I am very proud to announce a new activity by the Visionary Artists, Visionary Objects (1800-now) research network. Between 28-30 September, four of the network members are participating in a panel at the biennial conference of the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture (ISRLC) at the University of Uppsala, Sweden.
With the overall conference theme of “the place of truth“, in the panel we are going to explore the dynamics – and challenges – of the notion of truth in visionary art.
See below for the abstracts of the talks in our panel and speaker information.
Please be in touch if you would like to be involved in future activities.
ISRLC VISUAL ARTS SESSION 1
Depicting Visionary Truths:
Panel by the research group Visionary Artists, Visionary Objects (1800-now)
Throughout modernity, the truthfulness of institutional religious claims has been increasingly doubted and questioned, while artists began to offer transformed and new metaphysical claims through their works of art. The papers in this panel explore the conceptual relevance of the visionary, to shed light on visual art’s functioning against the backdrop of the dramatically transforming socio-cultural position of institutionalized religions.
1. Finding Truth in Visionary Art
Dr. Lieke Wijnia – University of Groningen
The introduction to this panel sets out a short overview of the concept of the visionary in art. Tying together utopian thinking and spiritual practices, this concept draws attention to metaphysical questions and concerns. Negotiating between the imagination and alternative realities, one of the major challenges is how to understand the position of truth in visionary artistic practices. Do artists create works to provide a sense of truthfulness to their visions? Or, vice versa, do visionary claims make artworks more true? Furthermore, the use of the visionary as an academic concept allows scholars to incorporate not only the artist’s intentions and practices, but also how the art is perceived by a wider audience. The afterlife of the artwork seems to play a crucial role in understanding art’s visionary -and to a certain extent truthful- characteristics.
2. Painting the ‘Vision Splendid’: Depicting the Truths of Modern Spiritualism
Dr. Michelle Foot – University of Edinburgh
In the early twentieth century, Scottish artist Alfred Edward Borthwick (1871-1955) established his career painting the union of matter and spirit. Using a formulaic motif in his work, the artist repeatedly depicted the subject of mortals accompanied by spirit entities in order to convey the truth of Spiritualism: that human personality survives bodily death and the spirits continue to maintain a presence in the mortal realm. The matter-and-spirit trope signified the belief that spirits were engaged in communication with mortals. Borthwick often worked within a Christian-Spiritualist vein, whereby Christ characterized the ultimate individual spirit to communicate with spirit-mediums.
This paper will examine Borthwick’s work in terms of how his paintings proclaimed the truth of Spiritualism and therefore appealed to Spiritualists. It will recognize how the materiality of the artwork was second to the spiritual conception of the idea it represented. Borthwick’s work was interpreted by his Spiritualist viewers as being inspired by clairvoyance. His paintings were perceived as the ‘vision splendid’; being both beautiful and spiritual in their quality they were seen as didactic of the central tenet of Spiritualism. By drawing on letters authored by a Spiritualist and sent to the artist in the 1930s, and reviews of his work in national newspapers, it is possible to gauge the response to Borthwick’s artistic vision. This will reveal to what extent Spiritualists wished to claim the artworks as artefacts of truth.
3. The Writing’s on the Wall: Belshazzar’s Feast and the Anxiety of Inscribing Visionary Truths
Dr. Michelle Fletcher – King’s College London
Daniel 5 is a Biblical text about writing, and the anxiety it evokes. When a hand appears that inscribes a cryptic message on the wall before King Belshazzar and his guests, what it is transmitting is far from clear, and the king is terrified. The focus of this paper is how artists have engaged with this visionary act of writing, and how this in turn complicates conceptions of the written word as the locus of truth. To do this, I will focus on two Daniel-dialoguing visualizations that ascribe particular importance to the medium of writing within the scene: Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast, and Susan Hiller’s Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on Your Wall. I will explore how these visualizations of Daniel 5 have chosen not to cut ties with textual trappings, but to re-inscribe the medium into their work. Particular attention will be given to Rembrandt’s arrangement of the Aramaic inscription, which exhibits a concern with veracity in a way rare among visual portrayals of Daniel 5, and to Hiller’s practice of the ‘paraconceptual’ with its focus on exploring the ‘distinction between literally reading and understanding signs or marks and interpreting them’. Through Rembrandt’s luminous letters and Hiller’s video, vision transcriptions, empirical recollections, automatic writing, and news reports, this paper will encounter notions such as version control, the fragility of translation, the numinous characteristics of inscriptions, memory and misrepresentation, and free association interpretation. This leads back to the anxiety evoked by the writing in Daniel 5, which demonstrates how when Daniel states ‘This is the interpretation of the matter’, its visionary truth is precariously insubstantial.
4. Complexities of Visionary Artistic Practices
Dr. Naomi Billingsley – University of Manchester
As co-convener of the international research network Visionary Artists, Visionary Objects (1800-now), Naomi Billingsley will respond to the three paper presentations. In her response, she will address overall findings and challenges that are of relevance in the study of the visionary in artistic practices. She will then open the floor for discussion of all of the papers in this session.
Cover Image: Detail of Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1635), National Gallery, London.