I Paint Dead People: The art of séances and mediumship
These were the words, shrouded inside a secret code, spoken by Harry Houdini (1874 — 1926) from beyond the grave to his wife. In life, the illusionist was vehemently skeptical of spirit mediums — i.e., those who communicate (or claim to communicate) with the dead. Before he departed from this earthly plane, he told his wife, Bess, that he would only transmit one specific message, and that only the two of them would understand the cryptic code.
Lo and behold, a flood of mediums contacted Bess after her husband’s death, claiming to have spoken with Houdini. But only one man could convince her: Arthur Ford (1896 — 1971), who recited the cypher perfectly. Suffice it to say, Bess was sold. “They are the exact words left for me by Harry,” she told the New York Times, “and I am absolutely convinced that my husband talked to me and that there is life beyond the grave.”
Of course, this isn’t the end of the story. It soon came to light that the supposedly secret information had been published a year prior in “a biography authorized [by] and written with documents provided by Bess.” The public uproar was swift. Houdini’s wife tried to backtrack, saying “she never truly believed that she’d ever made contact with Harry’s spirit.”
And yet, every Halloween, people around the country hold séances in a timeworn attempt to reach him. To be sure, the ritual is hardly confined to Houdini fans, nor is it relegated to October 31st. Humans have always been preoccupied with the notion that death is not finite — that an intangible spirit endures and transcends our corporeal expirations. And there will always be tension between the believers and the skeptics. The latter group relies mightily upon science. But those who subscribe to the idea of life after death draw from a robust art-historical tradition.
In the 19th century, the movement known as Spiritualism began to spread throughout the Western world. Practitioners “believe in a continued future existence, and that people who have passed on into the spirit-world can and do communicate with us.” Most of us are familiar with mediums who purportedly pass on oral messages from the departed — in fact, a few of them have shows on TLC. But others consider themselves spirit medium artists. You can find a smattering of them on the Web, offering services related to “spirit portraiture.” In other words, they are commissioned to create portraits of a loved one who has passed — allegedly without any photographic evidence of the subject.
One of these mediums, Joseph Shiel, explains his process: “The Spirit Portrait session is a Mediumistic reading during which I also draw recognizable likenesses of departed loved-ones encountered during the reading, without the use of photographs and without possessing any prior knowledge of them or their physical characteristics.” He directs potential clients to a gallery of his portraits juxtaposed with photographs received after the readings. There are certainly some objective similarities between the portraits and the photographs.
This practice harkens back to the mid 1800s, when Georgiana Houghton (1814 —1884) “drew extraordinarily vibrant and colorful expressions of spiritual abstraction” during séances. Some of these works were displayed as recently as 2016 at London’s Courtauld Institute. Her goal — and the goal of her fellow spirit-artists of this era — was to convince people that “the spirit world existed and that spirits could interact with the living."
Centuries later, the phenomenon endures. In 1979, Elsie Dubugras published a book, Is That You, Renoir?, about a preeminent Brazilian medium-artist, Luiz Antônio Gasparetto, who is said to have entered trances during which he channeled the spirits of famous deceased artists. Dubugras points to a number of curious features in his process: the images looked professional but were done in as little as 30 seconds, without any technical training; the styles varied but were consistent with the artist he was channeling; and his ambidexterity seemed only to exist during the trance-like state. Indeed, he would often draw “two heads simultaneously”—sometimes upside down, or even with his feet—and “each hand [would] sign the name of the discarnate artist responsible for that picture.”
The naysayers, of course, are as persistent as the artists themselves. The Bangs Sisters present one such case: in the late 19th century, they created “‘precipitated paintings’ in which portraits of deceased loved ones and friends appeared on canvases with no humans holding a brush to the canvases.” Several experiments with implements such as a cleverly-placed mirror were conducted to prove the fraudulent nature of their practice. The legislature in Illinois passed an anti-séance bill in response.
To little avail, of course, as prohibitions on human nature usually are. Today, artists like Fernando Orellana create work that is “designed to be used posthumously.” In his series Shadows, he uses items purchased from recent estate sales. He explains, “The personal objects found in these techno-effigies are in a constant state of potential energy, awaiting their owner’s return. By monitoring sudden fluctuations in temperature, infrared, and electromagnetic readings, the machines try to open a channel or doorway into the neither world…[giving the] dead an opportunity to continue interacting in this world and the next.”
Other art related to mediumship is more documentary in nature. Since 2001, Shannon Taggart has been photographing séances at the famous Spiritualist center in Lily Dale, New York. She is compiling it all into a book—with a foreword written by Dan Aykroyd, fourth-generation Spiritualist and creator of the Ghostbusters films—that will “coalesce her years of research and experience into a work that’s part art project, part ethnographic study.” Some of the photographs experiment with artistic techniques, as she plays “with the inherent mistakes in the process, flare, overexposure, underexposures… and [finds] metaphors for the invisible experience that are really synchronistic.”
She notes that the invention of photography and the practice of Spiritualism were (and are) natural bedfellows, emerging around the same period in history. “Almost immediately, they were brought together in an attempt to prove the Spiritualist dimension. It came about at this time that science was showing all these other hidden realms, like X-rays and bacteria, why couldn’t it show this spirit realm?” she says. Furthermore, “The first séances…[were] down the street a half a mile from where Kodak built its headquarters in Rochester.” The advent of ghost-hunting reality television and the popularity of paranormal videography can be traced to these contemporaneous early years of Spiritualism and photography.
All things considered, one thing is clear: across the centuries, we seem to harbor this compulsion to communicate with the dead. Perhaps it’s rooted in a universal fear of the concrete, inexorable death that awaits us all. If we can somehow reach a lingering piece of those who perish, then maybe we never really die. Maybe Spiritualism in all its many forms—including the art of the séance and of mediumship—is a way to outwit the tyrannical despot of death.
But what if accessing the spirits of late artists—as well as our loved ones—is easier than we can imagine? What if the things we create in life are a means of communicating from beyond the grave? C.M. Craver writes, “…Vibrations of life from dead artists abound. Spirits come from just around the bend in this river of time we’re all caught in. If we’re lucky, their ghosts will walk beside us for a while and push back this pounding world.”
You need not conduct a séance. You really need not go farther than your local museum. Craver admits, “Monet’s olive trees brought me to tears once inside a Texas museum. I walked up, and chocked back tears. Swiping at my eyes, I trotted away, telling myself ‘this is ridiculous.’ Before I left for the day, I garnered courage to take another look at those trees, which do little for me now. A middle-aged woman was standing there, wiping her eyes. How can someone dead and gone do that? Oh, yes. I believe in ghosts.”
Note* Images in the public domain (1,2); Image curtesy of Amazon (3). Image curtesy of The library at Wellcome Collection (4)