Challenging the fathers of abstract art
Think pioneers of abstract art and you think men – Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. Keen to solidify his position as innovator, Kandinsky claimed he created the first abstract artwork in 1911. However, recent Hilma af Klint shows in Stockholm and London have sparked a re-evaluation of this. Georgina Houghton’s Spirit Drawings could push the date back further, and place women firmly in the canon of abstract art.
In 1871 Georgiana Houghton, the spiritualist, medium and trained artist, organised a solo show of her ‘spirit drawings’ at the prestigious New British Gallery in Old Bond Street, London. These works had been composed while channelling spirits of the dead during her practice as a medium. She exhibited over a hundred and fifty abstract watercolours at the show.
Houghton claimed her hand was moved by spirit guides. These included Renaissance artists Titian (1488-1576) and Correggio (1489-1534), as well as Saint Luke the Evangelist (patron saint of artists and first icon painter). Spiritualism was gaining popularity in Victorian England and Houghton hoped to encourage drawing as a means of communicating with the spirit world.
The show ran from May to September and was well attended, although it seems to have perplexed the London audience. It was not a commercial success. Only one painting was sold, although this may have been due to high prices rather than the modern nature of the works. It nearly bankrupted Houghton. Although many pieces are lost, the remaining works can now be evaluated in the light of twentieth century abstract art.
Spirit art, often a kind of automatic drawing or painting created while the medium is in a trance, traditionally takes the form of portraiture of the dead loved one. Houghton’s Spirit Drawings are a radical departure from this. They conceptualise abstract ideas rather than a literal representation. Some are of the Christian god and afterlife.The all-seeing eye of god, The Eye of The Lord, The Holy Trinity. Other works represent good or bad deeds and intentions of a persons life in swirls, strokes and colour, rather than figurative work, as in The Flower of William Harman Butler, and The Flower and Fruit of Henry Lenny.
Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings at the Courtauld Gallery until 11 September 2016, comprise a vibrant and energetic selection of abstract watercolours. Houghton’s repetitive circular gestures of paint build a pulsating energy. These free hand paintings are rich, complex, many layered works. Strong and confident with a dark energy and an intricate pattern, there’s much to see here.
Summer Showcase – Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings
16th June – 11th September 2016
The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 0RN