Artists inspired by ghosts and magic
Agatha Wojciechowsky was driving a New York bus when, she claimed, she heard a voice. It was in the early 1950s, and the former seamstress was learning to be a medium and spiritual healer. She had made many modest drawings, and when the bus pulled up in front of an art supply store, the voice told her, “Come in and buy some watercolors.”
For three days, she sat at home, waiting for instructions on what to paint. She then worked in what she called a trance, starting at the lower left corner of the canvas and working in strips from the bottom up. In the mid-1960s, Wojciechowsky was showing his paintings – many of which were vivid abstractions dotted with human faces – alongside famous artists like Man Ray and Jean Dubuffet.
Next month, his work will be featured in “Supernatural America,” a new exhibition opening June 12 at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio that spans more than two centuries of art related to the paranormal. Almost all of the 160 or so works in the series are made by Americans who claimed to have experience with the spirit world. They range from well-known artists like Andrew Wyeth, Grant Wood, and contemporary videographer Bill Viola to 19th-century UFO and medium photographers who claimed spirits guided their designs.
In the 1860s, the husband and wife team of Wella P. and Lizzie “Pet” Anderson gained popularity. Wealthy clients would ask them to make contact and draw deceased family members or historical figures like Benjamin Franklin. The show includes an 1869 pencil sketch by the Andersons of Hiram Abiff, a figure from Masonic legend, with symbols and scriptures covering his hat and robes.
Another medium, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Connor, said Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens collaborated on his ink drawing “Spirit Daughter” (circa 1891), although her style is difficult to see in the elflike creature and woman in flowered costume. Robert Cozzolino, the curator of the exhibition, points out that female mediums enjoyed artistic authority in the spiritualist world that women were generally denied elsewhere – although the spirits that would have guided the work of mediums were mostly men. .
In the 20th century, artists interested in the paranormal began to put themselves at the center of the canvas. Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-77), a formally trained artist, painted “idealized versions of herself as an ethereal enchantress in long, tight dresses and playing on magical charms, spells and occult puzzles,” writes art historian Sarah Burns in the exhibition catalog. In the surreal “Strange Shadows” (1950), an incredibly elongated Abercrombie casts the shadow of a bare tree with an owl sitting on one of the branches.
Likewise, Andrew Wyeth portrayed a ghostly version of himself in “The Revenant” (1949), in which he seems to glow – especially his right hand painting. Mr. Cozzolino notes Wyeth’s interest in spiritual matters, possibly following the tragic death of his father and one of his nephews in a locomotive collision.
Other well-known artists have used Gothic imagery to evoke the supernatural. In the oil painting “Shrouded Figure in Moonlight” (1905), Edward Steichen, better known as a photographer, depicts a vivid figure whose shroud echoes the color of a cloud bank. A mother and two daughters look even more ghostly in Bill Viola’s short black and white video “Three Women” (2008). When they walk through a wall of water, they erupt in color, but the respite is brief: in a moving declaration of the fleetingness of life, they come back through the water in colorless.
Contemporary artist Renée Stout dents her work with humor. She describes her 2011 play “The Rootworker’s Worktable” as being “built” for Fatima Mayfield, a fictional healer who casts spells. A root worker, writes Ms. Stout, “can play an important role in many underserved African American regions,” providing mental and physical health care as well as spiritual protection. The work includes a desk overflowing with bottles and steampunk dials, beneath a chalkboard bearing lists of Afro-Caribbean herbs and deities. There are also instructions for making a love potion, with the note “things that I need for the seduction of Sterling Rochambeau”.
“Supernatural America” has been in the works for five years, Mr. Cozzolino said. But its roots go back decades, to his work on an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago dedicated to artist Ivan Albright (1897-1983), who won the title of “Master of Macabre” for his numerous paintings haunted by death and decay. . After Albright’s exposure to the horrors of World War I, he turned to reading mystics and philosophers, developing his own spiritual philosophy.
The Toledo show includes Albright’s portrayal of “The Vermonter,” which took him 11 years to complete. By this time, the warden, a farmer and politician who lived near the artist, was dead. The painting evokes a man approaching the end, with detailed wrinkles on his face and hands and a tangled, rotten background including an apple core and a chain. Yet Mr. Cozzolino points out that Albright also imbues the painting with signs of cosmic wisdom – in “the rings of color which surround the figure like chromatic halos”, in the red cap of the skull which recalls the famous portrait of Diego Velázquez from the Pope Innocent X and – almost all of them – in the enigmatic subtitle of “The Vermonter”: “If life were life, there would be no death.”
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