Untold magic at Conway Hall

A journey into the occult

Exploring magic, the dark vein running through the history and practice of art, The Haunted Gallery: Untold Stories of Art & Magic is an exciting conversation taking place at Conway Hall on 25th March. Hear from artists, archivists, curators and authors as they delve into the world of the occult. We talk to some of the speakers ahead of the event. 

Why do you think magic and the occult continue to be of interest to people in today’s world?

Rachel House, Artist: Most of us grew up with tales of magic. I moved seamlessly from Andre Norton, E. Nesbit and Alan Garner to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Angela Carter. As a child I longed to find a magical amulet, to slip into another world. I still do. I see magic now appealing a great deal to those who wish to change the world, who may lack agency. Young women, queer and trans folk. It’s used as a political action, alongside care for the planet and each other. It will always be with us at Conway Hall.

Vivienne Roberts, curator, and archivist at The College of Psychic Studies: I think that the interpretive nature of art enhances the idea of the otherworldly and magical as it engages with a wider audience in a language that is universal and familiar to them. Art therefore can be a portal through which the viewer can discover for themselves whether the phenomena may exist. This may be through the realisation of an inherent understanding within themselves or it may inspire them to carry out further research which develops into their own magical practice.

Have you learnt anything new from working on this event? 

Scott Wood, London Fortean Society: When I started on this event I knew there was a point where art and the idea of magic blur. I really wasn’t ready for just how deep the idea of evoking change through art and ritual goes. I hope to explore more.

Do you think artistic depictions of the occult serve as greater evidence that these phenomena exist, or does the interpretive nature of art undermine the very thing it seeks to record? 

Victoria Jenkins Tate Archivist and author of Visions of the Occult: An Untold Story of Art and Magic: The nature of occult and paranormal phenomena means there will also be debates around the trust status of these ideas, and whilst I think it is important that both sides of the argument are acknowledged, I also feel occult artworks and artistic practices are engaged with on their own terms, without authoritative comment on their veracity. Rather than being discredited as foolish superstition, I believe these beliefs should be explored as they offer potent repositories for knowledge and generate new narratives outside established powers.

Do you have a favourite artwork related to magic/the occult?

VJ: Hard to pick favourites! I am always in love with Leonor Fini’s Sphinx paintings; her Sphinx-Women are captivating and powerful and feel like a rejection of the passive female nudes in art history and a rebuttal to the Surrealist ‘Femme-enfant’ or female-muse. The Sphinx painting included in Visions of the Occult Little Hermit Sphinx 1948, is quite unusual compared to her later works; the Sphinx appears more muted in colour and vigour. I feel like she is still very potent; the Sphinx appears in a moment of pause and reflection but is still subtly menacing; she is surrounded by fragments of bones and an organ – identified by Fini as a human lung – is hanging from the doorway above her.

Phil Baker, author of Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London’s Lost Artist: I’d say Albrecht Durer’s Four Witches, and second choice the Peacock Stage in Alchemy, Plate 16 of the alchemical manuscript Splendor Solis.

Rachael House, Artist: I do like the spells made by Linda Stupert. They are political, pointed, humorous and powerful. I first saw them at Still I Rise: Feminisms Gender and Resistance at the De La Warr Pavilion.

VR: Madge Gill’s amazing drawings always give me such pleasure to see. They often didn’t have titles, but it is the ones that have flourishes of symbols and glyphs that draw my attention. Magical and enigmatic wonders that are waiting to be decoded.

Why should everyone come to this event at Conway Hall?

SW: I think we’re peeking behind the veil of something that is close to our understanding of art and how much magical thinking is within artistic practice. The talks we’ll be covering may introduce outsiders like Madge Gill and Austin Osman Spare to some of our audience but there will be more familiar names too. Consider this a look into a world of magic that exists alongside the everyday one.

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