Monday 12 August 2019

Mediumistic and Visionary Art in London

Art and Spirit: Visions of Wonder, currently showing at The College of Psychic Studies, London is a rare opportunity to see a rich selection of mediumistic and visionary art by more than a hundred artists, in surroundings devoted to esoteric pursuits.

Installation view of 'Inner and Outer Spaces', with works by Ionel Talpazan and Alex Grey

Spiritualists and mediums produced some of the first abstract art in the last half of the nineteenth century. The College of Psychic Studies has some very fine examples in its collection, perhaps most notably work by British artist and spiritualist, Georgina Houghton (1814-1884), which prefigured modernist abstraction by three decades.

Spirit drawing by Georgina Houghton

She is joined in Art and Spirit: Visions of Wonder by an excellent selection of artists for whom psychological operations provide the primary creative impulse. Works from the College’s own collection form the core of the exhibition, including other early mediumistic images by the likes of Victorien Sardou and Alice Essington. These are further enriched by loans from institutional and private collections, such as a hauntingly mysterious drawing by Madame Favre.

Alice Essington, Showing the Influence of Osiris, 1895

Madame Favre, Untitled, 1860 (lent by Henry Boxer Gallery)

Flowing, serpentine line and an often densely packed and shallow picture space are common features of much of the work, including a fine selection of work by a number of anonymous twentieth-century artists. There are two really beautiful and impactful drawings by an artist known only as E. W. and on an adjacent wall are similarly arresting abstractions by Zinnia Nishikawa and Jan Steene. In the same room there is a really fine example of the work of Czech visionary, Anna Zemankova, and in another space, sublime contemporary drawings by the French artist, Margot. 

Top: Zinnia Nishikawa
Bottom: Jan Steene

Another common thread in spirit inspired art is a tendency for human faces and sometimes figures to emerge from a mass of abstract or vegetal form - a revelation of the animistic sensibility, perhaps. This is particularly effective in automatic drawings by Madge Gill, Cecilie Marková and Ethel Annie Weir, all of whom believed their images to be channelled through spirit guides.

Cecilie Marková

Located at the heart of the museum district in London’s South Kensington, The College of Psychic Studies describes itself as ‘a focus for personal enquiry and a training centre for mediumship, healing and a myriad of other esoteric subjects.’ It was founded in 1884 and boasts Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a past president. The College has transformed itself this week into a gallery and opened its doors for ten days only for this exhibition. Curated by Vivienne Roberts and Gill Matini, it presents a rich visual offering of art, documentation and artefacts related to the College’s history and mission. The exhibition proper is spread over five of the six floors of a neat, Victorian townhouse, divided into thirteen loosely themed sections that correspond to discreet rooms in the building. However, art of one type or other fills almost every available space, in corridors, stairwells and next to the elevator (there are two really beautiful woven works by Ariadne, for example, hung high on a corridor on the third floor) and there is no obvious intended viewing route. There is no catalogue as such, and with more than 500 objects included, I found myself wondering where the curated show ended before deciding to take the holistic approach, assuming that even if some of these items were permanent features on display at the College, everything here was interconnected and relevant.

I have to declare a bias at this point. My interest is primarily in the marvellous visionary and mediumistic artworks included here. I found myself spending most of time in the sections devoted to these types of work, ‘The Home Circle’, ‘The Guided Hand’, ‘The Art and Spirit of Madge Gill’, and ‘Inner and Outer Spaces’, which, in addition to Margot's drawings, contains five standout, signature UFO pictures by Ionel Talpazan.

Other rooms housed more figurative visionary works, ranging from the Art Deco fantasies of Ethel Le Rossignol, created under the guidance of a spirit known as J.P.F., to an interesting series of naïve paintings by Ljerka Cairn, and powerful visionary drawings by Donald Pass.

Ethel Le Rossignol, from the series 'A Goodly Company', 1920-1933

Ljerka Cairn

The spiritualist interest in manifesting images of the departed is explored in two sections. ‘Spirit Photography’ presents a rich selection of examples of a genre originating in the early years of photography, which purported to show otherwise invisible spirit presence caught in the chemical alchemy of exposing a glass plate or film, and taking advantage of the ‘objective’ nature of photography as a recording device. After numerous accusations of fraud, spirit photography declined around the 1930s and was replaced by hand-drawn spirit portraiture, to which another section of the show is devoted. This consists of images of faces of the departed, revealed through the mediumistic hand. The remainder of the exhibition consists of portrait paintings and photographs of worthy psychics, largely in the ‘Pioneering Spirits’ section, and the paraphernalia of their vocation, distributed through several of the rooms, most notably on the second floor, in the sections ‘The Occultists’ and ‘The Darkened Room’. These give valuable context and certainly set the scene for visitors, pointing to both the history and continued vitality of the College. They are also a reminder of the psychological alibi that underpins all of the other art on show.

The exhibition is open for a tantalisingly short period (courses resume at the College on 21 August), which means that visitors will have to prioritise it. And it is well worth seeing. A tremendous amount of commendable work has been put into its realisation by the curatorial team for what is the largest exhibition in the College's history.

Art and Spirit: Visions of Wonder is at The College of Psychic Studies,
16 Queensbury Place, London, SW7 2EB
11 -20 August, 2019, 11am - 6pm

No comments: