Friends First – Not Without My Ghosts
Opening this December at the Millennium Gallery, Not Without My Ghosts is a new exhibition exploring how artists continue to be fascinated with and inspired by the practices employed by spiritualists and mediums. For you, our Friends, here’s an exclusive chance to learn more about some of the themes in the displays from our Exhibition & Display Curator, Louisa Briggs.
Spiritualism is often turned to at times of crisis or turmoil. It was introduced to Britain in 1852 by the American medium Mrs Hayden. Victorian Britain was a confusing and uncertain world to be living in. It was a time of social and scientific upheaval where ideas about art, science and theology were intermingled. Radical theories and ideas raged across the country. It was a period of huge change, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Spiritualism flourished.
There had also been innovations in communication technologies during the 1800s. The invention of photography, the telegram, telephone and radio meant that voices could be heard across the ether and images of loved ones existed after death. Spiritualism believed the spirits of the dead existed and wanted to communicate with the living. It became the subject of plays and novels – some of which poked fun at its practices and beliefs. However, many took Spiritualism very seriously and it drew the attention of visual artists.
Not without My Ghosts is a mixture of well-known names and some you probably won’t have heard of. The exhibition includes several ‘spirit’ artists - artists who made work during séances and trances, many of whom were women.
The earliest work is an intriguing rawing by William Blake from his ‘Visionary Heads’ series. As you may know, Blake is an artist who claimed to have seen visions throughout his life. The Spirit of Voltaire in the exhibition was made during a series of late night sessions where he drew the spirits of the famous dead who appeared to him.
The most famous group of artists who used Spiritualist methods were the Surrealists. The group was interested in Freud’s theories, dreams and the subconscious, so the fact that they adopted Spiritualist techniques is probably not very surprising. Automatic writings and drawings were made in a trance-like state where the subconscious was allowed to take over and there are several examples of French and British Surrealists on display.
This isn’t just an exhibition of historic work; it also includes several contemporary artists who’ve used Spiritualist techniques in one way or another. For example, Chiara Fumai is an Italian artist who conjures up the spirit of a famous medium from the past, whereas the British artist Olivia Plender’s work examines the famous Fox sisters who communicated with the dead.
Spiritualism looked beyond this world and offered a way to try and grapple with uncertainty and find some kind of answer. It is timely that this work is being re-addressed during such an unprecedented year where daily life across the world has been thrown into turmoil as we learn how to live through a pandemic.
Not Without My Ghosts – The Artist as Medium will be opening at Millennium Gallery early this December, look out for more information coming soon.
Barbara Honywood, No Title, Album Page XIV, 1860s © Bethlem Museum of the Mind
Olivia Plender, A Stellar Key to the Summerland, 2007. Courtesy the artist