Not Without My Ghosts begins with a portrait sketched at a séance. The lines of William Blake’s “The Spirit of Voltaire” (c. 1820) are faint, elusive even. But many works in this exhibition are not as direct as this apparition. Here, artists relinquish their senses and motor skills to spirits who draw out an effervescent fuzz of traces and shimmering details, which coalesce into ambiguous forms.
In the 19th century however, mediumistic artists such as Georgiana Houghton and Anna Mary Howitt were often unable to find establishment support, amid systems that rejected their focus on the occult. Instead, such artists would help one another. The exhibition’s curators propose a homology between occultism and the suffragettes’ utopian sisterhood. This thesis extends from the 19th century up through now, with contemporary artists seeking empowerment via creative networks that commune with the beyond.
Throughout, the curators demonstrate the way clairvoyant art practices unsettle the narratives of Modernism, specifically automatism and the development of abstraction. An occultist drawing by Madame Fondrillon featured in Andre Breton’s Surrealist magazine, for example, indicates that while the Surrealists fostered eccentricity, it had to be cogent and rational. Mystics were too outré, exasperating to other artists and curators, who never dared to dream that such artists may have preferred to be unacceptable.
Not Without My Ghosts: The Artist as Medium continues through November 2020 at the Drawing Room (1-27 Rodney Place, London SE17). The exhibition originated at the Hayward gallery, in partnership with the Drawing Center, and was curated by Lars Bang Larsen, Simon Grant and Marco Pasi.