The Serpentine gallery in Hyde park is currently showing 40 rarely seen drawings of visionary artist, healer and researcher Emma Kunz (1892–1963).
This is an important exhibition because it showcases the work of one of the pioneers of abstract art, providing insight into extraordinary, and largely unacknowledged creative innovations that were occurring in the middle of the nineteenth century.
In 1906, Hilma Af Klint from Sweden verifiably created her first abstract painting – at least four years before the ‘founding fathers’ of modern painting (such as Wassily Kandinsky.) Georgiana Houghton in England, and Emma Kunz in Switzerland were also developing their own abstract visual language, highly charged with meaning. All three women strove to make manifest immaterial messages from higher, spiritual realms. As Althaus et al state in their introduction to the new publication: World Receivers: “the analysis of their spectacular work, challenges us to question previously binding narratives about the genesis of abstract art in the modern era.”
Emma Kunz in Waldstadt
Emma Kunz used radiesthesia as a drawing technique, where she would pose a question to her divining pendulum and discover the answer within the geometric drawing she made from recording the pendulum’s swings, starts and stops onto graph paper. She was known to work continuously on each drawing for periods that could stretch over twenty-four hours.Kunz sought to gain a greater understanding of nature and the world through these drawings, and her questions to the pendulum ranged from the political to the philosophical and personal.
Emma Kunz is the only one of the three artists mentioned above who did not receive any artist training. It was not until the age of forty-six that she began to produce large scale drawings on almost square-cut graph paper. She drew to explore the laws and forces of nature’s regularities. The starting point was her own body, as well as her concentrated attention to nature. She approached her healing practice in the same way. By completely surrendering herself to the energy flows, she directed the damaging forces onto herself, and transformed these into healing energies. There are astonishing reports of her healing successes. (World Receivers).
She used the pendulum as a stimulant. She often recounted that ordered systems of points had appeared before her inner eye. In tireless work, she expanded on a basic pattern, enriching it, consulting the pendulum and inner visions. At times it seemed as if the picture was completing itself outside of her own consciousness, as if her hands were being guided. When a work was finished, the painter stood in front of it filled with wonder and described what had been found – returning from distant depths, curiously astonished. That interaction between consciousness, conscious behaviour, and almost unconscious listening to the primal roots of existence (Muttergrunden), which is only found among genuine artists. (Henry Widmer: in Du Die Zeitschrift der Kultur)
Automatic drawing or painting can be described as “expressing the subconscious” using any technique that eliminates conscious control and replaces it with chance. The basic techniques originate from spiritualism, practiced by artists such as Georgiana Houghton and Hilma Af Klint, both of whom have recently had their work exhibited in a revival of interest and appreciation of automatism and early abstraction.
Surrealists such as Andre Breton and Andre Masson, were keen to experiment with automatic drawing and promoted it as an art movement. By this time, of course, psychologists of the unconscious had dismissed the idea of spirits speaking through the artist: it was the subliminal self that could express itself in ways that could lead to the development of real artistic genius. The new interpretive framework was now wholly secular and based on the insights of psychoanalysis, but the basic techniques were adopted from spiritualism.
Whichever way you wish to interpret it, drawing randomly without rational control is a good way to avoid inihibitions that freeze the flow of creativity. It is a way to bypass the ‘I can’t draw’ mentality a lot of people develop when the natural artistic confidence of childhood is abandoned.
Making simple marks and considering the relationships between them bypasses jugement by the logical brain about what is “good” or “accurate.” It opens the doorway to the intuition, allows the emotions to be engaged, and allows enjoyment of the pure physical experience of artmaking.
One of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit drawings – The Eye of the Lord (1 Sept 1870), and Joan Miro – Preparations for Birds, detail, 1963.
Two interesting exhibitions in London recently: Hilma Af Klint at the Serpentine Galleries and Georgiana Houghton at the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Hilma Af Klint (1862–1944), of Sweden was creating abstract works about five years before Kandinsky. Through her work with the group “The Five,” af Klint created experimental automatic drawing as early as 1896, leading her towards an innovative geometric visual language. She had no desire to be part of any contest, or indeed the art world in general. Her paintings would not be seen publicly until 1986.
Hilma af Klint,The Ten Largest, (1907)
Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884) was also painting in a non-figurative way even earlier, from 1861 when she produced the first of several hundred intricate, abstract and richly symbolic artworks, which were, according to her, “without parallel in the world”. In contrast to af Klint, she was keen to present her work to the artistic establishment. The exhibition at the Courtauld was the first time this artist’s work has been exhibited publicly since 1871.
Interestingly, both artists rejected direct authorship of their work, claiming that they were guided by entities to convey important spiritual messages through their art – perhaps a subconscious means to sidestepping the cultural marginalisation of women at the time and finding validation for their work. Through their spiritualist experiments, they were able to conceptualise invisible forces both of the inner and outer worlds and develop radically innovative styles.