Janet Sobel Illusion of Solidity c 1945 2 570x428
Janet Sobel, Illusion of Solidity, c.1945. From Action, Gesture, Paint Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70, Whitechapel Gallery, 2023

Jennifer Higgie’s book, The Other Side: a journey into women, art and the spirit world (W&N, 2023), contextualises the works of European and American women artists from Victorian Spiritualists who communed through rapping, séance, and mediums, to contemporary practitioners like Goshka Macuga’s sculpture of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society. I was left wondering about the precarity of these artists, when the residue of failure is washed away, and we are left with great works to be encountered in galleries, museums, and biennales. I’m of the opinion that writers have a responsibility to write about moments when life is marked with contingency, to communicate a sense of possibility despite the crushing realism of our emotional and interpersonal worlds. Through art and our words, we can honour struggles that often remain hidden.

While searching for an analysis of present-day circumstances effecting creative work, I became an example against the smoothness of Higgie’s narrative. Time squeezed of opportunity to allow for distance, drift and emotional reflection, with many experiencing an obliteration of practices of close attention which can help us see into nuanced ecologies of being and identity. Ratcheting precarity, thoughts turned inside out, paranoia, impossible rent prices, evictions, the cost-of-living, insecure employment contracts. Innovation now filtered through funding cuts, decades of austerity, and grundig weighty cumbersome devotion to jousting in a world of competition. When public spaces of discussion hype incendiary and fraught antagonisms everything is delivered in the same hysterical, yet curiously flat, register.

Higgie’s book echoes a call to associate wellness with slowness, to make time to reflect a place of speculation, to embrace doubt and nurture curiosity. She describes working in hospitality into her mid-thirties and saving to self-finance a catalysing period of creative focus in Greece. In Greece she writes Bedlam (Lukas & Sternberg, 2006), her novel describing the incarceration and mental decline of Richard Dadd, a Victorian fairy painter who suffered a mental collapse and murdered his father. Higgie returns to Greece in 2021 to write about women artists and the spirit world, and themes of mental health and creativity are again woven into The Other Side. How does one distinguish between the merely important and the essential? Especially when faced with infrastructures which impinge and hinder our imagination.

‘As I wake up and look across the bay, which is graced by a statue of Erato, the muse of lyric poetry, and up to the mountains, the site of the ancient city of Minoa, and out the turquoise seam where the horizon shifts constantly—I am reminded again that in Greece the possibility of a spirit world isn’t so startling.

A headless statue of Nausicca seems to float on a rock in front of the graveyard. […] I swim out to her; it’s about 200 meters or so.’ (Higgie, p.71)

Higgie is held by water, suspended in the safety that enables her to leave a stable job working as an editor for frieze and write a book detailing the lives of women who struggled, derided as eccentric and dangerous, overlooked and undermined. I leave the room and go to the woods where I run to feel less restricted. It takes a long time to start things flowing, I need to be strenuous, to no longer feel limited in my body and my head. I let anger rise and adrenaline processes my anger. Some artists have time, while others get sick from the contingency of various factors such as stability and resources, which are not always equally available to everyone.

Reading The Other Side coincided with shifts which forced me to scrutinise my own mental health and the psychological wellbeing of those very close to me. A flat expanse trammelled with the weight of mental energies, sleeping badly, ruminating. High blood pressure? No. Low blood pressure. Interpersonal relationships once marked with love were constrained by depression. Nothing was stable, least of all on a material plane, everything I took for granted as grounding; housing, parents, health, relationships, work, was exhaustively in flux. ‘Practices of attention and curiosity are inherently open-ended, oriented toward something outside of ourselves,’ writes Jenny Odell in How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House Publishing, 2019). I sought to cultivate a state of openness and receptivity that would touch on a transcendental embrace of a broader, more expansive sense of being. I made a commitment to access different levels of meaning, to tune into the socio-political relevance of what I was experiencing day-to-day as part of a networked whole. To meditate on the context of social history and sanity by looking at where imagination can roam in times of distress.

I prioritised being present with change, to see curiosity as a forward driving device, to move attention back and forth between different registers. Susannah Stark’s performance at the Old Hairdressers on 22 February presented possibilities for dissociation as sublime floating. Her music suspending weightlessness and opacity with the unfathomable facets of existence. Adele Patrick and Ingrid Pollard’s talk at GSA on the 3 March rallied accounts where the simultaneity of impatience and patience for change underscores the absolute necessity of gathering. Where the presence of togetherness is a mark of commonality to acknowledge and ask what can be accepted for friendship but also for a public. Ayla Dmyterko invited me to sit in on a rehearsal for a new film work she is developing with Alexander Hetherington and Kirstin Halliday. The practice of compassion evident in her working methods prompted me to attend to the aspects of slowness that I would typically ignore.

We talked about Janet Sobel, an artist Higgie discusses and one of my best-loved figures in the book. Born Jennie Olechovsky in Ukraine, Janet, as she renamed herself, emigrated to New York in 1907 after her father was killed in a pogrom (Higgie, p.156). I saw two of Sobel’s paintings at Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-1970 at Whitechapel Gallery. Janet Sobel is credited with pioneering the drip method, later appropriated by Jackson Pollock with little acknowledgment. However, despite her undeniable skill, Clement Greenberg dismissed her as an amateurish housewife and ‘primitive painter’. Sobel’s work highlights how gender and spirituality were often conflated to undermine talent. In contrast to Greenbergian analysis, which placed greater emphasis on a painting’s formal qualities and appearance than on its content, Sobel’s art challenges the calcification of modernity as cold, slick, rational.

Higgie retells an account of Hilma af Klint’s practice of staring at a glass of water for hours to clear her mind. With the Hilma af Klint show now open at Tate Modern, the timeliness of The Other Side underscores a resurgent interest in modernist artists engaging with technology without insisting on a dichotomy between the spiritual and scientific invention. The work of these artists share tactics of preservation against the grind of late capitalism and ways to see glimmers of near mystical unfathomability. These sections on Klint are Higgie’s strongest, patent enjoyment is communicated through her first-person anecdotal style.

The stylistic effect of her use of the first person accentuates different material contingencies for an artist working now and those of Higgie’s generation, in contrast to the distinct social realities of today and for the artists active in the late 19th to the mid-20th century. Work and how one subsidises being an artist are brought into stark realisation which often feels at odds with creativity. For some this can cause a dysmorphic inability to recognise self-worth or locate gratification, culminating in shattering effects on mental health.

What Higgie does well is to describe these figures as ‘outliers’ (p.264) who pushed against the societal strictures of sanity. While they may be described as eccentric, she does not dwell on the violent potential of appearing outside of the norm. However, I grew frustrated at the genteel description of how these artists rebelled against expectations of femininity and productive value—with the exception of references to Madam Blavatsky or Annie Besant, they appear to recapitulate idealised images of femininity as poised and palatable.

Higgie positions creativity as a social and discursive practice offering solace to those on the fringes of society. It involves discovering techniques that ground the individual in the world of experience, connecting with materials, atmospheres, and internal physical processes, just as touch did for Annie Albers. Cosmic thinking that disorders time and space is also essential, where artists have a responsibility to convey political messages in various modes, as Mary Wigman did with modern dance, ‘rescuing the human body from bourgeois society’, and Megan Watt Hughes did with the Eidophone which allowed her to create luminous paintings using coloured pastes on glass plates, shaped by the varying harmonics of her voice.

Recovery is a recurring theme that highlights alternative treatments, such as Ithell Colquhoun’s use of creativity to respond to trauma and instability, allowing her to ‘partially escape… to bring healing’. The figures Higgie discusses offer new ways to live in the world for the ‘cracked people’, as Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon called them. These artists demonstrate that there is always a sense of possibility that touches on the transcendental. However, if we are to explore a mixture of feeling and politic in a joyous unpacking of art-as-work, we must turn from sublated feeling to enact a celebration of moving through histories of the body in difficulty.

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Jude Browning is a performance artist, curator and writer based in Glasgow.

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Jennifer Higgie is an Australian novelist, screenwriter, art critic and writer who lives in London. Between 1998-2003 she was frieze magazine reviews editor; co-editor until 2017; frieze editorial director from 2017-19 and editor-at-large until 2021. She is the author of The Mirror and the Palette: Revolution, Rebellion and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021) and the presenter of Bow Down, a podcast about women in art history.