Friday 30 September 2022

Review: Visions of the Occult

 I'm really busy at the moment, so the research I'm doing is all taking a back seat while I finish work on the exhibition at the Russell-Cotes which opens next week, but mercifully September is resplendant with glorious book releases and so I can do my third book review of the month...

The Tate has a serious amount of spooky stuff in its collection and this glorious book is your perfect Halloween read for this year. Featuring artworks, letters, objects and euphemera, this is a guide through all things mystical and magical and is presented in beautiful illustrations and fascinating text by Victoria Jenkins.

Fantasy based on Goethe's 'Faust' (1834) Theodor Von Holst

Split into different section including Alchemy, Witchcraft, Tarot and The New Age, this book explores the relationship between the artist and the unseen world, through pieces hidden in the archives of the Tate (or, to be fair, also on display, but that's not so mysterious). There are familiar and unfamiliar works here, from the sixteenth century to modern day, all exploring the human fascination and inspiration with our other selves.

Caprice. Verso: Masked Woman with a White Mouse (c.1894) Aubrey Beardsley

I was surprised how many images of the supernatural and magical world the Tate owned and how they interacted with the modern or ancient pieces. It makes you look at a familiar piece in a new way, or possibly the way the artist intended. Unexpectedly mysterious images by artists like Aubrey Beardsley give a fresh perspective on their art.  I'm more used to his fine pen illustrations of people who have very little mystery and equally little clothes, but this masked lady and the ghostly mouse raise so many questions. The woman's reserve, her mask, makes you wonder what she's hiding and why is she not reacting to the frankly odd looking mouse? Put in the context of witchcraft, is the mouse her familiar? Masked women are not unusual in Beardsley's work but there is something unsettling about this woman, especially with her slash of red lipstick.

A Golden Thread (1885) John Melhuish Strudwick

I was intrigued by the images of seers, of people and things that predict the future and the alchemy involved.  Our need to see the future, to have the luxury of foresight is so evident in these images of yearning, to be ready for what will come in times of such uncertainty. The power of women who can see the future is a touchstone for many works, and almost an expectation for women to have supernatural powers.  The othering of people, of women especially, is a regular theme, almost to say if you are a woman and you aren't reading the future, you are not trying hard enough, especially if you are a woman with brunette hair who looks a bit dodgy. I've never felt so seen.

La Suerte (1938) Wyndham Lewis

There is a lot to this book, and it is filled with the uncanny and peculiar.  The familiar pieces of 19th century art make great counterpoints to the technicoloured oddness of 1960s trippy book covers and the starkness of henges and the British landscape. The frenetic chaos of the Tate's magic can be disconcerting but you are reminded that this is the land of questions and mystery, of the uncanny and the strange. We embrace the weird everyday it seems and one of the glories of the book is that it reminds you that there is a little bit of magic in our everyday, even if that magic is unsettling. The Tate once more reminds us that it is a place of questions and I can't think of a better book to enjoy in these uncertain, chaotic times.

A Priestess of Apollo (c.1888) Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Visions of the Occult: An Untold Story of Art and Magic by Victoria Jenkins is available now from the Tate or from all good booksellers

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Kirsty. It looks like there's lots to enjoy and ponder here. The Beardsley woman looks like the sort who could step out of her painting if the conditions were right - unsettling indeed!
    Best wishes


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