Women and Spiritualism in Art

In 2019, the Guggenheim announced that Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future, the solo show of the famed non-objective artist from Sweden, was its most popular exhibition of all time. Psychedelic in color scheme and enigmatic in their arrangement of shapes, her works expressed her exploration of spiritualism and Theosophy, two increasingly popular philosophies in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Lesser known, perhaps, is the spiritual story of the Guggenheim itself. In 1939, Hilla Rebay, a German artist and baroness, became the director of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, the precursor to what would eventually become the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Believing non-objectivity, a typically geometric art with spiritual components, to be the religion of the future, Rebay wanted the now-iconic museum to carry a sense of spirit.

In The Other Side: A Story of Women in Art and the Spirit World (2024), author Jennifer Higgie captures the scene:

“For its inaugural exhibition, alongside abstract artworks, the baroness burned incense and played music by Bach and Beethoven; the art critic for The New York Times described it as ‘an esoteric, occult place in which a mystic language was spoken.’ Rebay dreamed of a ‘museum-temple’ filled with abstract art and in 1943, she found the architect who could turn her vision into a reality: Frank Lloyd Wright. She told him she was seeking ‘a lover of space, a fighter, and originator’ and he rose to the challenge…”

Cover Image The Other Side

Indeed, visiting the Guggenheim is like climbing a spiral into the heavens, with a cavernous middle reminiscent of the awe-inspiring towers of cathedrals, mosques, and temples. 

Spiritualism — the belief that we can communicate with the dead — lies at the heart of Higgie’s book, which she vividly introduces with her fascination with Strange Things Among Us, a London exhibition held at the College of Psychic Studies in 2021. It featured six floors of objects like spirit photography, Ouija boards, and psychic drawings. “To trust in art is to trust in mystery,” Higgie writes. “Across the globe, the spirit world has shaped culture for millennia … art itself is a form of alchemy — the transformation of one thing (an idea, a material) into another. It is in its nature to be allusive rather than literal, to deal in association, symbol and encryption, to honour intuition and imagination over reason — all of this chimes with much magical practice.”

The book lands at an important time in the evolving history of spirituality and art. As Lisa Slominski wrote in Hyperallergic last year, spiritual art is back. Spiritualism emerged during a time of considerable turmoil in the late 19th century, growing increasingly popular in the face of global war, a pandemic, and rising migration — all themes resonant today. And as I wrote a few months ago, artists in cities like Los Angeles are innovating at the intersection of mysticism and social justice.

17 Hilla Rebay
John Covert, Portrait of Hilla Rebay in her Munich studio (c. 1911)

While men in the art world like Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian have received considerable attention for their spiritualist influences, Higgie’s book hones in on the many women whose works have likewise explored spiritual dimensions, sometimes to greater consequences than their male counterparts. “In the Cards” is an entire chapter devoted to Tarot, the cartomancy tool that has become a significantly popular medium for artists today, with a look at Pamela Colman Smith, who illustrated the highly influential Rider–Waite–Smith deck; Niki de Saint Phalle, whose psychedelic sculptures came to life in the Giardino dei Tarocchi (Tarot Garden); and a deck of Higgie’s own design (which I also happen to own). 

T02140 H
Ithell Colquhoun, “Scylla” (1938)

In “The Vibrations of Different Souls,” she delves into experimental filmmaker Maya Deren’s trilogy of films inspired by Greek and Roman myth that probe the dream world and magic through double exposure and slow motion. In 1943, Deren shot Marcel Duchamp in “The Witch’s Cradle,” a 10-minute unfinished short film that features an unnamed woman in a nightgown that recalls a ghost or spirit. Both the woman, played by Pajorita Matta, and Duchamp appear in a gallery of works by Surrealists, whom Deren describes as “feudal magicians and witches,” as quoted by Higgie. They were, Deren writes, “concerned with the defiance of normal time (mainly projection into the past and divination of the future) and with normal space (disappearance one place and appearance another, or the familiar broomstick).”

Where The Other Side disappoints is in its limited examination of Indigenous and non-Western modes of spirituality that influence contemporary art. Higgie gives nods to artists like Portia Zvavahera, a Zimbabwean painter who works with her grandmother’s dreams, and Lubaina Himid, who reimagines myth in the context of race. But I wanted more here on the context of spiritualism and the work of women artists working in global and racialized contexts, from Mayumi Oda’s Buddhist-inspired work to Firelei Báez’s exploration of mythical beings in Native Caribbean belief to Marina Abramovic’s own deep dives into global spiritual practices from those of her grandmother to Buddhism to Ayahuasca in Brazil. While it’s true that non-objectivity, spiritualism, and Theosophy emerged in times of turmoil, they also emerged in the context of long-standing views around tree spirits, goddesses, bodhisattvas, dakinis, djinns, and other spiritual beings that continue to shape contemporary art.

On the other hand, the book’s strength is in naming, examining, and historicizing what is so often under-discussed in art, especially art by women. Those transcendental experiences we can have with powerful works of art are by design: The spirit world is alive and well amongst the most influential women artists of the past century, whether that’s the abstractions of af Klint or the Surrealism of Leonora Carrington or the symbolism of de Saint Phalle. It’s imbued in the architecture of the temples of art, like the Guggenheim Museum. It’s alive in Tarot cards and spiritual photography and even nature itself.

Some of the most vivid passages of the book tie Higgie’s experiences with the pandemic and traveling to the Greek island of Amorgos, home to many myths and legends. In one poignant reflection, she visits a Greek Orthodox church to light a candle for her deceased father and looks around at the vista: “Traversing this rocky landscape, its harshness softened by spiky, geometric flowers and bushes, I am, once again, astounded at my ignorance about the meanings contained in the Earth I inhabit, the air I’m breathing, and the history that pulsates from every rock.”

The Other Side: A Story of Women in Art and the Spirit World (2024) by Jennifer Higgie is published by Pegasus Books and available online and in bookstores.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top