Fine art: The Spiritualist who stumbled into abstract art

Glory be to God (1868) by Georgiana Houghton

Georgiana Houghton’s Spirit Drawings, which form a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, coincides with a new swing towards the spiritual in contemporary art. Spiritual art’s leading light, Hilma af Klint, exhibited all the polytheism of a New Age shaman at the Serpentine Gallery: gilt-leaved suns; pyramids; crucifixes. Raven Row showed Channa Horwitz’s yogi-inspired minimalism.

Mindfulness is all the rage: these exhibitions offer a complete vision of a world for “complete” people. Houghton said she was communicating with the undead when she painted: by table-rapping, similar to using ouija boards.

Houghton’s paintings (which also emerged during an upsurge in interest in spiritualism) take the form of yellow, red, green and blue tendon-like lines, often covered with white, thread-like networks, which look like muscles, or synaptic systems, magnified. Again, you get the sense of a “complete vision”, of a microcosm, however small or large, which is shown in all its components.

Houghton was born in 1814 in Las Palmas, on Grand Canaria. She was the daughter of a merchant who squandered money in ill-fated deals, living modestly in Upper Craven Place, Kentish Town. She was an influential spirit medium, at first inspired by a neighbour and then by the American wave of spiritualism that arrived on British shores in 1852.

Soon Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite, was attending seances; Whistler also began experimenting with spirit-rapping. Houghton has been called “abstract avant la lettre”: it cannot be overstated that she pioneered psychological, spiritual painting, and her paintings are interesting for that fact alone. Like Klint, she realised that her work was before its time; her white, slender threads speak of the age of electricity, telephones and high-speed travel.

It is hard, however, to be bowled over by the small paintings of Houghton. We know what they are saying, but they are weak enough for us to want to change the subject a moment after leaving the gallery. The tendrils of our senses can easily become adaptive to its environment. What we need is something truly transcendental: a Kiefer of spiritual art, to make a dent in our hard world, superficially interconnected though it may be by the internet.