New Class Focuses on Otherworldly Forms of Art

"The Spirit and the Psyche: Spiritualism, Symbolism, and Surrealism," taught by Mellon Postdoc Fellow Rachel Oberter, introduces students to the art of automatic drawing.

In the mid 19th and early 20th centuries, many artists were intrigued by automatic drawing, artworks purportedly created through involuntary motions of the hand, often in a trance-like state, and without the interference of reason. Now, Rachel Oberter, the Hurford Humanities Center’s 2008-10 Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, hopes to interest 21st-century students in this phenomenon.

Her Independent College Programs course “The Spirit and the Psyche: Spiritualism, Symbolism, and Surrealism” examines the relationship among visual art, the supernatural, and psychology through the lenses of three cultural movements: spiritualism in 1850s-60s England, symbolism in 1890s France, and surrealism in France of the 1920s and 30s.

“Most associate the process of automatic drawing with surrealism, but it was first done by spiritualist mediums,” says Oberter, who holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale. “While spiritualists believed that spirits were dictating ideas to them, surrealists thought they were unleashing the subconscious.” Symbolism, whose art often portrayed dreams, visions and fantasies, bridged the gap between the two.

Psychology played a role in all three movements. “From the beginning, although spiritualists were talking about spirits, they were also talking about the brain,” says Oberter. “Psychologists believed that spirits were influencing mediums not through their hands, but through the wires and channels of the brain.” Many ideas about the subconscious, she adds, were actually formed by psychologists studying mediums. One of the texts Oberter’s students will be reading is, in fact, written by an artist’s doctor who suggests spiritualism as a possible cure for insanity.

Oberter first became interested in the subject when researching oil painter Evelyn De Morgan, who was interested in spiritualism and engaged in automatic writing. Oberter also read an 1857 book called Light in the Valley which included plates of spirit drawings.

She says that there is increasing interest among art historians and museums in the intersection of art and the supernatural; in 2005, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had an exhibition of spirit photography. Today, she adds, there are many people who still create and exhibit visionary art. They are often referred to as “outsider artists,” indicating their positions at the margins of society and apart from cultural institutions.  This “outsider” stance dates back to the 19th century, when some female artists found that spirit drawing was a way for them to hone their craft beyond the confines of an art academy.

In addition to reading and responding to primary and secondary sources, Oberter’s students may also get to try their hand at automatic drawing themselves. “It’s tricky,” Oberter admits. “How do you induce a trancelike state?” She won’t require anyone to actually produce an automatic sketch: “If they can’t, that’s fine,” she says. “They can write about the experience.”

-Brenna McBride