Uttering: Magical and Alternative Spiritual Practices in Art

This session concentrates on modern and contemporary art’s enchantment with magic and esoteric themes. It does so at a moment when a presumed turn towards the numinous is recorded in various aspects of culture, which coalesces with philosophical re-evaluations of magic as a cosmological and cosmogonic project that therapeutically tackles the world’s current state of emergency and nihilism (Campagna 2018). In the visual arts, this ‘turn’ is evidenced in the interest of artists to incorporate elements from various areas of the counter-cultural in works that seek to encourage the reconsideration of our relationship to religion, politics, communal processes, colonialism, nature and technology. Yet art’s engagement with esoteric modes of thinking is hardly new. Artists have always been drawn to spirituality and the inexplicable, despite modernity’s emphasis on scientific objectivity and rationalism.

This session considers the influence of counter-cultural mysticism and alternative spiritual practices on visual art from 19th century modernism until the present. Acknowledging the overlapping traditions and definitions of what is meant with terms such as ‘magic’, ‘esotericism’, ‘mysticism’ or ‘occultism’, it reflects on how their appropriation by artists can be read through a series of approaches. These span the re-evaluation of gender roles, local cultures and identities, marginalized systems of knowledge and cosmological worldviews in a spirit of decolonization and pluralism that interrogates Eurocentric canons, extractive capitalism, patriarchal order and the colonial ethnographic gaze.

The initiators aim for the papers of the session to be published in an edited journal or book volume.

Session Convenors: 

Elena Parpa, University of Nicosia, Cyprus | Cyprus University of Technology 

Evi Tselika, University of Nicosia, Cyprus  


Alessandra Ronetti, Research Fellow, ERC Project Chromotope Sorbonne University and Conservatoire des arts et metiers (CNAM), Paris  

Psychology of Yellow: Colour, Spiritualism and Energy in Kukpa’s Yellow Paintings 

Czech painter František Kupka incorporates in his work spiritualist themes and practices from various areas of late 19th and early 20th century counter-cultural, assigning to colour a psychic and mentalist power. In his treatise La Création dans les arts plastiques, written in French between 1910 and 1913, Kupka developed a colour theory based on a syncretic mix of physiology, cosmology, lebensreform, yoga practice, oriental philosophies and theosophy. I argue that Kupka’s interest in the colour yellow in many of his paintings (from 1907 to 1920s) is related to the appropriation of a psychology of yellow, emerging in the early 20th century and including anthropological, ethnographic and occultist knowledge (i.e. Havelock-Ellis, 1906). My paper will focus more specifically on the analysis of the two versions of the composite and esoteric self-portrait Yellow Scale (Fine Arts, Houston) and Yellow Spectrum (Centre Pompidou, Paris) painted by Kupka around 1907-1909. I will address Kupka’s engagement with an esoteric interpretation of yellow as the centre of light, body energy and intellectual ascension, derived from Edwin Babbitt’s mystical theory of chromo-mentalism (The Principles of Light and Color, 1878) and revived in early 20th century theosophical treatises, such as those of Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater, with which Kupka was familiar. In Kupka’s many abstract compositions (i.e. Form of yellow, 1911, 1919-1923; Yellow Vertical, 1913), yellow became the heart of a cosmological reflection on the centre of spiritual thought and its mentalist power. 

David Picquart, Université Paris 1 Panthon-Sorbonne  

Steiner and Kandinsky’s scenic compositions: Esoteric Theatricality and reawakening Humanity on Stage 

This paper will explore the building of a new theatricality on Wassily Kandinsky’s scenic compositions influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy’s esoteric beliefs. Fuelled by both orthodox spirituality and oriental beliefs, Steiner gives to Art a deeply spiritual and vibratory nature, thereby the inherent purpose to save Humanity from its materialist decline. Hence, the artistic creation is sublimated as the only human activity able to lead spectators to enlightenment and the revelation of Nature’s secret laws as cosmos. Hence the artistic creation is sublimated as the only human activity able to lead spectators to enlightenment and the revelation of the secrets of Nature as cosmos, drawing the path to universal harmony. This theoretical foundation transpires through Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1947), which establishes the true clairvoyant artist as a prophet who seeks social change and enlightenment. In order to reawaken humanity, he exalts the need for artistic revival towards the higher form of creation by translating pure spiritual vibrations through the union of all the arts.  

Both Steiner and Kandinsky describe spiritual vibrations as means to unveil Nature’s essence and, thus, the original artistic substrate behind the synesthetic equivalence. This equivalence is exemplified by the correspondence between painting and music, color and tone, form and rhythm, and seeing and hearing.  

This paper will explore the scenic theory then elaborated by Kandinsky and the artworks itself, seeking to unite Art on stage and enlighten the public, following the steinerian vibratory modernism, setting new paths and legacies for modern transcendental performances. It will conclude on the acknowledgment that Kandinsky made this work the experimental laboratory for his painting process towards abstraction through the theorization of the composition scheme and direct elaboration of synaesthesia for scenic performances.  

Martyna Ewa Majewska, Terra Foundation Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Fellow in Paris 

Infused with Past Use: Spirituality in the Work of Senga Nengudi and David Hammons

American artist Senga Nengudi saw rituals everywhere: from her childhood spent at a Catholic school, to her foreign travels and everyday experiences, she understood that the specific, rehearsed ways in which people perform the most mundane of chores are not far removed from religious liturgy. Nengudi is known for her ritualistic performances, particularly, the 1978 Ceremony for Freeway Fets, staged in Los Angeles with the participation of her friends and fellow artists, notably, Maren Hassinger and David Hammons. While several of Nengudi’s artist-collaborators showed an interest in rituals and mysticism, this paper examines the particular sensibility shared by Nengudi and Hammons towards quotidian objects which they deemed to be infused with human presence via past use. Both their respective works and their collaborations mobilised pre-existing energy and human presence through the engagement of discarded material and what others would see as mere detritus – a practice inspired in part by the rise of assemblage art in Los Angeles following the 1965 Watts Rebellion. The understanding of energy as manifested and transmitted through reuse that Nengudi and Hammons exercised was equally informed by African Diasporic spiritual traditions and religions practised in Africa. Ultimately, this paper shows, such a sensibility made possible an expanded notion of participation: people could be present in group performances and other collaborative undertakings by proxy, via bodily matter and objects they had touched, used or created. At the same time, it defied the hegemonic, Eurocentric perception of time as linear progression, challenging the finitude of past struggles.  

Gillian McIver, Central St Martins/The University for the Creative Arts, Farnham 

Egyptomania, Alchemy and Magic: decolonising magic in contemporary art curation 

My paper considers the influence of esoteric and magical thinking, mysticism and alternative spiritual practices on contemporary visual art, with a focus on my curating practice and art historical research.  

I will address the adoption and appropriation of magical motifs in modern and contemporary art, by both Egyptian and non-Egyptian artists. Do terms such as ‘magic’, ‘esotericism’, ‘mysticism’ or ‘occultism’ mean the same thing to Egyptian artists as they do to those working in the Western tradition? If not, what are the differences? Looking more deeply at magical influences, I will look at how contemporary artists engage with Alchemy, a tradition believed to have started in Egypt.  

I will discuss the curation of the 2021 and 2022 Tomorrow is Now exhibition at Giza pyramids, and the controversies around this, alongside the work of contemporary Egyptian artists, including Khaled Hafez, who engage with magic in different ways. I will present the ‘Alchemy!’ exhibition I curated in 2022, bringing together the Egyptian and European traditions. 

There are risks in researching and curating ‘magic’ because interpreting magical meanings is complex and demanding, given that issues of gender, colonialism and power are always involved. Artists engage with magic on their own terms. I will acknowledge the practicalities of engaging with magical ideas in curating and writing about magic and art.  

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