Don’t Call Them Witches: Your Guide to Séance Photographers, Psychic Visionaries and Occultists at the Venice Biennale


In the 1950s, surrealist artist Leonora Carrington created a book titled The milk of dreamsfilled with his drawings of chimerical and whimsical creatures – including a boy whose head becomes a house and other unexpected transformations – as a means of entertain his children. The whimsical and supernatural volume is also the namesake of the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale, which opened this week.

“The surrealist artist describes a magical world where life is constantly rethought through the prism of the imagination. It is a world where everyone can change, transform, become something or someone else; a liberated world, brimming with possibility,” curator Cecilia Alemani wrote in a statement.

An alleged table levitation of the medium Eusapia Palladino. Photograph by Cesare Lombroso.

In keeping with this spirit, Alemani’s exhibition at the heart of the biennale promises to be a bold break from past iterations: of the 213 artists featured, 180 are making their first appearance, and more than three-quarters of the artists are women. or men. – nonconforming – a selection that the curator says aims to challenge the long-standing dominance of white men and Western values ​​in art, as well as in the world at large. Within “The Milk of Dreams”, Alemani has also created five “capsules” to present the work of a myriad of fascinating artists as snapshots of moments in art history.

From these repositionings emerge intriguing new links between art and history. The presence of occultism, witchcraft, psychic communications, voodoo practitioners and other alternative ways of knowing is particularly resonant in these works. An impressive number of artists on display are associated with spiritualism, the 19th century movement associated with seances, automatic writing, and the emerging medium of photography, which provided an expressive outlet for women of the age.

The trend was so widespread that we decided to create an introductory guide to some of the esoteric, mystical and bewitching figures to discover in Venice.

Maya Deren, experimental filmmaker who portrayed the subconscious

Ukrainian-born American filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961) was an early progenitor of avant-garde cinema, depicting mysterious, experiential worlds that forgo a clear narrative thread. A capsule of the Biennale, “La witch’s cradle“, takes its title from Deren’s 1943 occult film, shot in Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery and starring none other than Marcel Duchamp, alongside actress Pajorita Matta. The dreamlike film includes bizarre apparitions, including a pentagram that appears on Matta’a’s forehead, a human heart, and other strange symbols.

Milly Canavero, Italian Psychic Who Channeled Aliens

In 1973, Genovese artist Milly Canavero (1920-2010) met a spirit medium who revealed to her that she too had innate psychic abilities. Although Canavero knows nothing of the world of parapsychology, after the encounter she began experimenting with a planchette, spelling out messages sent to her from beyond. After several years, Canavero evolves towards automatic drawings, composed of energetic zigzag lines and spirals. These drawings are exhibited at the Biennale in “Le Lait des Rêves” at the Central Pavilion. Canavero considered the designs, which are sometimes marked with numerals or hieroglyphic markings, to be messages of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Linda Gazzera, spirit medium who took photos of her sessions

During the early years of the 20th century, the famous spiritual researcher Enrico Imoda investigated the seances of the Italian medium Linda Bazzera (1890–1932). In the process of “verifying” the Bazzera seances, Imoda took a number of photos of the Bazzera conjurations, later collected in a book titled Photography of Fantasmi in 1912. But by then these seances were exposed as fraudulent, using backgrounds that incorporated shadows and two-dimensional objects, as well as clever devices that shook tables and, as one image shows, a floating birdcage.

Helene Smith, Self-Portrait (1913).  Image in the public domain.

Helen Smith, self-portrait (1913).

Hélène Smith, surrealist who claimed to be the reincarnation of Marie Antoinette

Known as the “Muse of automatic writing”, Swiss surrealist artist Hélène Smith (1861-1929) was born Catherine-Elise Müllerin Martigny into a deeply religious family – her mother claimed to have had religious visions herself. Sometime in 1891, the artist became familiar with the spiritualist movement and began to develop his abilities as a medium. As her talents improved, she would have communicated with the writer Victor Hugo and the famous adventurer and magician Cagliostro.

This notoriety led her to the psychologist Théodore Flournoy, who had written a book on spiritualism (it was he who first offered her the pseudonym “Hélène Smith”). Over the years, Flournoy conducted investigations into Smith’s trances and communications, eventually publishing the book From India to Mars (1899) about his visions. Smith’s artwork sometimes relayed his impressions of civilizations on Mars, scenes from his past lives, and even his visions of Christ. Later in life, Smith claimed to communicate with Martians and to be the reincarnation of a Hindu princess and Marie Antoinette.

Eusapia Palladino, Italian spiritualist whom Houdini thought was a con man

Eusapia Palladino (1854–1918) was an Italian spiritualist who claimed powers such as table levitation and communication with the dead. Her sessions were very popular in her time – she hosted one attended by the famous musician Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma in the attic of what is now David Geffen Hall in Manhattan. Like many spiritualists of the time, Palladino’s processes were often documented through photography. However, not everyone was a believer; illusionist Harry Houdini was among the skeptics who claimed that these phenomena were really just clever tricks.

Celestin Faustin, voodoo Prophetic priest and painter

Célestin Faustin (1948-1981) was a Haitian artist and voodoo priest who developed an often surreal or hallucinatory style of painting that drew on his complex relationship with Voodoo practices. His grandmother Celestina, whose name he bears, was a voodoo practitioner, and said that when he was born he was claimed by the goddess Erzulie Dantor, who imbued him with her artistic abilities. Faustin’s ravishing large-scale paintings combine scenes of ritual worship, eroticism, daily labor, ghostly visions, and Edenic scenes of humans and animals. Faustin died tragically at age 33 in 1981 of a drug overdose, but his works have remained a benchmark in Haitian art.

Georgiana Houghton, The Picture of the Lord Jesus Christ (1862).  Image in the public domain.

Georgiana Houghton, The Portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ (1862).

Georgiana Houghton, pioneering British medium of abstract art

Georgiana Houghton began making abstract drawings, which she called “spirit” drawings, in seances as early as 1859. Later she embarked on a series of watercolors which she made through a process automatic that would later be adopted by the surrealists. Houghton claimed that his works were under the guidance of spirits.

She was also involved in the spiritual photography community and in 1882 published Chronicles of photographs of spiritual beings and phenomena invisible to the material eye, which included a wide array of witty photography by Frederick Hudson, Agnes Guppy-Volckman and others. Although Houghton’s early works contain elements of representation, his visions later evolved into an entirely abstract style of increasing complexity, baffling critics at a time when “abstract” was not a term. Having worked in a non-objective style more than 30 years before Kandinsky or Malevich, Houghton is repositioned by art historians as the ancestor of modern abstraction.

Josefa Tolrà, self-taught Spanish artist who communicated with beings of light

Born in a small village north of Barcelona, ​​Josefa Tolrà (1880-1959) was a peasant woman who suffered the premature death of two of her sons. The anguished Tolrà began to hear voices, and at some point she began to draw these communications. In the 1940s, when she was in her early 60s, she began to be visited by what she called “beings of light”, who transmitted transmissions to her which she then drew. These renderings were captured in trance states on notebooks and large expanses of paper, sometimes incorporating language and visions of places revealed to him in the trance. The region’s artistic avant-garde was particularly captivated by his visions; some villagers even considered her a healer. Although she received a very basic education, her artwork and writings reference complex subjects, exploring everything from theology to color theory.

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