by Elif Kamisli
The nineteenth century was a transition period, when humanity in the West witnessed dramatic changes. The rise of industrial machines, the extolling of science and consequent questioning of religion, as well as the belief in constant progress, trapped the souls of ordinary people in a hopeless stillness. Those lost souls who did not know how to live within this greyness started to look for something more than the physical world that surrounded them, yet did not embrace them. Contrasting with the destruction they had experienced, spiritualism, with its emphasis on inner life, feelings, personal development and a cosmic unity, had a healing effect. In a moment of grey stillness, spiritualism opened up a world of colours and movement and gave hope to heavy souls.
At the end of January, Lenbachhaus hosted a group of art historians, religious scholars, artists and researchers in Munich for an exceptional symposium shaped around the World Receivers exhibition co-curated by Karin Althaus and Sebastian Schneider.
Featuring works by Georgiana Houghton (b. 1814; d. 1884, United Kingdom), Hilma af Klint (b. 1862; d. 1944, Sweden) and Emma Kunz (b. 1892; d. 1963, Switzerland), World Receivers for the first time brought together a great selection of works by these three powerful spirits. Organized by the institution that is home to the world’s largest collection of the art of the Blue Rider group, the exhibition unfolds the definition of abstraction in art through its connection with spiritual practices, and explores the singular role of otherworldly beings in the creation process. Focusing on each participating artist’s practice and socio-cultural texture of her time, the lectures in the symposium examined the spirit of the age when a new artistic language was flourishing. While the works on display depict what is unseen to our physical senses, they humbly propose a strong statement for a holistic approach towards the universe: Their message comes from a state of being where all the distinctions dissolve and we become one with our surroundings.
The strong impact and presence of spiritualism and Theosophy in society and in artistic practice came to an end around the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps “because of their political associations, which were clear and well known. The Nazi theory of Aryan supremacy, for example, was indebted to various versions of Theosophy.”1 It did not return, apart from exceptional cases such as the work of Mark Rothko, until the late 1960s and 1970s, this time framed by psychedelia and the interest in Eastern traditions and utopias expressed by the hippie generation. In this context, World Receivers presents the experimental films by John Whitney (b. 1917; d. 1995, United States) and James Whitney (b. 1921; d. 1982, United States), and Harry Smith (b. 1923; d. 1991, United States) in dialogue with the works of Houghton, af Klint and Kunz.
This mesmerizing exhibition, which was on view at Lenbachhaus Kunstbau until 10 March 2019, offerd new perspectives to its visitors regarding the contextualization of the birth of abstract art, and boldly questions the pre-defined artistic qualifications. Organizers of the two-days event, Karin Althaus, Lars Bang Larsen, Marco Pasi and Sebastian Schneider, state that “bringing together international experts to discuss this phenomenon from historical, art-historical, feminist, and media-theoretical perspectives; the symposium pursues a methodological approach, which does not consider the genesis and rise of artistic abstraction as a purely formal innovation, but rather seeks to interpret it in terms of the contexts of its emergence.” The symposium gives a unique opportunity to extend our understanding as regards the artistic practices formed around spirituality and mediumistic activities. The entanglements unveiled in the lectures enrich our perception and offer alternative narrations about the history of European modern art.
In my text, I will try to summarize the ideas presented in this symposium hoping that it would strengthen the bonds between the creators of these timeless works and the Lenbachhaus audience. The full summay can be downloaded here: Kamisli_World Receivers_Lenbachhaus_Manuscript_PDF.
Elif Kamisli is an author and researcher interested in spirituality and its relation to artistic practices. She is currently working on a publication and exhibition project which will be opened in 2020 in Athens, Greece. She is also the exhibition manager of the Istanbul Biennial.
1 M. Tuchman, “Hidden Meanings in Abstract Art,” in The Spiritual in Art. Abstract Painting 1890–1985, 1986, p. 18.