Spiritualism and the Visual Arts

Massimo Introvigne

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SPIRITUALISM AND THE VISUAL ARTS TIMELINE

1814 (April 20):  Georgiana Houghton was born in Las Palmas, Canary Islands.

1824 (January 15):  Anna Mary Howitt (later Howitt-Watts) was born in Nottingham, England.

1832 (February 10):  David Duguid was born in Dunfermline, Scotland. 

1848 (March 31):  Spirit phenomena began in Hydesville, New York with the Fox Sisters, Kate (1836-1892), Margaret (1834-1893), and (later) Leah (1811-1890), the conventional date for the origins of Spiritualism, although mediums had been active before.

1853-1855:  Seances with productions of spirit art took place in the home of Victor Hugo in Jersey, Channel Islands.

1857:  Allan Kardec (pseudonym of Hippolyte Denizard Léon Rivail, 1804-1869), published The Book of the Spirits, the most influential textbook of the French version of Spiritualism, also known as “Spiritism.”

1862 (October 26):  Hilma af Klint was born in Stockholm, Sweden.

1870s:  Madame Helena Blavatsky and David Duguid both produced “precipitated” spirit paintings.

1871:  First exhibition of Georgiana Houghton in London, the only one organized during her lifetime.

1873 (April 7):  Constance Ethel Le Rossignol was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

1876:  The first edition of Hafed Prince of Persia by David Duguid, entirely illustrated with different kinds of spirit art, was published in London and Glasgow.

1876 (August 9):  Augustin Lesage was born in Saint-Pierre-lez-Auchel, Pas-de-Calais, France.

1879:  The Spiritualist community of Lily Dale, New York, was incorporated as the Cassadaga Lake Free Association.

1880-1889:  The village of Rosazza was built in Italy, with architectural plans reportedly transmitted by the spirits of Augustine of Hippo and an unnamed architect from Volterra, Tuscany.

1882 (January 19):  Madge Gill was born in Walthamstow, Waltham Forest, London.

1882-1883:  The journal Gallery of Spirit Art was published in Brooklyn, New York.

1884:  Georgiana Houghton died in Kensington, England.

1884 (July 23):  Anna Mary Howitt-Watts died in Dietenheim, Germany.

1884:  The Brazilian Spiritualist Federation (FEB) was founded in Brazil, the country where Spiritualism would eventually be most successful.

1890s:  Precipitated paintings by the Bang Sisters and the Campbell Brothers became nationally famous in the United States.

1896:  Castle Hasdeu was completed in Câmpina, Romania, based on architectural plans reportedly transmitted by the spirit of poet Julia Hasdeu.

1898 (June 15):  Azur, perhaps the most famous precipitated spirit painting, was produced in Lily Dale by Allen Campbell.

1900:  Swiss psychiatrist Theodore Flournoy published Des Indes à la planète Mars, collecting revelations and spirit art by medium Hélène Smith.

1907 (March 14):  David Duguid died (possibly in Glasgow).

1908 (August 23):  Anna Zemánková was born in Olomouc, present-day Czech Republic.

1911:  Wassily Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art, where he expressed his sympathy for Spiritualism.

1944 (October 21):  Hilma af Klint died in Djursholm, Sweden (Kandinsky and Mondrian also died in the same year).

1948:  Jean Dubuffet founded in Paris an association devoted to preserving and exhibiting “art brut” (later called in English “outsider art”), a category that came to include most manifestations of spirit art.

1954 (February 21):  Augustin Lesage died in Burbure, Pas-de-Calais, France.

1961 (January 28):  Madge Gill died in Leytonstone, Waltham Forest, London.

1970 (March):  Ethel Le Rossignol died in London.

1986 (January 15):  Anna Zemánková died in Prague.

1986:  Abstract paintings by Hilma af Klint were exhibited for the first time, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

2013:  The travelling exhibition Hilma af Klint – a Pioneer of Abstraction opened at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. It would subsequently travel to several European cities.

2016:  An exhibition at the London’s Courtauld Institute of Art consecrated the fame of Georgiana Houghton as a mainline artist.

VISUAL ARTS TEACHINGS/BELIEFS

For many years, art historians and critics have resisted the idea that Spiritualism and other occult doctrines and practices were influential on the birth and development of modern art. “The fact is (…) embarrassing,” wrote in 2010 a famous British art critic, Waldemar Januszczak. He referred primarily to Theosophy, but mentioned Spiritualism as well: “If there is one thing you do not want your hardcore modernist to be, it is a member of an occult cult […]. [This] takes art into Dan Brown territory. No serious student of art history wants to touch it” (Januszczak 2010).

Yet, six years later, the same critic visited an exhibition at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art consecrated to Spiritualist artist Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884), and his reaction was somewhat surprising. “Only rarely, commented Januszczak, in my time as an art reviewer have I felt as flabbergasted as I was by the watercolours of Georgiana Houghton. Her dates had me rubbing my eyes in disbelief. She did this when? Out of nowhere, like an unforeseen comet, a career has appeared in art that rewrites the whole story.” [Image at right] Rediscovering Houghton, Januszczak went on to write, is

“an event of tremendous art-historical significance. Not just because Houghton predates [Wassily] Kandinsky [1866-1944] and [Piet] Mondrian [1872-1944] by half a century, but because her motivation throws so much clear light on their motivation. All the famous pioneers of abstraction – Kandinsky, [Kazimir] Malevich [1878-1935], Mondrian – were spiritualists […]. But in all their cases, the occult aspect of their creativity has been actively suppressed in the canonical story of modern art. Potty spiritualist imaginings have never been allowed to disturb the smooth progress of progress. On this astonishing evidence, however, the potty spiritualist imaginings were the key ingredient” (Januszczak 2016).

The question of the influence of Spiritualism on modern art maintains, however, a certain ambiguity. A significant number of artists were inspired by Spiritualism, but only a few produced what Spiritualists define as “spirit art.” In turn, what “spirit art” exactly is, is not obvious. We can distinguish at least three different cases: “precipitated” works of arts; portraits of spirits painted by the hands of mediums during seances; and works produced by medium-artists who claim their hands are guided by spirits. Outside these three categories are works produced by artists under the influence of Spiritualist theories. These may be relevant for art history, but are not generally considered as “spirit art” by the Spiritualists themselves.

The first case of “spirit art” is “precipitation” of works of art that appear on canvas (or on paper, or on a slate), ostensibly without the use of human hands, during a Spiritualist seance. In this case, the mediums claim that the spirits produced the paintings directly, rather than by guiding the hands of a human artist.

A second category includes spirit portraits. In the heydays of Spiritualism, it became very common for mediums to sketch portraits of spirits they claimed were present during the seances, thus creating a second category of “spirit art.” These spirit portraits emerging during seances rarely became part of mainline art. However, the practice continues to this day.

Close to the second category of “spirit art” are “auragraphs,” which represent a person’s past, present, and potential as seen by a medium or clairvoyant. The name was coined, and the technique developed, by British medium Harold Sharp (1890-1980) with the help of his spirit guide, an Austrian monk called Brother Peter. Contemporary spirit artists, such as Susan Barnes (b. 1951) in the United States, do continue to produce auragraphs. [Image at right]

The third category of “spirit art” includes works of painting, sculpture, and architecture created, according to Spiritualists, by spirits guiding the hands of the artist. Spirits often reportedly guide the medium’s hands in the second category (spirit portraits) as well, but the difference with our third category is that in the latter, rather than portraits of the spirits themselves, different works of art are produced. I would not include in this category spirit photography in general, because for Spiritualists this is not art but an apologetic way to strengthen their claims: if spirits can be photographed, they exist. There were and are, however, artistic photographers that, in addition to photographing seances, are inspired by Spiritualism in their work. One classical example is Czech photographer František Drtikol (1883-1961), who was also interested in Theosophy and Buddhism. A contemporary case is American photographer Shannon Taggart (b. 1975), who also produced some of the more impressive photographs internationally of contemporary seances and mediums. [Image at right]

Coming back to paintings and (more rarely) sculptures, some distinguish between works of spirit art created in a trance (normally very rapidly), a semi-trance (as in the case of Sister Gertrude Morgan, 1900-1980, whose religious references went, however, beyond Spiritualism), or in full consciousness. It is in this third category that we find artists regarded by art historians as parts of the mainline history of art, such as Georgiana Houghton. Yet, Houghton maintained that, strictly speaking, she did not paint anything but was simply docile to the spirits of deceased painters who guided her hand.

Spirit art, particularly of the first and second category, has always been exposed to accusations of fraud. To this very day, “professional skeptics” try to prove the frauds behind precipitated art. Some mediums offered, as evidence that their spirit art was genuine, their astonishing speed in painting, often in the darkness. They included the British Elizabet d’Esperance (née Hope, 1855-1919), the German Heinrich Nüsslein (1879-1947), and the Polish Franek Kluski (pseud. of Teofil Modrzejewski, 1873-1943). Yet, their careers too were plagued by frequent allegations of fraud.

NOTABLE MEMBERS ARTISTS

af Klint, Hilma (1862-1944). Swedish painter.

Anderson, Wella Percy (1833-1900?), and Lizzie Pet (1839?-1896). The Andersons. American mediums and spirit painters.

Bang, Elizabeth (1859-1920), and May (Mary) Elvira (or Eunice) (1862-1917). The Bang Sisters. American mediums and spirit painters.

Barnes, Susan (b. 1951). American medium and spirit painter.

Blanchard, Elizabeth (ca. 1841-1876). American medium and “water spirit” artist.

Calkoen, Jacoba C. (1866-1944). Dutch medium and spirit painter.

Campbell, Allen (1833-1919), and Charles Shourds (1863-1926). The Campbell Brothers. American mediums and spirit painters.

Crépin, Fleury Joseph (1875-1948). French painter.

Davies, Ann Bridge. British medium and spirit painter.

Desmoulin, Fernand (1853-1914). French painter.

D’Esperance, Elizabeth (née Hope, 1855-1919). British medium and spirit painter.

Diss Debar, Ann Odelia (1849-1911?). American medium and spirit painter.

Duguid, David (1832-1907). British medium and spirit painter.

Ferraro, Francesca (b. 1966). Canadian medium and spirit painter.

Gasparetto, Luiz Antônio (b. 1949). Brazilian medium and spirit painter and sculptor.

Gill, Madge (1882-1961). British painter.

Houghton, Georgiana (1814-1884). British painter.

Howitt-Watts, Anna Mary (1824-1884). British painter.

Hugo, Victor (1802-1885). French novelist, occasional spirit painter.

Jayet, Aimable (1883-1953). French psychiatric patient and spirit painter.

Kluski, Franek (pseud. of Teofil Modrzejewski,1873-1943). Polish medium and spirit painter.

Kupka, František (1871-1957). Czech painter, a medium in his youth.

Leah, Frank (1886-1972). British medium and spirit painter.

Le Rossignol, Constance Ethel (1873-1970). British painter.

Lesage, Augustin (1876-1954). French painter.

Lonné, Raphaël (1910-1989). French painter.

Maffei, Giuseppe (1821-1901). Italian painter and architect.

Mansveld, Hendrix Cornelis (1874-1957). Dutch medium and spirit painter.

Medrado, José (b. 1961). Brazilian medium and spirit painter and sculptor.

Nüsslein, Heinrich (1879-1947). German spirit painter.

Pery, Alice Mary Theodosia (1833-1906). British painter.

Pigeon, Laure (1882-1965). French painter.

Polge, Coral (1924-2001). British medium and spirit painter.

Ryder, Coral (b. 1971). British medium and spirit painter.

Sardou, Victorien (1831-1908). French playwright and occasional spirit painter.

Sharp, Harold (1890-1980). British medium and spirit painter.

Simon, Victor (1903-1976). French medium and painter.

Smith, Hélène (pseud. of Catherine-Elise Müller, 1861-1929). Swiss medium and painter.

Tripier, Jeanne (1869-1944). French painter.

Tromelin, Gustave Le Goarant Conte de (1850-1920). French spirit painter.

van Bezouwen, Angelique (b. 1961). Dutch spirit painter.

Verwaal, Jan Huibreght (1889-1945?). Dutch spirit painter.

Zemánková, Anna (1908-1986). Czech painter.

MOVEMENT INFLUENCED NON-MEMBER ARTISTS

Abramović, Marina (b. 1946). Serbian performance artist.

Balla, Giacomo (1871-1958). Italian painter.

Borgman, Johan (1889-1976). Dutch painter.

Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna (1831-1891). Co-founder of the Theosophical Society, produced spirit paintings in her early career.

Burnat-Provins, Marguerite (1872-1952). French painter.

Čiurlionis, Mikalojus Konstantinas (1875-1911). Lithuanian composer and painter.

Dalí, Salvador (1904-1989). Spanish painter.

De Morgan, Evelyn (née Pickering, 1855-1919). British painter.

Drtikol, František (1883-1961). Czech photographer.

Dubuffet, Jean (1901-1985). French painter.

Echandi, Enrique (1866-1959). Costa Rican painter.

Fuller, George (1822-1884). American painter.

Henri, Robert (1865-1929). American painter.

Hosmer, Harriet (1830-1908). American sculptor.

Inness, George (1825-1894). American painter (primarily a Swedenborgian).

Kandinsky, Wassily (1866-1944). Russian painter.

Klee, Paul (1879-1940). Swiss-German artist.

Lane, Fitz Henry (1804-1865). American painter and printmaker.

Morgan, Sister Gertrude (1900-1980). American painter and religious activist.

Mount, William Sidney (1807-1868). American painter.

Munch, Edvard (1863-1944). Norwegian painter.

Powers, Hiram (1805-1873). American sculptor (primarily a Swedenborgian).

Randone, Francesco (1864-1935). Italian ceramist.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (1828-1882). British painter.

Ryder, Albert Pinkham (1847-1917). American painter.

Robertson, “Prophet” Royal (1936-1997). American painter.

Rol, Gustavo Adolfo (1903-1994). Italian psychic, produced some spirit paintings.

Šaloun, Ladislav Jan (1870-1946). Czech sculptor.

Stabrowski, Kazimierz (1869-1929). Polish painter (primarily a Theosophist).

Story, William Wetmore (1819-1895). American sculptor.

Taggart, Shannon (b. 1975). American photographer.

Váchal, Josef (1884-1969). Czech painter and printmaker.

Whistler, James Abbott McNeill (1834-1903). American painter.

INFLUENCE ON THE VISUAL ARTS

As mentioned in the “Visual Arts Teachings” section, “spirit art,” in a narrow sense, includes three categories. The first category is “precipitated” art. The first famous medium who was able to “precipitate” spirit paintings was Scottish cabinet-maker David Duguid (1832-1907). Although Duguid often painted with his hands guided by spirit painters, including Jan Steen (1626-1679) and Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682), his guides also produced “direct” (precipitated) works during his seances, including some that illustrated his 1876 spirit novel (that he introduced as an historical account), Hafed Prince of Persia (Duguid 1876). One problem with Duguid was that the spirits of Steen and Ruisdael were apparently not familiar with copyright laws. Several “direct” illustrations in the first edition of  Hafed were suspiciously similar to the popular Cassell’s Family Bible and had to be expunged from the second edition. [Image at right] For the believers, however, similarities with the Cassell’s Family Bible, in both the “direct” and the “guided” spirit paintings of Hafed, were not conclusive evidence of fraud. If one believed that the spirits were at work, they could well have operated with material they found in the mind of the medium, including reminiscences of the Cassell’s Family Bible.

Among the first mediums who specialized in precipitated paintings were the Campbell brothers, who lived in the Spiritualist community of Lily Dale, New York. Allen Campbell (1833-1919) and Charles Shourds (1863-1926) were not brothers, but lived and held seances together. Their self-introduction as “brothers” might have been intended to dispel rumors that they lived together as a homosexual couple, in a time when this would not have been tolerated. Their most famous portraits, including of Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865) and Napoleon (1769-1821), were done in public, with the Campbell brothers’ hands never touching the canvas. The Campbells’ masterpiece is believed to be a portrait of Allen’s spirit guide, Azul. It is a powerful painting, and to this day Lily Dale residents and visitors report spiritual experiences in front of it. [Image at right] Six witnesses in Lily Dale testified:

“During the entire séance [of June 15, 1898] there was light enough for us to see everything perfectly and note the gradual growth of the painting on the canvas. Mr. A. Campbell was entranced and Azur, using his organism, gave us some very beautiful words […] After some music, additional lights were brought, the curtain withdrawn, and lo! The picture was complete. […] While we were admiring it, there came at the back of the head a six-pointed star, which is now distinctly seen” (Nagy 2012:74-75).

Not less famous for precipitated spirit paintings were the Bang Sisters, Elizabeth (1859-1920) and May (Mary) Elvira (or Eunice, 1862-1917), who kept cottages both at Lily Dale and at Camp Chesterfield, Indiana. The Bang Sisters precipitated portraits of deceased persons. Both the Campbell Brothers and the Bang Sisters were repeatedly denounced as frauds, but vigorously defended by a significant portion of the American Spiritualist community. [Image at right]

Unfortunately, spirit paintings became also connected with the notorious “Swami Laura Horos,” a.k.a. Ann Odelia Diss Debar (1849-1911?), who claimed to be guided by the spirits of several European old masters and tried inter alia to manipulate the British secret society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Debar ended up in jail in 1901, sentenced to seven-year imprisonment both for fraud and for immoral sexual practices in her temple in London. Contemporary media labeled Debar as “the world’s worst woman,” which made precipitated spirit paintings especially suspect (Buescher 2014).

And yet witnesses attested that in the presence of somebody very different from Debar, famous Italian psychic Gustavo Adolfo Rol (1903-1994), a man who never accepted money for his seances and was famous for his charitable activities, “brushed moved by themselves” to paint, or previously controlled white sheets of paper displayed, without any human hand touching them, works signed by Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Georges Braque (1882-1963), or Kandinsky (Lugli 2008) – although Rol did not identify with the Spiritualist tradition and was not sure of what part of their “intelligent spirit” had produced the artwork (Bonfiglio 2003).

At the time of David Duguid, none other than Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), in the early phase of her career, was also busy precipitating spirit paintings. In his definitive 2001 study, John Patrick Deveney claimed that her productions were “in the dozens.” They included a portrait made in 1875 of the mysterious John King – who, Blavatsky later claimed, was one and the same with Theosophy’s Master Hilarion – [Image at right] and another, of 1877, of one “Tiruvalla Yogi” from “Ghost Land or the Land of the Living Brotherhood” (Deveney 2001:525-46). Although most of these works were “precipitated,” they may imply that the first of a long list of Theosophical painters was none other than Madame Blavatsky herself.

A second, different type of spirit paintings included portraits of the spirits the mediums saw during the séance. Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was a better writer than he was a painter, and the spirit painting he produced during seances held at his home in Jersey, Channel Islands, in 1853-1855 (and possibly later) are hard to decipher (Audinet, Godeau, Viau, Evrard and Méheust 2012). Other mediums, however, produced better results. They included friends of the same Hugo, such as the well-known playwright Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) and Gustave Le Goarant, Conte de Tromelin (1850-1920).

At the time of Hugo, those who sought portraits of their deceased loved ones in the United States fueled a flourishing Spiritualist market. Prominent there was the couple of Wella Percy (1833-1900?) and Lizzie Pet Anderson (1839?-1896), partners in life and Spiritualism, although they divorced in 1875. The Andersons did more than paint deceased spouses and children for wealthy clients. They channeled and painted masters of wisdom such as Confucius (551-479 BCE), the legendary Masonic ancestor Hiram Habiff, [Image at right] and members of “a band of Old Atlantis.” They were promoted by Gallery of Spirit Art, a journal published in Brooklyn in 1882-1883 and entirely devoted to paintings produced with the help of the spirits (Winchester 1882:1-3). 

Spirit portraits emerging during seances remain a feature of contemporary Spiritualist scene, and a very moving practice for those who believe they recognize there their deceased loved ones. In Lily Dale, spirit portraits are produced by the medium Susan Barnes. Internationally, famous in this field were British spirit artists Frank Leah (1886-1972) and Coral Polge (1924-2001). The tradition is continued by several hundred spirit painters. Renowned for the quality of their paintings are Coral Ryder (b. 1971) and Ann Bridge Davies in Britain, Francesca Ferraro (b. 1966) in Canada, and Angelique van Bezouwen (b. 1961) in the Netherlands.

The third category includes paintings (normally others than portraits) produced by artists who claim that spirits guide their hands. Within Brazilian Spiritualism, trance artists often channel famous painters and sculptors, and produce works in their style at surprising speed. José Medrado (b. 1961), of the Cidade da Luz, channels, inter alia, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917). When channeling Degas, Medrado produces both paintings and sculptures. As famous as Medrado in Brazil is Luiz Antônio Gasparetto (b. 1949), who paints and sculpts with his hands guided by Degas, Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), and many other famous artists. In Italy, the painting activities of Oberto Airaudi (1950-2013), the founder of the community of Damanhur and a well-known painter, are continued after his death by mediums whose hands are guided by his spirit (Zoccatelli 2017).

Brazilian mediums produce spirit sculptures in addition to spirit paintings. Spirit architecture also exists. Iulia Hasdeu (1869-1888), a young Romanian poet who died at age eighteen, revealed through mediums to her famous father, philologist Boian P. Hasdeu (1838-1907), the architectural plans for her grave in Bucharest and the famous “Castle Hasdeu” in Câmpina, completed in 1896. [Image at right] Another example of spirit architecture is the Italian village of Rosazza, near Biella, built between 1880 and 1899 for Italian senator and Freemason, Federico Rosazza (1813-1899), by painter Giuseppe Maffei (1821-1901). It was based on plans he received from the spirits of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who was never an architect in his life, and an unnamed man from Volterra, Tuscany, who, not surprisingly, recommended to introduce architectural elements from his home city.

Degas is crucial for the history of art, Degas “as channeled by Medrado (or Gasparetto)” for the art historian is just a curiosity. Other artists who claimed to work with their hands guided by the spirits, however, produced highly original paintings. Initially, they were studied only under the category of “outsider art” or “art brut” (a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet, 1901-1985, who was greatly influenced by spirit art), which also included work by street artists and psychiatric patients. Sometimes, spirit artists were psychiatric patients, such as the French butcher Aimable Jayet (1883-1953) and the Swiss medium, Hélène Smith (Catherine-Elise Müller, 1861-1929), who also painted visions of the Planet Mars and was studied by psychiatrist Théodore Flournoy (1854-1920: Flournoy 1900).

However, “outsider art” is a contested category (Wojcik 2016). Critics also tend to slowly recognize “outsider” artists as part of “mainline” art history, not to mention the high prices their works command at auctions. This is the case of British artist Madge Gill (1882-1961) who, with hands guided by the spirit Myrninerest (My Inner Rest), created thousands of postcard-size ornate drawings, [Image at right] and some huge works on calico. Myrninerest also inspires today the British singer, David Tibet, who has published in 2013 a book devoted to the spirit and Madge Gill (Tibet and Boxer 2013).

Outsider art specialists hail Augustin Lesage (1876-1954), a French coal miner, as a leading Spiritualist painter, “abandoning himself completely to the directing hands of his spirit guides in a euphoric state” (Wojcik 2013:102). Indeed, France produced a number of spirit artists normally included in the category of “outsider art”, from Jeanne Tripier (1869-1944), Fleury Joseph Crépin (1875-1948), and Victor Simon (1903-1976) to Laure Pigeon (1882-1965) and Raphaël Lonné (1910-1989). Fernand Desmoulin (1853-1914) was a different case: a respected academic painter, between 1900 and 1902, he produced a series of spirit drawings, signed with the names of the spirits (or with the different names of the same spirit) he believed were guiding his hands, “The Teacher,” “Your Old Master,” and “Astarte.” The hallucinatory drawings by Marguerite Burnat-Provins (1872-1952), otherwise a quiet writer and painter of rural landscapes, are often classified as “mediumistic” art, but she did not really attribute them to the spirits (Le Maléfan 2011).

An example of the perils and ambiguities of the category of outsider art, as applied to artists guided by spirits, is the respected Czech painter, Anna Zemánková (1908-1986). As her works command increasingly significant prices, merchants may try to downplay her Spiritualist side, although she maintained that her works “painted themselves,” as the spirits guided her (Šimková and Zemánková 2017). [Image at right] At the other extreme, we found little studied spirit artists, with almost no market. Utrecht’s foundation Het Johan Borgman Fonds performs a remarkable work in preserving paintings by lesser known Dutch spirit artists, some of them artistically interesting, such as Jan Huibreght Verwaal (1889-1945?), Hendrix Cornelis Mansveld (1874-1957), and Jacoba C. Calkoen (1866-1944). The Dutch foundation exists thanks to a grant by a more fortunate artist, Johan Borgman (1889-1976), who was not a spirit artist but was deeply influenced by Spiritualism (Kramer 2015).

Parallel genres with respect to spirit art, which deserve a separate study, come from telepathic or trance contacts with beings who are believed to be alive rather than dead: Masters, who according to Theosophy are living (if very old) human beings dwelling in secret places in Tibet or elsewhere, and aliens. Blavatsky herself promoted “Master painting,” where Theosophical artists were guided by the Masters just as Spiritualist artists were guided by the spirits. The same is true for aliens who, for example, inspired a significant part of the work of another leading American outsider artist, “Prophet” Royal Robertson (1936-1997).

In Britain, art historians, with a little help from scholars of Western esotericism such as Marco Pasi (see Grant, Larsen and Pasi 2016),  started noticing recently that some spirit-guided painters, all female, played an important role in the birth of European modern art and cannot be simply regarded as “outsider artists.” The 2007 Ph.D. dissertation at Yale by Rachel Oberter on Victorian Spiritualist artists singled out Georgiana Houghton and Anna Mary Howitt-Watts (1824-1884: Oberter 2007). Subsequent exhibitions included in this mainstreaming process Constance Ethel Le Rossignol (1873-1970). Howitt-Watts’s (or her spirits’) promising career was cut short by mental illness. Ethel Le Rossignol painted only forty-four works, and always insisted their real author was the spirit “J.P.F.” Their meaning was explained in her large format self-published 1933 book, A Goodly Company (Le Rossignol 1933). Her fantastic, idiosyncratic style confined her in an artistic niche. [Image at right]

Another name should perhaps be added: Alice Mary Theodosia Pery (1833-1906), a member of a prominent British aristocratic family, who never signed her works but was known to, and influential on, Georgiana Houghton (and possibly Madge Gill). She claimed that spirits quickly produced lines, oval, circles, and other curved lines through her hands, and she then filled the empty spaces with her own artistic skills. Another friend of Houghton was the medium from Minnesota, Elizabeth Blanchard (ca. 1841-1876), known for her unique gift of creating ephemeral “water pictures” (but some photographs do survive). Bowls of rainwater were agitated by Blanchard with her fingers, and one or more faces appeared, and remained in the sediment. Houghton compared these faces to works by Pery (Houghton 1876).

Georgiana Houghton was a medium who claimed that, when painting, her hands were fully controlled by her guides, including an otherwise unknown “deaf and dumb” deceased painter called Henry Lenny and the great Correggio (1489-1534). Her self-financed show in London in 1871 did attract some notice, although later she was forgotten. Houghton insisted that her The Eye of God (ca. 1862), a masterpiece and a significant painting in the prehistory of abstract art, was actually painted by Correggio. [Image at right] Apparently, the Italian Renaissance master had very much changed his style in the spirit world. On the other hand, although it may be amusing to hear a (former?) nemesis of spiritualist-esoteric art such as Januszczak proclaiming that Houghton invented abstract art before Kandinsky, and even action painting before Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) (Januszczak 2016), all this should perhaps not be exaggerated. Some of Houghton’s paintings, such as The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ (1862), actually combine surprisingly modern combinations of lines and colors with traditional Christian and Spiritualist imagery.

Oberter and Pasi (Oberter 2007; Pasi 2015) noticed the similarity between the careers, and late recognition, of Houghton and Swedish painter Hilma af Klint (1862-1944). The role of af Klint as another pioneer of abstract art is now increasingly recognized. Af Klint was instructed by five different spirit guides, although how exactly they guided her work is a matter of debate. She was also a member of the Theosophical Society and, later, of the Anthroposophical Society (Pasi 2015).

As Pasi noted, perhaps we should not really date back abstract art from Kandinsky to af Klint or Houghton, because they did not offer a theory of abstraction, while Kandinsky did (Pasi 2015:103-04). Additionally, the work of the two Spiritualist painters, unlike Kandinsky’s, was not generally known to contemporary artists, in the case of af Klint deliberately so, since she asked that her abstract paintings should not be exhibited before twenty years had passed from her death, and in fact they were featured in exhibitions only in the 1980s. [Image at right]

But what about Kandinsky’s own relationships with Spiritualism? He did refer to Spiritualism in his notebooks and his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), and performed parapsychological experiments, including psychic lifting of tables and telepathic communications from Munich with friends in Russia (Washton 1968:140-41). He hailed defenders of Spiritualism, such as German scientist Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner (1834-1882), as brave men maligned by the prevailing academic materialism (Ringbom 1970:50-51).

The influence of Theosophy on Kandinsky (and on a great deal of other modern art luminaries, including Mondrian, Lawren Harris, 1885-1970, Malevich, and Giacomo Balla, 1871-1958, to mention only a few) is now generally acknowledged. Unlike Mondrian and Harris, Kandinsky was not a card-carrying member of the Theosophical Society. Nor was he a spirit artist. However, he attended lectures by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) and, when the latter saw his paintings, he asked: “He can do things and he knows things. Is he clairvoyant?” (Ringbom 1970:70).

It would be easy to present a laundry list of modern artists interested in Spiritualism, with several hundred names. But not in all cases participating in seances, or reading books about Spiritualism, really influenced their art. In 2011, American historian Charles Colbert listed a number of American artists on which, he argued, the influence of Spiritualism was important, including painters Fitz Henry Lane (1804-1865), William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), George Fuller (1822-1884), George Inness (1825-1894), Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), and Robert Henri (1865-1929), and sculptors Hiram Powers (1805-1873), William Wetmore Story (1819-1895), and Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) (Colbert 2011). Colbert’s list is persuasive, but these nineteenth century American artists were exposed to multiple religious influences. Inness and Powers were primarily Swedenborgians, and the influence of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) on their art was more important than Spiritualism’s.

A special case among American painters is James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who spent most of his life in London and was influenced by the British Pre-Raphaelites. Not only are Whistler’s interests in Spiritualism well documented (Keshavjee 2013), but he was part of a “Swedenborgian-Spiritualist” milieu of London, which was greatly influential on the Pre-Raphaelites, including on the main founder of the movement, painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). As Anna Francesca Maddison demonstrated in her 2013 doctoral dissertation, at the center of this network of Swedenborgians and Spiritualists in London was Sophia de Morgan (1809-1892), mother of potter William de Morgan (1839-1917), whose wife Evelyn (1855-1919), a Spiritualist (Lawton Smith 2002), is something referred to as the last Pre-Raphaelite painter (Maddison 2013).

Another important Spiritualist circle operated in Prague in the home of Czech sculptor Ladislav Ian Šaloun (1870-1946). The artist most influenced by these seances was probably painter and printmaker Josef Váchal (1884-1969) (Urban 2014:255), who returned often to Spiritualist themes in his career, although he was also a member of the Theosophical Society. [Image at right] And it is perhaps more than a curiosity than Czech painter František Kupka (1871-1957), who went from Theosophy-inspired paintings such as The Way of Silence (1900-1903) to creating some of the earliest abstract masterpieces, including Amorpha (1912), started gaining his life as a Spiritualist medium (Mládek 2011).

Kupka is a key link in the passage from symbolism (although this is now a contested category in art history) to abstract art. Another is Lithuanian painter and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911). He also attended Spiritualist seances in the meetings of the occult group in Warsaw led by his mentor, Kazimierz Stabrowski (1869-1929) (Kazokas 2009:54), in turn a prominent symbolist artist and a Theosophist (and, later, Anthroposophist) (Hess and Dulska 2017). Other notable artists, including Norwegian painter Edward Munch (1863-1944) encountered Spiritualist circles in the rich occult subculture of Munich, Germany (Faxneld 2015), and similar milieus, attractive to artists, existed in Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, as well as in Eastern Europe and Latin America, where, to give only one example, one of Costa Rica’s national painters, Enrique Echandi (1866-1959), became the president of the leading local Spiritualist group, the Centro Espiritista Claros de Luna (Zavaleta Ochoa 2004:100). [Image at right] Italian Futurists were inspired by spirit photographs (Cigliana 2002), and some, including prominent painter Giacomo Balla (Balla 1984, 387), attended Spiritualist seances, some of them organized by the distinguished Roman ceramist, Francesco Randone (1864-1935) (see Matitti 2014:55-57).

Although their influence should not be exaggerated, the fathers of abstract art were somewhat influenced by Thought Forms by Theosophical leaders Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater (Besant and Leadbeater 1905) and by Leadbeater’s Man Visible and Invisible (Leadbeater 1902).The latter volume’s illustrations had been clairvoyantly produced by the Lithuanian Theosophist, Count Maurycy Prozor (1849-1928), and both books included the artistic results of psychics “seeing” emotions and feelings, which again had obvious similarities with spirit art.

For other artists and currents, the jury is still out. Some have noticed Spiritualist influences on Swiss-German artist, Paul Klee (1879-1940), but he consistently denied any involvement in the occult (Ringbom 1977). Specially interesting is the case of the Surrealists. They produced poems (“automatic writing”) and paintings (“automatic drawing”) without being conscious of what the outcome would be, in altered states of consciousness induced through various techniques. However, although the process was similar to spirit art, Surrealists vehemently denied that spirits had anything to do with their “automatic” works, and some even expressed their hostility to Spiritualism. Several of them were self-proclaimed atheists and Marxists, including the movement’s founder André Breton (1896-1966), and they insisted that the Freudian unconscious was solely responsible for what both the Surrealists and the spirit artists were “automatically” producing (Bauduin 2014). Spiritualists, however, maintained that some Surrealists were really producing spirit art without knowing it. They were victims of their own materialist prejudices, and attributed to the unconscious works whose real authors were the spirits. Be it as it may be, Surrealists were aware of, and influenced by, spirit art. A case in point was Spanish artist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). With typical Daliesque hyperbole, he claimed that “there is more spirituality in spirit art than all the work at Sistine Chapel” (Lafayette 2015:214).

Leading contemporary artists continue to interact with Spiritualism. Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović (b. 1946) became herself a medium under the guidance of celebrated Brazilian medium-healer, John of God (b. 1942), and incorporated in her work Spiritualist themes, as well as others derived from Afro-American and aboriginal Australian religions (Pešić 2017). These were mistaken for Satanism by evangelical and fundamentalist American critics during the 2016 American presidential campaign. As some of her friends were close to Hillary Clinton, this led to accusation of Satanism against the Democratic candidate (see Introvigne 2016). While this incident shows how associating with Spiritualism may still expose artists to criticism and slander, the relationship goes on, and several other examples could have been easily added to our list.

In conclusion, we can perhaps agree with Januszczak (2016) that Houghton (and af Klint, and otherSpiritualist artists) not only, in their own way, anticipated Kandinsky and Mondrian [Image at right] but also helped historians notice how Spiritualism, and the occult milieu in general, were important to these masters’ understanding of modern art. The situation has indeed changed in recent years, and several art critics would now recognize the role of Spiritualism in the journey leading to modern abstract art. But not all of them. In 2017, the Guggenheim Museum organized in New York an exhibition of artists associated with the nineteenth-century Salons de la Rose+Croix in Paris, many of whom had some interest in Spiritualism. One New York Times critic called their art “tasteless” and “nauseating” (Farago 2017), precisely because of its association with “sordid” occult themes, a clear evidence that not all critics have been persuaded.

This position, however, is gradually losing momentum among art historians, and was of course never popular among scholars of Western esotericism. For the latter, Spiritualists caught “in the air,” before others, ideas whose time was coming. For believers, perhaps, the spirits presided at the transition towards a different art, more attuned to modern times.

IMAGES**
**All images are clickable links to enlarged representations.

Image #1: Georgiana Houghton, Flower of Catherine Emily Stringer, 1866.
Image #2: Auragraph by Susan Barnes.
Image #3: Shannon Taggart, Woman said to be channeling her doppelgänger in Lily Dale, New York.
Image #4: David Duguid’s precipitated illustration in Hafed Prince of Persia (right) compared to an image in the Cassell’s Family Bible (left).
Image #5: Allen Campbell, Azur (precipitated painting), 1898.
Image #6: Portrait of an unknown woman, precipitated painting by the Bang Sisters.
Image #7: Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, John King (precipitated painting), 1875.
Image #8: The Andersons, Hiram Abiff (precipitated painting), ca. 1882-1883.
Image #9: Castle Hasdeu, Câmpina, Romania.
Image #10: Spirit art featuring the spirit Myrninerest by Madge Gill.
Image #11: Flower compositions by Anna Zemánková.
Image #12: Constance Ethel Le Rossignol, detail from The Goodly Company series, 1920-1933.
Image # 13: Georgiana Houghton, The Eye of God, ca. 1862.
Image #14: Hilma af Klint, Group IV, The Ten Largest: Adulthood, 1907.
Image # 15: Josef Váchal, Séance, 1907.
Image #16: Enrique Echandi, Medusa with Laurel Wreath, 1901.
Image #17: Hilma af Klint, Evolution, No. 15, Group IV, The Seven-pointed Stars, 1908.

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Post Date:
2 August 2017

 

 

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