Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn

1881London, United Kingdom | 1962Ascona, Switzerland

Anglo-Swiss spiritualist and mythographer.

Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn, the daughter of Dutch parents, was interested in iconography right from her childhood, when she watched, fascinated, as her father Albertus Philippus Kapteyn (or Kapteijn) developed photographic film in his darkroom. Her mother, Geertruida (Truus) Agneta Kapteyn-Muysken, was involved in female emancipation and social-reform movements. In 1900, O. Fröbe-Kapteyn began studying at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich, excelling at sewing, embroidery, and jewelry-making. She studied history of art at the University of Zurich from 1906 to 1909.
In 1909, she married the flautist and conductor Iwan Fröbe. After a visit to Munich, the Fröbes spent time in Berlin with the philologist André Jolles, who had set up the Needle sewing circle in 1911. O. Fröbe-Kapteyn decorated the clothes that Jolles created, inspired by classical Greece, with exquisite embroidery. Widowed in 1915, she organized a cultural circle in Zurich, and in 1919–20 followed a course of natural treatment at the Monte Verità sanatorium in Ascona. In 1920, she moved to the Casa Gabriella in Ascona, where she spent a period of ‘concentration discipline’ during which, with her daughter as her sole companion, she devoted herself to the study of spirituality.

Her study of symbols was inspired by Ludwig Derleth, a poet and mystic associated with the Munich Cosmic Circle. In 1927, when she was working on a ‘geometrical drawing’, she had the idea of building a conference room. The drawing was one of a series of ‘meditation plates’ painted between 1926 and 1934. They were beautiful, but, according to the philosopher of religion Alfons Rosenberg, they gave an impression of ‘frightening coldness’. Their rigid geometry and complete lack of naturalism are reinforced by the choice of predominantly cold colours, with a basic dialectic between black (shade, negative, death) and gold (light, positive, life). The result is an abstractionism expressing a spirituality stripped of any corporality.
Following a collaboration with the Theosophist Alice Ann Bailey from 1928 to 1932, Fröbe-Kapteyn was ready to set up the Eranos group in 1933. Its name (Greek for ‘banquet’) was suggested to her by the historian of religion Rudolf Otto. The Eranos Conferences, which are still held today, have attracted many of the most influential scholars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In 1934, the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung commissioned Fröbe-Kapteyn to carry out iconographic research for his study of alchemy and archetypes. The thousands of symbolic images were to comprise the Eranos Archive for Research in Symbolism (donated to the Warburg Institute in the mid-1950s). Fröbe-Kapteyn’s inner work, based on the Jungian technique of ‘active imagination’, is documented in more than three hundred ‘visions’ that she painted between 1934 and 1938. Believing that ‘the deepest things in human life … can only be expressed in images’, she devoted the second half of her life to nurture her cultural enterprise, Eranos.

Fabio Merlini, Riccardo Bernardini

Translated from French by Thames & Hudson Ltd.

As published in Women in Abstraction © 2021 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London

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