The Other Side: A Journey into Women, Art and the Spirit World by Jennifer Higgie - review by Salley Vickers

Salley Vickers

Visions of the Astral Plane

The Other Side: A Journey into Women, Art and the Spirit World

By

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 320pp £22
 

The term ‘spiritual’ has a wide range of associations these days, sometimes betokening other world-directed experiences and at other times implying something more whimsical and soft-centred. Until the so-called Enlightenment, spiritual subjects in the West were a staple of art, music and literature, but from then on the spiritual began to lose its cachet as a respectable topic for the artist – so much so that by 1911 Kandinsky found it necessary to write a treatise entitled ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’. In it, he sets forth the ‘triple responsibility’ of the artist: ‘1. he must repay the talent given him; 2. his deeds, thoughts, and feelings, as concern all men, must create a spiritual atmosphere according to their nature; 3. these deeds, thoughts, and feelings are the artistic tools for his creations which, in turn, exercise influence on the spiritual atmosphere.’ In 1914 Kandinsky’s innovative works of abstract lines and colours were shown at the Baltic Exhibition in Malmö along with works, given a good deal less prominence, by two other artists, Georgiana Houghton and Hilma af Klint, whose preoccupations were of a similar kind. In fact, af Klint was ahead of her better-known male peer in adopting abstraction, but she, along with a group of fellow women artists known as De Fem (‘The Five’), until recently remained largely unknown.

Jennifer Higgie, herself a trained artist and a respected commentator on art, began to notice this anomaly and, with an attendant interest in the spiritual, took the opportunity of lockdown to withdraw to the Greek island of Amorgos in the Aegean (sensible woman) to explore the subject of hitherto neglected women artists whose métier was the spiritual in its varied manifestations. Her latest book, The Other Side, is the result.

Higgie entwines her exploration of her various subjects and their historical antecedents with details about her own artistic development and her reactions to her subjects’ work. This adds an often enlivening personal dimension to the book, though it feels at times as if the reminiscences come at the expense of

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