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Histories of the transcendental in art : Romanticism, Zen and Mark Tobey

McDonald, Roger (1999) Histories of the transcendental in art : Romanticism, Zen and Mark Tobey. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.86141) (KAR id:86141)


This thesis deals with notions of the transcendental and art by investigating the two traditions of Romanticism and Zen respectively, in relation to the life and work of the American painter Mark Tobey. Responding in part to my reading of Robert Rosenblum's Modern Painting the northern Romantic Tradition (1975), the thesis begins by attempting to imagine the possibilities for discourse about ait and the transcendental by looking at Neoplatonic and Mahayana Buddhist ideas in relation to ideas of the transcendental. A hermeneutical methodology is suggested as a framework by which art may be seen in terms of a transcendental language. A central assumption of the thesis is that different histories or positions of the transcendental and alt are identifiable. By analysing European Romantic responses to ideas of the transcendental and presenting them alongside Zen positions such differences may be revealed and 'official' histories challenged. For instance, Romantic languages about oneness and 'purity' are radically challenged by the Nagaijunan notion of sunyaza and its insistence upon a thorough deconstruction of Being.Mark Tobey is introduced as a painter whose Zen interests from the early nineteen-thirties disturbs his place within an orthodox reading of American and European modernist art.. Tobey's relationship to Abstract Expressionist painters is explored and a close analysis of his journey to China and Japan in 1934 is undertaken within a broad historical context. Questions of Tobey's interests in Zen during a period when Japan was moving towards radical nationalism, and his search for an 'authentic' Japan are investigated. Tobey'sappropriations of Zen 'calligraphy' through his 'white writing' technique is also explored in relation to his 'overtly Oriental' works from 1956-7 and their potential to be read in terms ofZen notions such as sun vata. The thesis suggests an 'alternative-Japonisme' context for Tobey's Zen interests, placing him at a distance from orthodox histories of Japonisme, and nearer to the late nineteenth century appropriations of Buddha images by Odilon Redon and paul Ranson. Tobey's affinities with Piet Mondrian are then analysed, and their sharedNeoplatonic ideas are revealed.The different possible histories of the transcendental in art are hopefully investigated by this thesis, opening up alternative positions which can rupture 'standard' Occidentalhistories of art and their privileging of Western philosophical and mystical discourses.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.86141
Additional information: This thesis has been digitised by EThOS, the British Library digitisation service, for purposes of preservation and dissemination. It was uploaded to KAR on 09 February 2021 in order to hold its content and record within University of Kent systems. It is available Open Access using a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial, No Derivatives ( licence so that the thesis and its author, can benefit from opportunities for increased readership and citation. This was done in line with University of Kent policies ( If you feel that your rights are compromised by open access to this thesis, or if you would like more information about its availability, please contact us at and we will seriously consider your claim under the terms of our Take-Down Policy (
Uncontrolled keywords: Buddha images; Modernist art
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BL Religion
N Visual Arts > NX Arts in general
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Arts
SWORD Depositor: SWORD Copy
Depositing User: SWORD Copy
Date Deposited: 29 Oct 2019 16:30 UTC
Last Modified: 09 Dec 2022 16:18 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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