… An interview to Pilar Bonet
Perhaps because to a large extent the contemporary feeling is polarized between apocalyptic predictions and a profound disenchantment, nowadays we are especially attracted to those minds that had been touched by something sacred and that did not submit to anything that would hinder their revelations.
The historiography has had to be revised, re-read the work of artists and Renaissance scholars under the dim light of their hermetic knowledge, or recognize that Newton’s fascination with alchemy is connected with his discovery of gravity.
Likewise, the plastic work of occultists and esoteric concepts has been seen in recent biennials of art (Venice 2013), while collective exhibitions reinforce the links between art and mysticism (Nada temas, dice ella, 2016, a title came from a Teresa de Ávila’s poem).
Special mention deserves The Black Light, an ongoing show in CCCB (Barcelona), an expression that in itself (even if we don’t know its Sufi symbolism) evokes us the paradox of what is shown without being shown, a magic oxymoron: what is invisible but facilitates a “vision”.
Art critic and curator Pilar Bonet defines herself as a researcher of “collateral spaces of the history of art”, which brings us to the terrain of the borderline, the non-hegemonic, which traditionally historiography had left aside.
Pilar, in recent years you have focused your research on art made by mediums and visionary women. It was the figure of Josefa Tolrà who made you feel interested in these issues?
During my doctoral thesis, I came across a piece of information that was for me a revelation: a drawings exhibition by an unknown medium, Josefa Tolrà, at Sala Gaspar (Barcelona), in 1956; an activity promoted by Club 49, a group that included some of the most progressive culture managers, occultism amateurs and alchemy lovers, fonded of hypnagogic experiences… Among them, painters such as Tàpies and Cuixart, the sculptor Villèlia, the art critics Alexander Cirici, the psychiatrist Obiols) and, of course, the poet Joan Brossa. Everyone was really impressed by the drawings and visions of this medium from Cabrils, although they didn’t write or spread any information about her. Leopoldo Pomés took an exceptional picture of Josefa Tolrà.
Breton, while considering that the Surrealist Automatism is based on the experiences of the mediums, concluded that their works were not art. That is to say, almost all of them recognize their extraordinary creativity but place them outside aesthetic concerns and alien to historiographical studies. It does not matter, so we can locate our pathologies and repair it. Dubuffet adopts a much more generous approach in this area with his concept of Art Brut and considers that these forms of creation are pure art. From all that critical confrontation on forms of heterodox spirituality, mystical experience, domestic creativity or the art of embroidery, emerges the complex webs of my current space of resistance: creativity of sensitive women, mediums, visionaries and healers of the first third of the 20th century. It is fascinating and allows me to venture into the exploration of almost uncharted territory.
Healers, mediums, weavers …, being alien to the art world and not leaving their domestic environment these women experimented with all kinds of supports and extra-artistic materials that they had available: petals juice in the case of Aloïse Corbaz, nail polish or hair dye used by Jeanne Tripier … Even without transgressive ambition, can we say that they were pioneers in cutting-edge research?
Their art does not come from art, that is the basic premise. Their concerns are not artistic or commercial. The materials are poor, fragile… They use the wrapper of chocolate or threads of old fabrics, they draw on all kinds of papers. They do not claim originality or Épater les bourgeois. They do not experiment with the image, but they reveal the Image and share it as a spiritual and life mission. The embroideries, the drawings or the texts that they make are intuitive and come from inner visions, from the transcription of hearing or visual messages that are sent to them by “beings of light” (souls). They are not avant-garde in a historiographical sense, they are needed creations that they cultivate in other more humble and biological gardens. Some have received artistic training, such as Hilma af Klint or Nina Karasek, but they use this knowledge to work from the dictates and visions, more concerned with extrasensory communication and symbolic messages than formalisms. They deal with abstraction and figuration without pretending to be pioneers of anything, only modest mediators as they define themselves.
Josefa Tolrà was more than fifty years old when she began to draw, also Laure Pigeon, Anna Zemanková, Madge Gill and other women who considered themselves mediators or mediums. The expanded consciousness seems to develop in them after the death of a son or close relative. Compared to many cases of marginal lives (confinement, suicide, social exclusion…), what makes Josefa Tolrà a special case is the acceptance she found as a healer in her environment. What was that environment like?
Yes, most suffered the loss of loved ones and that pain gives them access to the non-material world. Josefa Tolrà, like Emma Kunz, acts as a channeler between the material and spiritual world through her mediumistic talent and practicing cures with her neighbors. Her ability to see the aura of people allows her to identify the affected spectra of the psyche and help through the laying on of hands and recipes of healing plants. Emma Kunz does it from certain minerals, the sacred geometry of her drawings and through the pendulum, that Josefa Tolrà also used. None of them charged and were respected.
In those years between the wars, the naturist culture and the philosophy of alternative life, like the recipes of the healers, were familiar. I think it is a very feminine tradition, related to taking care of the physical and mental health of others. The official medicine and the rationalist philosophy destructure and denigrate this type of knowledge. Since Descartes nothing has been the same. It is interesting to note that most of these women live for many years, above the average of the time. This is no doubt because they know they are responsible for a mission for humanity, as they mention sometimes. That’s why they resist, that’s why they work on their creations even at night, as Magde Gill or Julia Aguilar does: Our works are for the future. Indeed, now the future is here!
Drawing, writing and embroidering have been for many visionary women three interchangeable languages to mediate between the visible and the invisible world. Sewing as an encrypted or secret language has also been recovered by contemporary artists (Louise Bourgeois, Annette Messager, Ghada Amer) who wanted to “weave” their own destiny, rewrite myths (Arachne, Penelope). What role did the sewing for those women who created in hiding?
In a 1917 poem, Jean Arp writes: embroidery is more important than oil painting. The swallows are embroidering the sky for thousands of centuries... I agree with this fortunate poetic image and its political translation. All the women I write about were born at the end of the 19th century, so all the girls were used to sew and embroider but almost none had practiced painting. Therefore, when they receive the command Take a pencil and draw! they instinctively draw following the embroidery patterns, it is natural. It is easy to see this genealogy in their drawings of characters and floral elements, as Anna Zémanková does.
One day, looking closer at the drawings, I discovered that their drawings are like embroidery, not the other way around, and I realized that I was trapped in patriarchal hierarchies. I was betrayed by my background of art historian, but from that revelation, I knew that I could think freely and articulate future hypotheses, and that like them I also had a lot to learn and share. They drew to connect with their soul, but the twentieth century rejects this form of creativity. They are mature and rebellious women who want to take control of their destiny and don’t forget themselves, although some spend most of their lives in a psychiatric center. They don’t create clandestinely, but in the space of the domestic sphere, a privileged place to living in community and experience an ethical life. Some contemporary artists, all fascinating, continue in these coordinates of feminist thought through their textile works.
Breton wrote about mediums, fascinated by their power to automatic creation. However, he wanted to justify the surrealist research as being able to control the subconscious, using it on demand, thus distancing himself from those beliefs in the supernatural. Is not this ambiguity between rejection and fascination towards esotericism by avant-garde what has made its approach more difficult?
Breton’s fascination with subconscious messages and automatic writing is well known. Hence his observation about the mediums and the relationship with sensitive women in the circle of the Surrealists. Breton and the surrealist patriarchy recognize the talent of mediums like Hélène Smith, but deny that their creations are art (unlike their own experience as alpha creators in the art space). I believe that the art context is one among others settings of power, where forms of creativity related to gender or race are authorized or underestimated. As Judy Chicago says, Art in capital letters has always shown signs of its sexism, classism and racism throughout history.
I think, for example, of the interest that Josefa Tolrà aroused among Catalan artists and intellectuals, who even devoted an exhibition to her, but behind closed doors and in after hours. Dubuffet knew how to approach marginal art while respecting its secret, but by labeling it “art brut” and giving it market value, its mystery was in some way profaned. When investigating these issues, do you find these contradictions?
The Josefa Tolrà exhibition inaugurated in Mataró in December 2013 had more than four thousand visitors. Most were people separated from the world of contemporary art. The event was covered by the press and many felt interested in it. This data seemed to me revealing. We have placed their creations in spaces of art, the most institutional, but the reception and complicity overflow these territories and filter into multiple spaces of interest. Some of them did not want their works to come to light until long after their death, they knew that it was not the time yet. Emma Kunz predicted that her graphic creations were for the 21st century.
I understand that they knew that now is the time to share and unlearn, that now we can give the works their mission: recover the voice in feminine and act to make a better world (That envy does not tempt you). Her writings speak of social justice, the common good, conservation of nature, equality, fraternity and spirituality not regulated and without hierarchies. Josefa Tolrà, Hilma af Klint or Jane Ruffié, like other women who lived on the scene of a Europe that was sinking, were akin to spiritualism, theosophy, anarchism and free-thinking. Julia Aguilar was close to anarchism and she also did not agree to sell her works. Their drawings had a healing power and donated them to those who needed. Now there is a speculative market about their productions that highlights one of the many contradictions of a system that is able not only of desecrating spirituality but of annihilating the planet.
Yes, I feel the contradictions but in order to keep telling a story that spreads a review of our blunders and distortions. In February 2019 I will present an exhibition of embroideries, drawings and texts of sensitive women in a museum and it will be the first time that works in this re-reading direction are brought together in Spain. Most have never been seen in our country. They are unpublished or little-known creations. Josefa Tolrà wrote: Humility together with wisdom make us great and happy beings. They are the messengers.
Interviewed by Anna Adell