Artists are using spiritual symbolism for artistic expression

By Cherry Irvine: Arts Columnist

In recent years, witchcraft and mysticism have made their way into the mainstream. The popularity of practices such as crystals and star signs amongst Millennials and Gen Zers has brought about an unforeseen resurgence in the Occult.

The term Occult is broad in definition, encompassing any beliefs that fall outside of the categories of science and religion. Whatever you believe, magic, mysticism and the supernatural have an irresistible thrill to them. It is exactly this subversive nature which makes the Occult so resisted by the status quo, but simultaneously makes it a popular subject in the history of art.

The last time the Occult enjoyed such a resurgence in the psyche of society was during the Victorian era. Middle-class Victorians delved into the world of spiritualism, holding séances in their homes to converse with the world beyond. The Occult captured their imagination and was a seductive form of escape from the increasingly industrialised world they were living in.

The rise of the art movement Symbolism in the late 19th Century saw artists and poets riding on this wave of the weird and wonderful. The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse play to this new Victorian obsession, drawing on stories from Greek and Roman mythology which refer to witchcraft. Though realistic in style, such paintings rejected realistic subject matter as a revolt against the stiffness and materiality of the Victorian age.

In the 20th Century artists went one step further rejecting realism completely as a means of representing the spiritual. The Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was known to attend black masses and pagan rituals. He attached physic meaning to colours and forms in his abstract works, pushing the boundaries of art to create an almost spiritual experiences upon viewing his work.

mackayan: the occult in art

But before Kandinsky there was the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944). Her abstract paintings predate those of her male counterpart by about four years. She believed that the spirits could move through her and would use art to convey their messages. As both a woman and a mystic Klint was neglected by 20th Century Art History and the accolade of the first abstract artist was awarded to Kandinsky instead. After a retrospective in 2016 at the Serpentine Gallery, London, Klint’s significance is finally being recognised, and so too is the importance of the Occult to the birth of abstract art.

The Occult has inspired art throughout the centuries and has found a new significance in contemporary art. In 2018 The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, staged an exhibition entitled Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, which featured a range of contemporary work exploring the Occult in new and bizarre ways. Katherine Dawson’s Concealed Shield is an installation work where the viewer enters a dark room and is immersed in strange sounds of scurrying creatures and mysterious forces.

Like Art itself, the Occult encourages us to push the boundaries of our imagination and look beyond what we know. Art of the Occult helps us to escape a world of rules and regulations. Perhaps in this time of crisis, the Occult is more relevant than ever. We all need a bit of magic in our lives.