Art and Magic

“We rightly speak of the magic of art and compare the artist with a magician. But this comparison is perhaps more important than it claims to be. Art, which certainly did not begin as art for art’s sake, originally served tendencies which today have for the greater part ceased to exist. Among these we may suspect various magic intentions.” – Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (1913)

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future

Psychic tours at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC signaled a clear connection between magic and art. The Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future exhibit in 2019 had more than 600,000 visitors and holds the record for the most attended exhibition in the museum’s history.  The show also set records in catalog and membership sales.  Pure magic!

Group X, No. 1 Altarpiece, 1915 by Hilma af Klint. Guggenheim.

Judith Noble, a scholar and art witch from the UK, affirms the words of Freud in her analysis of contemporary attitudes toward magic.  “The notion of making art as being akin a magical act has probably been central to most cultures and periods of human history, with the ‘disenchantment’ of the last two centuries almost certainly being a rare exception.” Is the enchantment returning? Certainly, more exhibits have focused on occult art and history in the last decade than ever before.

The ecologist Timothy Morton argued that art is a kind of magic. Utilizing the theory of object-oriented ontology (OOO), Morton suggests, “art has an effect on me over which I am not in control. . .  In other words, magic. . .. Magic implies the intertwining of causality and illusion . . . Art sprays out charisma causality despite us”. He uses examples like the Rothko Chapel and the work of Olafur Eliasson. A sort of “submitting to an energy field” and seeing the causal result. Similar results happened at the Klint exhibit, and lovers of art readily agree with Morton’s “charisma causality.”

Playing Tarot by Leonora Carrington, 1955

The 2022 Venice Biennale is an upcoming magical event to look forward to after the COVID cancellations of so many art fairs. The pandemic clearly demonstrated that we could creatively experience art in a digital format – but it also revealed how much we value in-person interactions with art. The Biennale is magical on many levels. Cecilia Alemani is the first Italian woman to curate the show in its 127-year history, 180 of the 213 featured artists have never been shown at the biennale, and a majority of the artists are female and gender nonconforming. The umbrella theme for the biennale is taken from the Surrealist art witch Leonora Carrington and her children’s book The Milk of Dreams. Alemani was inspired by her magical illustrations and paintings on the walls of her Mexico City home. They were all centered around transformation – thus, Alemani organized the show to mirror the ideas of transformation of the body, the individual and technology, and bodies and the earth. Alemani encourages visitors to the biennale to look for “enchantment” in the structure, the artists, and their work.  Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Louise Nevelson are just some art witches with pieces in the biennale.  “According to . . . Carrington, we should best look to ‘the bewildering sea of enchantment’ to regain a sense of magic pervading our everyday lives.” But this is a challenge in a world filled with fear and divisiveness.

The ongoing concerns of the pandemic and the reality of the horrifying war in Ukraine are cause for much anger, grief and melancholy, and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. At odds with these feelings is a desire for some magic to give us hope – a search as Freud identified as “various magic intentions.” So, we must look for these enchantments that can lift us, such as a call for peace in Ukraine from pagans worldwide to the magical art of the Ukrainian artist Natalia Fedoryshyn and her piece Witch Painting.

Pavlo Makov, The Fountain of Exhaustion, 1995.

The Fountain of Exhaustion by Pavlo Makov, scheduled to be on display in the Ukrainian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, will be another example of magic as the curators are currently evacuating the work from a bomb shelter in Kyiv and attempting to move the piece to Venice. The curators are determined to present their work in defiance of the Russian invasion and their call to recover Ukrainian art from Russia.

I turn to my tarot deck for inspiration as I conclude this blog post, and the Ace of Wands is the card that I pull. A hopeful direction – new ideas and spiritual beginnings are brewing – art is magic.

Dr. Kathryn Sonne is professor of Literature at Cypress College.

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