It’s the United States of America in the late 19th century, a moment of industrialization and urbanization contributing to a heightened concern for deceased kin and bereaved Americans questioning the afterlife. Increasing post-Revolution freedoms (though limited among marginalized persons) and growing immigrant populations also contributed to a wider view of world religions. At the time, such factors rendered a craving for alternative methods of connecting with the spiritual world. These conditions emboldened the rise of Spiritualism in America, and shortly after, its emergence in Europe, where following World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic, the movement further flourished, offering grief-stricken Europeans access to transcendental escapism.
This period of Spiritualism thrived with an abundance of mediumistic and esoteric practices. The medium (a role overwhelmingly held by women) is broadly defined as a person with an implied or believed ability to access entities from beyond. Contemporary French artist Tabita Rezaire, whose multimedia practice implements spiritual and divination systems to address power structures, equates communication with spirits to “cosmic downloads,” metaphorically placing the human vessel as the computer and access to the spirit world as connecting to the “divine Internet.”
Historically, the role of the medium became a radical and subversive act of agency for women; their assumed gender characteristics of passivity, fragility, and emotionality in this context were desirable. Spiritualism gave women a voice to speak (for a “higher” power) about women’s rights and progressive ideas, and increasingly, a distinct creative voice that included poetry, automatic writing, and an extraordinary oeuvre of decisive artworks gaining increasing relevance today.
The 2022 Venice Biennale featured the work of several historical mediumistic makers including German writer and painter Unica Zürn (1916–1970), Spanish artist Josefa Tolrà (1880–1959), and the arresting images of British artist and spiritualist medium Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884). Houghton experienced great loss in her life, including the death of four of her siblings by age 37. Perhaps it was this bereavement that encouraged her to attend her first seance in 1859. Thereafter, she began to experience and foster mediumistic relationships — guides included her deceased kin, a spirit named Henry Lenny, and the late Caravaggio — which instructed Houghton to create undeniably profound compositions. As described by Jennifer Higgie in The Other Side: A Journey into Women, Art and the Spirit World (2023), her recently published book on women artists and the spirit world, they are “as if her dreams are ensnared by a spider web: primary colours whirl and dance beneath a delicate net of white translucent lines.”
Higgie’s publication and the Venice Biennale are not isolated instances of examinations into women artists and the history of Spiritualism. Recent institutional exhibitions include Not Without My Ghosts (2020–2021) developed by the Hayward Gallery and the Drawing Room, London; Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art (2021–2022) curated by Robert Cozzolino of the Minneapolis Institute of Art; and the forthcoming, Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life at Tate Modern.
Considering the loss and trauma associated with our generation’s pandemic, and the continuing devastation and violence witnessed amidst a changing social landscape, our current post-COVID-19 era resonates with the conditional turmoil present during the rise of Spiritualism. However, our contemporary concerns have evolved to critically consider and inclusively acknowledge histories — personal and cultural, spiritual and political. As we mitigate our shifting post-pandemic existence while confronted with complicated histories that seem more alive than dead, are we once again looking to the spiritual beyond to cope and reckon?
For Hayley Millar Baker, a Gunditjmara Djabwurrng Melbourne-based artist, implementing the women-led spiritualism of her upbringing within an Aboriginal community is a method of instilling a real-time and tangible legacy of her personal experiences. In her recent video work “Nyctinasty” (2021), like the mediums of the past, she uses her body as a vessel to connect to the non-physical world, but unlike Houghton and the women before her, Baker is able to both assume the role of medium and retain a direct agency, boldly embracing her feminine and artistic identity. Subversiveness is present in the video’s backdrop of a domestic setting, nodding to the viewer a sense of confidence and common practice for Baker to operate in the realm of spiritual in-betweenness.
Baker began centering spiritualist acts in her work while homebound during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020. The isolating conditions caused by Coronavirus restrictions echo the solitary environments of many creative mediums that communicated in private. From 1920 until 1958, Madge Gill’s prolific practice, led by her spirit guide Myrninerest (interpreted to mean “my inner rest self,”) was predominantly active while alone late at night in her East London home. Often these spirit-led evening sessions would produce monochromatic ink drawings on postcards in which stylistic feminine faces were surrounded by a vortex of architecturally rendered ectoplasm, at times even signed: Myrninerest.
As the art ecology acts enigmatically to the larger cultural climate in which we live, curatorial critique of addressing and changing accounts of art history with a narrow gaze is active, echoing broader questions of how we address an imperfect past. Reexamining and reintroducing women with creative practices contextualized within the historical rise of Spiritualism addresses key gaps in a male-dominant art history, while also presenting narratives bolstered by subversive agency that are alarmingly relevant to conversations of today.
The College of Psychic Studies, formerly known as the London Spiritualist Alliance, was formed in 1884 to support and encourage research into the esoteric. Their curator, Vivienne Roberts, has also staged several significant exhibitions at the College. Most recently, Creative Spirits (2022) featured 100 mediumistic artists, surveying the last 165 years. In conversation with Roberts about this revival of mediumistic creativity and emergence of contemporary artists implementing Spiritualism, she told Hyperallergic, “The idea of the gateway resonates in both [the late 19th/early 20th century and today], where technology makes what was invisible visible. Historically, advancements in telescopes and microscopes visualized the minuscule and galaxy. In the 21st century, the internet as a gateway is also making visible our every search, answering things we could not before.” From the ether to ethernet, this observation draws a return to Rezaire’s metaphor of spirits being a divine internet, where contact with the spiritual world allows us to connect, cope, correct, and create beyond the limits of our internal hard drives.