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

"The Milk of Dreams" spotlights artists engaged in alternative, anti-rational ways of knowing.

Pajorita Matta in Maya Deren's film The Witch's Cradle (1943). © Tavia Ito / estate of Maya Deren. Deren's films are made available from Re:Voir video and Kino Lorber on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD.

In the 1950s, the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington created a book called The Milk of Dreams, filled with her drawings of chimeric, fanciful creatures—including a boy whose head becomes a house and other unexpected transformations—as a way to entertain her children. The whimsical and otherworldly 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 re-envisioned through the prism of the imagination. It is a world where everyone can change, be transformed, become something or someone else; a world set free, brimming with possibilities,” curator Cecilia Alemani wrote in a statement.

An alleged table levitation of the medium Eusapia Palladino. Photograph by Cesare Lombroso. Image in the public domain.

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

In keeping with that spirit, Alemani’s exhibition at the heart of the biennale promises to be a daring departure from past iterations: of the 213 artists featured, 180 are making their first appearance, and more than three-quarters of the artists are female or gender-nonconforming—a selection the curator has said is intended to challenge the longstanding domination of white men and Western values in art, as well as the world at large. Within “The Milk of Dreams,” Alemani has also created five “capsules” to present the work of myriad fascinating artists as snapshots of moments in art history. 

From these re-positionings emerge intriguing new art-historical connections. Particularly resonant in these works is the presence of the occult, witchcraft, psychic communications, Vodou practitioners, and other alternative ways of knowing. A striking number of artists on view are associated with Spiritism, the 19th-century movement associated with séances, automatic writing, and the emerging medium of photography, which offered an expressive outlet for women of the age.

The trend was so prevalent that we decided to put together an introductory guide to some of the esoteric, mystical, and otherwise spellbinding figures waiting to be discovered 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 filmmaking, portraying mysterious, experiential worlds that forgo a clear narrative thread. One capsule in the Biennale, “The Witch’s Cradle,” takes its title from Deren’s 1943 occult film, which was shot in Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery and starred none other than Marcel Duchamp, alongside actress Pajorita Matta. The dreamlike film includes bizarre apparitions, including a pentagram that appears over Matta’a forehead, a human heart, and other strange symbols. 

Milly Canavero, Italian Psychic Who Channeled Extraterrestrials 

In 1973, the Genoese artist Milly Canavero (1920–2010) met with a spiritual medium who revealed to her that she, too, had innate psychic abilities. Though Canavero knew nothing about the world of parapsychology, after the encounter, she began to experiment with a planchette, spelling out messages that were sent to her from the beyond. After several years, Canavero progressed into automatic drawings, composed of energetic, zigzagging lines and spirals. These drawings are on view at the Biennale in “The Milk of Dreams” in the Central Pavilion. Canavero considered the drawings, which are sometimes marked by ciphers or hieroglyphic marks, to be messages from extraterrestrial intelligence.

Linda Gazzera, Spiritualist Medium Who Took Photos of Her Séances

During the early years of the 20th century, the famed spiritual researcher Enrico Imoda conducted an investigation into the séances of Italian medium Linda Gazzera (1890–1932). In the process of “verifying” Gazzera’s séances, Imoda made a number of photos of Gazzera’s conjurings, later collected in a book entitled Fotografie di Fantasmi in 1912. But by that time, these séances were exposed as fraudulent, employing backgrounds that incorporated two-dimensional shadows and objects, plus trick devices that caused tables to quake, and—as captured in one image—a birdcage to float.  

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

Hélène Smith, Self-Portrait (1913).

Hélène Smith, Surrealist Who Claimed to be the Reincarnation of Marie Antoinette 

Known as the “the Muse of Automatic Writing,” the Swiss Surrealist artist Hélène Smith (1861–1929) was born Catherine-Elise Müllerin Martigny to a devoutly religious family—her mother claimed to have had religious visions herself. Sometime in 1891, the artist became acquainted with the Spiritualist movement and began to develop her abilities as a medium. As her talents improved, she is said to have communicated with writer Victor Hugo and famed adventurer and magician Cagliostro.

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

Eusapia Palladino, Italian Spiritualist Who Houdini Thought Was a Trickster 

Eusapia Palladino (1854–1918) was an Italian Spiritualist who claimed such powers as levitating tables and communicating with the dead. Her séances were quite popular in her time—she once hosted one that was attended by famed musician Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma in the attic of what is today the David Geffen Hall in Manhattan. Like many Spiritualists of the age, Palladino’s processes were often documented in photography. Not everyone was a believer, however; the illusionist Harry Houdini was among the skeptics who asserted that these phenomena were really just clever tricks. 

Célestin Faustin, Vodou Priest and Prophetic Painter

Célestin Faustin (1948–1981) was a Haitian artist and Vodou priest who developed an often surreal or hallucinatory style of painting that tapped into his complex relationship with Vodou practices. His grandmother Célestina, for whom he was named, was a Vodou practitioner, and said that at his birth he was claimed by the goddess Erzulie Dantor, who imbued him with his artistic abilities. Faustin’s rapturous large-scale paintings combine scenes of ritual worship, eroticism, quotidian labor, ghostly visions, and edenic scenes of humans and animals. Faustin died tragically at 33 in 1981 from a drug overdose, but his artworks have remained a touchstone in Haitian art. 

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

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

Georgiana Houghton, British Medium Who Pioneered Abstract Art 

Georgiana Houghton first began making abstract drawings, which she called “spirit” drawings, at séances as early as 1859. Later she embarked on a series of watercolors which she made through an automatic process that would later be adopted by the Surrealists. Houghton claimed her works came under the direction of spirits.

She was also engaged with the spirit photography community, and in 1882, published Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye, which included a wide range of spirit photographs by the likes Frederick Hudson, Agnes Guppy-Volckman, and others. Although Houghton’s earliest works contain representational elements, her visions later progressed into a wholly abstract style of increasing complexity, bemusing critics in an age before “abstract” was a term. Having worked in a non-objective style more than 30 years before Kandinsky or Malevich, Houghton is being repositioned by art historians as the progenitor 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 untimely deaths of two of her sons. The anguished Tolrà began to hear voices, and at some point she began to draw these communications. By the 1940s, when she was in her early 60s, she began to be visited by what she called “beings of light,” who conveyed to her transmissions that she then drew. These renderings were captured in trancelike states across notebooks and large swaths of paper, sometimes incorporating language and visions of places revealed to her in the trance. The artistic avant-garde of the region was particularly captivated by her visions; some villagers even regarded her as a healer. Despite having received a very elementary education, her artworks and writings reference complex subject matter, exploring everything from theology to color theory.

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