Jacqui McIntosh is a writer and curator based in London. She has an interest in artists whose spiritual development has evolved in tandem with their artistic output. Through such works, she explores mediumistic and automatic drawing practices, as well as the role and influence of occult theories in both historical and contemporary art.
Not Without My Ghosts
Not Without My Ghosts was a Hayward Gallery touring exhibition between 2020 and 2022. It was curated in collaboration with Dr Marco Pasi, the Associate Director of the History of Hermetic Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, alongside Jacqui McIntosh via her work with the Drawing Room.
While artists work with a variety of mediums, this exhibition centred around the idea of the artist as medium, throughout time. It drew on 19th century spiritualist figureheads, and the notions of surrealism, automatism, channelling, trance, ritualised occultism, and ways of working with the world that are inspired by mediumistic histories. The show contained a long list of names including William Blake, Ann Churchill, Victor Hugo and Ithell Colquhoun.
The exhibition grew organically, stemming from conversations around Georgiana Houghton’s Spirit Drawings (1814-1844). During her lifetime, Georgiana had created vibrant abstract works that remained relatively unknown outside of niche circles. Underlying her legacy were techniques that honed in on the idea of allowing the subconscious to roam free, without domination from the conscious or rational mind.
Some people describe this as a way of communicating with other worlds, connecting with unseen energies, and as a means of exploring the human capacity for creation, innovation and imagination more generally. William Blake often depicted mythical and otherworldly creatures that appeared to him in such visions, tantalising us with the idea that certain techniques can be used to capture encounters with spirits or entities, autonomous memories, and the deceased.
Equally, the novelist Victor Hugo had a lifelong passion for art, privately producing a considerable number of drawings during his life. He favoured chance, abstract and experimental processes, allowing patterns and shapes to emerge intuitively. Many of his works were produced in the early 1850s while he was in exile around the Channel Islands, a chapter that spanned across 15 years. Throughout this period, Victor was engaged in various spiritualist circles and practices that were in vogue at the time, including group séances.
Other figures in the exhibition included Barbara Honywood and Georgiana Houghton, who frequently expressed contact with ‘higher realms’ through their work. Georgiana became one of the most celebrated figures of the spiritualist movement during her lifetime. She was a founding member of the London Spiritualist Alliance, known today as The College Of Psychic Studies – based in South Kensington, London.
Layered onto the spontaneity of her pieces, Georgiana devised a relatively elaborate system of colours denoting different meanings: scarlet for ardour, lemon yellow for cheerfulness and cobalt for truth. She worked in series, and often used a planchette to enhance her automatic tactics. Georgiana referred to herself as a sacred symbolist, and claimed that archangels or guiding influences worked with her on many of her pieces; forces that she described as accessible to anyone, but of which most remain unaware and are therefore unseen in a materially-focused world.
In Georgiana’s piece entitled The Spiritual Crown of Annie Mary Howitt Watts, which was part of her series of Spiritual Crimes, she depicts a portrait of her friend and fellow spiritualist artist, Anna Mary Howard. Here, the tinted shades of pink are used to symbolise the type of love imbued by many spiritualist teachings. Such pieces highlighted stark differences from the traditional works of the day, and challenged stubborn ideas around what was socially acceptable for women to create and display.
In this sense, spiritualism became a force for authentic expression and empowerment. As a way of making ‘radical’ art that publicly ignored cultural standards and expectations, and allowed women to speak without words while remaining the authors of their works – even if these voices paradoxically came in the form of ‘higher masters’ and ‘archangels’, with the role of the artist as collaborator.
This was brought to the fore when, a century later, artist Susan Hiller spoke of an experience of automatic writing, creating pages and pages of text in handwriting that she claimed not to recognise. She initially regarded the writings, which were sometimes upside down or backwards, as drawings – and some years later she began to analyse and annotate them.
Susan’s experience with automatic writing didn’t immediately convert her to spiritualism’s ideals, but were viewed as a redemptive project that acknowledged mediumistic practices, which she felt had been driven out by modernism. Her works explored subjects such as telepathy, dreams and anecdotes of paranormal or near-death experiences, within the context of contemporary culture. Hiller approached unexplained phenomena as a social fact, not to be underestimated or easily dismissed.
“Sisters of Menon pushed me beyond the boundaries of what was then considered reasonable or suitable subject matter. My work with dreams, which predates Sisters of Menon, already expressed an interest in 50% of my life, and everyone else’s life, that we ignore. And to an extent that tendency, which was ignored or thought to be outside of what was worth noticing, was reinforced by a commitment to feminism because they contained aspects of the world that were called, in a particularly denigrating way, ‘feminine’ or ‘irrational’. As a female subject those terms were applied to me doubly when I expressed those kinds of interests in my work. So that became an important commitment for me, to proceed along those lines.” – Susan Hiller
At the age of 79, a mysterious figure named Madame Fondrillon, of whom relatively little is known, created a work entitled Dessin médianimique. This came to the attention of Andre Breton, widely considered the founder of Surrealism, who reproduced it in his essay The Automatic Message. His theories were influenced by Freud’s ideas around the role of the unconscious, and rather than depicting such images as celestial communion, Breton viewed mediumistic techniques as a form of automatic text, and an expression of the creative and hidden unconscious self, rather than as a spiritual message.
Although the two may not be mutually exclusive, Breton often wrote disparagingly about such methods of ‘communication’, especially with regards to the dead or other entities. Breton argued that spiritualism suggested a dissociation of the subjects psychological personality, while surrealism proposed nothing less than the unification of that personality.
One of the surrealists exhibited in Not Without My Ghosts was Yves Tanguy, who was drawn to the mark-making of the mediumistic artists that predated him, as well as to nature – more specifically the weathered rock formations around Brittany where his family lived. For Tanguy, automatism added a pleasing element of surprise to the creation of a work: emergent properties that materialised from the process itself.
Tanguy didn’t say much about his methods, but did note that they were often spontaneous, developing before his own eyes in ways that he had not anticipated; an unfolding and progressive exercise which endowed him with a liberty that was not hindered by the restrictions of planning and foresight. He avoided strict schedules, which he felt stifled inspiration, and subscribed to the idea that the unconscious mind could be explored and developed through creative pursuits.
Tanguy and some of his contemporaries developed these themes through what they termed as ‘psychological mythology’, giving form to abstract and unbridled thoughts, as a medium through which an almost magical achievement of ones most deeply buried desires could be realised.
One of these contemporaries was young British artist Ithell Colquhoun, at the time a rising star of the surrealist movement. However, she was eventually excluded from such circles for refusing to conform to the rules of the lawless by renouncing her occult practices and boycotting secret societies. Colquhoun had a deep commitment to so called magical practices, and during her lifetime was initiated into many secret orders. She was particularly drawn to alchemy, kabbalah and the tarot.
Colquhoun wrote that the exploration of the unconscious through automatism had always been at the very root of surrealism, and outlined the various automatic methods used by artists, including those employed and developed by herself. In her piece, Toy, currently exhibited at the Tate, she uses what she called ‘super automatism’ – lines drawn at speed without conscious control. The principle of all such processes, is the making of a stain by chance, the subjection of this to the gaze of the imagination, and the further development of such suggestions.
Subjects that Colquhoun explored extensively included the connection between the feminine and the landscape, especially in areas around Cornwall and its sacred sites. In St Elmo, it is as if the weather has suddenly turned, and the central figure or a feminine force is recoiling its tentacles around itself. Whatever techniques were deployed for the birth of this central figure to emerge, Colquhoun subsequently worked hard to emphasise its three-dimensionality. It was not drawn from life, but found itself imposed by the unconscious – unseen magical forces, given gravitas by formal academic foundations.
Another spiritual surrealist was Austin Osman Spare, who was once regarded as a child prodigy, but drifted away from the public sphere and spent much of his life in precarious economic conditions. He was for a short period, a disciple of Alastair Crowley, published several books on his magical philosophies, and presented the unconscious as a tool for altering the fabric of reality and consciousness itself.
Spare’s drawings were often produced through automatic techniques in which the workings of inner forces and psychic realities were given space to experiment. One of his central, self-published texts was on pleasure and self-love, exploring ideas around esoteric eroticism and karma within a theosophical context. Much of the landscape subsequently explored by Dalí had already been opened up by Spare in 1909.
Ann Churchill was one of the contemporary artists included in Not Without My Ghosts. Her creative output spans over 50 years, with a large body of work encompassing a variety of mediums from drawing and painting to knitting and stitching. Largely unseen except by family and friends, Not Without My Ghosts was the first time that her work had been exhibited in an institutional public gallery.
Churchill has placed automatism at the centre of her practice throughout her life, and her spiritual and artistic development have always been intertwined. In true artistic fashion, she’s often reluctant to define herself as an artist, and prefers the terms crafts-person, or ‘meditator-maker’. Meditating daily allows her to calm the analytical conscious mind in order to access the jewels that lie beneath the dragon. It has been key to her practice since the late 1960s.
Churchill claims that it’s this meditative, trance-like process that supports her own inner spiritual development and journey. In a poetic twist of fate, she purchased a painting called Mask by the aforementioned Osmand Spare, for a shilling at a jumble sale in her early teens. It is one of her most treasured possessions. She has explained that in the early years of her meditative practice, the face in the painting would often materialise within her minds-eye, as a sign that she was ready to begin the creative process.
Churchill is self-taught, having declined a place at the Chelsea College of Art when she was 15. She had foreseen that her way of working might not fit within the conventions of a formal structure. Instead she invented what she termed the ‘invisible university’ – a way of learning through the creation of an experience. To Churchill, life and creation have always been intimately connected, and she knows that if you can pull what inspires you to be excited and engaged into your everyday life, you enrich it with an intangible material that only fortifies that tapestry.
Her most important influence is her father, the artist George Churchill, who she’s described as someone that lives in the unconscious. It was through him that she was exposed to the possibilities of automatism, and the necessity of connecting to the lively inner recesses of the undead mind.
When she began to raise a family herself, she switched to larger ink pieces that she could stop and start when she had more time. These are often vibrant in colour and filled with passage after passage of intricate, labyrinthine detail; patterns populated by an energetic flow that weaves and coils its way around the page, sprouting from the subtle interplay between mind and body.
Just over ten years ago, Ann began to use watercolour more extensively, displaying immense imaginary universes held together by energetic threads. These are often constructed from smaller scores of automatic drawings, crafting a surreal mosaic of independent images that have been stitched together using linen. Following the lead of her intuition, Ann finds an energetic rhythm that connects the dots. An instinctive synchronistic process that she’s described as akin to curating cohesion from chaos.
During the first national lockdown of 2020, circles began to appear more frequently within her works, often filled with motifs, abstract forms and patterns. For Churchill these circles represent departing souls, harnessing a life-force which is seen to transform and return to nature.
For curator Jacqui McIntosh, such representations resonate with the works of Colquhoun, who shared animistic beliefs and narratives by depicting all beings as connected through a vital life principle. Similarly, Churchill’s goal has always been to give form to the unseen forces that exist between mind, body and the world around us. And as eager voyeurs, we are warmly welcomed into her incredible landscapes, to live out our places within them.