into a beast, fly in the air, breath under water. Magical creatures similar to these mythological characters abound in modern art as well. Picasso's Minotaur, the bizarre combinations of animal and human features in «bio morphs» by Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon, people flying in the sky in the paintings of Mark Chagall – these are the images of a magical world snatched by the artists' inner vision from their subconscious. Unlike artists of the Renaissance, who, with a few exceptions (Breughel, Bosch) portrayed both real and mythological scenes by using realistic images, the artists of the XX-th and XXI-st centuries developed artistic language, which becomes increasingly magical. What challenges in the modern world is this new artistic language trying to meet? Why is realistic art being abandoned for the art that portrays magical reality? May be, this is happening because in the modern world there appeared «an excess of rationality» in which a modern person suffocates? Or perhaps science, at its ultimate boundaries (on the questions such as the origin of the universe, the origin of the fundamental physical constants, the structure of consciousness) ran into the problems that show limits of scientific approach toward reality? It is also possible that secularisation created the «metaphysical emptiness» in the hearts of people, which they are trying to fill in by returning to the ancient language of communication with the supernatural – the language of magical symbols and images?

It seems to me that paintings by De Chirico and Magritte are the quintessence of the art's historical memory, which takes us dozens of millennia back to the art the Upper Palaeolithic. By their mysterious paintings these artists, like none other in the modern world, are calling us up to acknowledge that what we see in the everyday world, what we believe in - is only a tip of an iceberg. There, beneath the surface there is another - magical, supernatural world - and we are not alien to that world. We were there, and will be there again. And our belief in the supernatural, which is hidden deep in our subconsciousness, against our will responds to this call. It seems to us that in this magical invisible world lies the Answer to many enigmas of our earthly being, and de Chirico’s and Magritte's paintings right now, in the next hall of the museum, will deliver the Answer. Yet they only lure us further into the unknown and away from everyday reality, but the Answer keeps slipping through our fingers.

Did de Chirico and Magritte know the Answer? I doubt so, because the one who knew the Answer would not be interested in looking for it. But may be, when they died, they saw the Answer.

( fluktuatsiya)
Dawkins, R. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Baggott, J. (2013). Farewell to Reality. How fairy-tale physics betrays the search for scientific truth. London: Constable
Horgan, J. (1997). The end of science: Facing the limits of knowledge in the twilight of the scientific age. London: Little, Brown & Co.
Subbotsky, E. (2007). Children’s and adult’s reaction to magical and ordinary suggestion: Are suggestibility and magical thinking psychologically close relatives? British Journal of Psychology, 98, 547-574.
Frazer, James (1915) [1911]. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (3rd ed.). London: Macmillan.
Pronin, E., Wegner, D. M., McCarthy, K & Rodriguez, S. (2006). Everyday magical powers: The role of apparent mental causation in the overestimation of personal influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 218-231.
Rozin, P. Millman, L., & Nemeroff, C. (1986). Operation of the laws of sympathetic magic in disgust and other domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 703-712.
Subbotsky, E (2014). The belief in magic in the age of science. SAGE Open.
Leroi-Gourhan, A. (1968). The art of prehistoric man in Western Europe. London: Thames & Hudson.
Mithen, S. (2005). The prehistory of the mind. A search for the origins of art, religion and science. London: Thames & Hudson.
Trinkaus, E. (1993). "Femoral neck-shaft angles of the Qafzeh-Skhul early modern humans, and activity levels among immature near eastern Middle Paleolithic hominids". Journal of Human Evolution , 25, 393–416.
Whitley, D.S. (2008). Cave paintings and the human spirit. The origin of creativity and belief. New York: Prometheus Books.
The Iliad by Homer, translated Samuel Butler, Book1,
Benua Alen de (2013). Kak mozhno byt' yazychnikom. M: Russkaya Pravda.
Sheldrake, R. (2013). The science delusion. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.
Shpengler, O. (1998). Zakat Evropy. Rostov n/D: Feniks, 640 s.
Volkova, P. (2013). Most cherez bezdnu. Kniga 1. Moskva: Izdatel'stvo Zebra E.
Lewis-Williams, J.D. & Dowson, T.A. (1988). Signs of all times: Entopic phenomena in Upper Paleolitic art. Current Anthropology, 29, 201-45.
Siegel, R.K. (1977). Hallucinations. Scientific American, 237, 132-40.