27.9.11

ART AND THE OCCULT

Charles Colbert. Haunted Visions; Spiritualism and American Art. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker and Gian Casper Bott (Eds.). Séance; Albert von Keller and the Occult. University of Washington Press/Frye Art Museum. 2011.

In 1855 the American artist William Sidney Mount received two letters from another artist, encouraging him in his work, and giving advice as to the manner in which his paintings should develop. Although critical of the “sameness of design” in some of Mount’s paintings he acknowledged the originality of much else of his work. The writer warned Mount that he could see “no merit in the groupings of works of the masters which appear artificial and savour too much of theatrical display” and that the artist should draw inspiration from nature alone.

All good advice for any artist, and all the more authoritative coming from such a great artist as Rembrandt, who was able to send this message to Mount despite having died 190 years earlier. The letters were produced by automatic writing at a Spiritualist séance, and handed to Mount, although much of their contents suggests they were written by Mount himself.

The idea that Rembrandt was guiding contemporary artists did not seem to be particularly strange in much of the artistic community in mid-nineteenth-century America. The art journal The Crayon, reviewing one of Mount’s works commented that it “exhibited a clearness of tone that is due to hints furnished by Rembrandt from the Spirit world”.

The spirit world, Spiritualism and occultism, as this book shows, played a major part in the thinking of America artists of this era. It is difficult to realise now, but at the time such concepts as phrenology and psychometry were not only part of mainstream thinking, but were seen as ‘scientific’ and ‘progressive’. Phrenology implied that the brain could be studied objectively, without reliance on metaphysical concepts, and appealed to Spiritualists as it confirmed their belief in the integration of soul and body.

The sculptor Hiram Powers used the ideas of phrenology in creating a series of portrait busts and allegorical sculptures which expressed the sitter’s or the subject’s character. One sitter asked Powers to arrange the hair on her image so that her phrenonological characteristics could be more easily seen.

Powers’ sculptures, and those of a number of his contemporaries, in their white plaster or marble purity, were often displayed in domestic settings as a form of family altar. Even the allegorical sculptures, which did not depict any individual, would be chosen by a family because they expressed the perceived character of a dead relative. Often they would be covered by a thin gauze material, to protect them from dust and fly-specks, but also to symbolise a spirit who had departed ‘beyond the veil’.

Although none of the painters discussed in this volume created images which were direct representations of ‘psychic’ or spiritualist activities, artists such as Rembrandt’s protégé Sidney Mount and George Innes, painted landscapes which were imbued with a quality of light that seems inspired by Spiritualist concepts of ‘ether’, turning depictions of farmhouses on Long Island or New England harbours into images of the ‘Summerland’.

Behind all of this was the evolution of the idea of the sculpture or painting as an object containing special powers and qualities in itself, which were made manifest to the viewer by a process of ‘psychometry’. Simply being in the presence of a painting would affect the viewer spiritually. Colbert suggest that this idea was instrumental in changing the gallery from a place where a collector would display their wealth and/or artistic sensitivity, to a place where the actual presence of art created a quasi-religious aura.

This was a change in attitude which is still apparent today, where visitors sit in silent contemplation of artworks, and the gallery has become a form of temple, and is illustrated in this book by a painting by William Rimmer (no relation, as far as I know) showing an aesthetically-dressed young woman in a cluttered Victorian drawing-room standing contemplating in apparent rapture, an elaborately framed painting.

The Spiritualist, and Swedenborgian, believed that by creating a work of art, the artist was also creating a sacred artefact. Colbert describes this as a challenge, and reaction, to, an increasingly Positivist and Darwinian era. It was also a reaction to the earlier Utilitarian and Puritan dismissal of art as a sign of idleness and triviality.

Although the subject of this book may seem a particularly obscure byway of art history, the legacy of the ‘spiritualisation’ of art is all around us today, from the pure colour of the abstract design of a modern church stained-glass window, to the use of sculptures as a way to ‘humanise’ an otherwise bleak shopping precinct.

Although none of the painters discussed in Colbert’s book produced images depicting Spiritualist or parapsychological phenomena, this is not the case with Albert von Keller. Keller (the ‘von’ was a title bestowed in 1897) was born in 1844, in Switzerland, but two months after his birth he moved with his mother to Bavaria. In 1854 they settled in Munich, where in 1863 he began studying law, but after three years left to pursue drawing at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, and began exhibiting at major galleries and exhibitions.

His interest in parapsychology was demonstrated when he joined the Munich Psychologische Gesellschaft, which included parapsychologists and a number of other influential artists in its membership. He began to participate in séances held by the Society, and became fascinated by hypnotic states, trance and mediumship.

Much of his art consisted of society studio portraits, in a loose, almost impressionistic style, but his fascination with the paranormal also found visual expression in his paintings. He became a friend of the noted parapsychologist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, and many of his paintings depicted incidents from Schrenck-Notzing’s séances with mediums and hypnotic subjects.

Some critics claimed that his interest in parapsychology was a fashionable preoccupation and simply a way of finding suitably dramatic moments for his art, a claim which Schrenck-Notzing himself denied vigorously. Paintings such as ‘Hypnosis at Schrenck-Notzing’s’ and ‘Spiritualist Apport of a Bracelet’ are based directly on photographic images from séances with the medium Lena Matzinger.

Keller’s fascination with the occult and religious fanaticism was also demonstrated in paintings of scenes from the Germanic era of witch persecution. These, and his paintings of religious subjects often displayed an overt eroticism, which again attracted criticism. The Theosophist Carl Kiesewetter attacked as unhistorical Keller’s depictions of beautiful semi-naked young women, apparently in states of ecstasy as they suffered at the hands of their persecutors, or even as they were being burned at the stake.

Paintings such as ‘The Christian Martyr’ showing a naked St Julia hanging from a cross, and ‘The Happy Sister’ depicting a novice nun on her death-bed surrounded by the shadowy forms of other nuns, along with many of his historical subjects, display a disturbing amalgam of religiosity, eroticism, mysticism and a fascination with death in its most gruesome aspects which recurs in German art from the paintings of Matthias Grunewald to the darker works of Caspar David Friedrich, and Arnold Boecklin.

The contrast between the artists in these two books is remarkable. Keller’s dark eroticism could not be further removed from the gentle misty landscapes and idealistic portraiture of the American artists, yet both reflect the society in which they were created: von Keller working in the stifling fin-de-siecle atmosphere of Wilhelmite Germany and the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Americans in a nation which was still expanding, physically into the West, and culturally into a modernist and optimistic future.

Both books are well illustrated, although unfortunately the Colbert book in black and white only. While I can understand this because of the production costs involved, it might have been helpful if the publishers were able to note the http of some web locations of the images, which can often be found on the websites of galleries and museums. -- John Rimmer


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