A visionary in dialogue with contemporary art
Acclaimed in her home canton of Aarau with a new exhibition at the Aargauer Kunsthaus, the Swiss nineteenth century healer, researcher and artist speaks more than ever to our modern psyche.
“May this place of strength become a meeting place where cultural, spiritual and healing accomplishments come together”.Emma Kunz
At a time when the world reels from the impact of the worst health crisis in a generation, the impulse to heal and self-nurture has become a universal preoccupation. Coinciding with these curative instincts is the work of Swiss artist and alternative practitioner Emma Kunz. Born in Brittnau in 1892, Kunz used clairvoyant skills to heal patients using a pendulum. In the process, she created over five hundred artworks.
Only since 1973, ten years after her death when the Aargauer Kunsthaus first showed Kunz’s work has she been considered a relevant figure within the art historical canon. Today, an intense fascination with the artist is emerging.
Kunz declared that her work was “for the 21st century”, or a time when people would be able to understand it. Encompassing research, medicine, nature, the supernatural, magical, animistic and the visionary, Kunz anticipated what is now accepted. Set against today’s brutal climate and the desire for both human restoration and a wider concern for the environment, her time, arguably, has arrived.
On the occasion of her first UK solo show at the Serpentine Gallery in Spring 2019, Hans Ulrich Obrist, the museum’s artistic director described her as an “artist’s artist”, adding that “she had the feeling that these drawings were for the next century, that they were somehow not for her own time.”
Emma Kunz did not see herself as an artist per se. According to Yasmin Afschar, art historian and curator of a new exhibition Emma Kunz Cosmos A visionary in dialogue with contemporary art, “the image of an artist that she had at the time was the opposite of what she did. We know that she was acquainted with at least one artist, Albert Velti who was a very conventional painter of landscapes in Switzerland. Hers was an entirely different approach. She considered herself to be a researcher and healer”.
The multi-dimensional practice she pursued over eighty years ago exemplifies an expanded concept of art. Where attention is now given to a shifting dialogue about who and what fits within the construct of contemporary art, elevating Kunz as a holistic visionary within an art context takes on a greater significance.
“The question is could she nowadays identify herself as an artist because we have another understanding of what art can be and do?” suggests Afschar.
Healing society, healing the planet
Kunz had no formal artistic training and kept no written notes about her drawings or experiments. Sceptical of language and words, viewing them as “too one-dimensional” for her holistic practice, her intentions were instead channeled through the geometric designs she created via radiesthesia. Using a pendulum for divining solutions to questions on health or nature, her drawings were made to heal patients. Further than that, they presented an alternative way of communicating.
While current discourse focuses on Kunz as an artist, she remains a pioneering figure in many disciplines. Coupled with the fact that she didn’t ever exhibit publicly in her lifetime, it is, perhaps, one of the reasons why she remained an outsider to the art world.
Her interest in extraordinary phenomena stemmed from childhood. Preoccupied by the symbolism of numbers, botany, clairvoyance and telepathy, she worked primarily as a herbalist and naturopath, known for making medicines from the plants and flowers in her garden to cure medical or psychological ailments. Her friends called her ‘Penta’.
“The people who knew her remember her as a healer” says Afschar, “there are many healing successes recorded that she accomplished during her lifetime”.
Though they shared certain values, Kunz chose not to engage with existing schools of thought of the day. In Dornach, close to where she grew up, Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical movement at the Goetheanum was promoting holistic world views. Kunz never visited. Neither did she travel.
“She was seen as a maverick, a loner, who had almost no exchange with other researchers or healers. She wasn’t aware of the contemporary art scene in Switzerland and wasn’t really in touch with the anthroposophical association”.
Five hundred drawings
At the age of forty six, she began to make drawings using a specially-made pendulum in silver and jade. Tracing the instrument’s movements onto graph paper with the help of an orientation plate, these complex visions of energy fields were tools for achieving solutions to specific questions posed either by herself or a patient.
Guided by her pendulum, Kunz began with pencil points, adding connecting lines and finally colours to build up expansive geometrical systems. Mostly 1m by 1m in size, they remain undated, untitled and unsigned.
“Not much is known about their formal development, for example, when they were made or their order. We do know that when she started a drawing it could take up to twenty-four hours, during which time she wouldn’t eat or drink” explains Afschar. “Sometimes she called a neighbour to talk about the drawing and what it meant to her”.
Using the same process for each piece, the body of work she created is strikingly varied. Numerous motifs and subjects are evident. Figurative animal and human forms, nature or mandala-like, linear representations are drawn in coloured pencil, chalk and oil pastel. Some are symmetrical, others not.
“She would never put away a finished drawing forever… She embraced the notion of repetition and appropriation and would reuse the drawings, for example, for a new vision or question from a patient. She would think about those she had previously made, put it on the table and discuss with her patient”.
The works themselves, says Afschar, provide clues about how they were used. Multiple fixture holes or fingerprints suggest that certain drawings were used often, to solve problems of a similar nature. Others appear untouched. Kunz continued to produce them from 1938 until she died.
In 1942, Kunz claimed to have found healing powers in the stone of a Roman quarry in Würenlos. Her discovery was made through a young patient whose father owned the site. The boy who suffered from polio was treated with the clay which Kunz named Aion A. Still mined from the same place, the powdered rock is sold in Swiss pharmacies and used to treat numerous health issues from joint and muscular pain to skin disorders. The packaging is decorated with an image of one of the drawings.
Calling Emma Kunz
When she died, her estate was left to her sisters, then to a nephew. It wasn’t until Anton C Maier (the young patient who had been cured by Kunz) took over that her body of work was introduced to the art world.
Maier showed the drawings to numerous curators including Heiny Widmer, then director of the Aargauer Kunsthaus. Widmer was the first to present almost ninety works in the 1973 exhibition entitled The Case of Emma Kunz (one of the drawings was bought by the Swiss surrealist painter and friend Meret Oppenheim). Intrigued by the diversity and universality of the pendulum drawings, Widmer equally recognised that Kunz’s work required a new understanding of art.
The Aargauer Zeitung wrote about a « sensational discovery in the Aargauer Kunsthaus. » In the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung her work was reported as « impressive and questionable » which « fulfills all the functions of art. »
Yet further criticism focusing on Kunz’s ‘liberal and natural’ lifestyle as a healer detracted from her legitimate claim to art.
In Bern, two years later, Swiss curator Harald Szeemann included Kunz in the exhibition The Bachelor Machines and again in 1991 in Visionary Switzerland, held to commemorate the Swiss Confederation’s 700thanniversary. Szeemann gave centre stage to the work of “great Swiss artists such as Paul Klee, Meret Oppenheim, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Giacometti, and Merz, juxtaposed with material on those who wanted to change the world such as Max Daetwyler, Karl Bickel, Ettore Jelmorini…. (and) Emma Kunz”.
Wishing to bring attention to how Kunz produced and used her images as tools for consultation, Szeemann positioned the drawings on a plinth. An upright stone from the quarry in Würenlos was also displayed alongside.
Of Kunz, Szeemann wrote:
“Her gift was an awareness of connections that contradicted both normal experience and scientific interpretations of the laws of Nature and art. This was a supernatural event, a miracle that, in revealing divine truths conveyed a secret impulse on a par with that of cosmic creation. Emma Kunz’s drawings are attempts to find a universal connection. They are the records of her concentration on the question of the Whole”.
Reaching future generations
Following negative comment about her unusual vocation, Kunz left her hometown in 1951 and settled in Appenzell where healers and naturopaths could practice freely. She lived a secluded life, remaining single. Not wanting to be questioned about her status, Afschar says “she always had a man’s hat and coat hanging up by the entrance to give the impression that there was a man in the house”.
The Appenzell years were highly productive for Kunz. In 1953, she made a polarisation study of flowers. Kunz allegedly swung her pendulum over a bed of marigolds in her garden. In doing so, she altered the way the marigolds grew so that they produced multiple, additional blooms. The resulting photographs of flourishing plants which were unexplained by the traditional rules of botany only added to the myth surrounding her practice.
Kunz’s work remained firmly within the marginal confines of ‘outsider’ for many years. Initial attempts to raise her into the field of contemporary art began in Paris with an exhibition at the Centre Culturel Suisse in 1992. Oh! Cet Echo! organized by Bice Curiger, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Bernard Marcadé juxtaposed her works with those of forty-five international contemporary artists including Sigmar Polke, Isa Genzken, Mike Kelley and Rosemary Trockel.
Her international reputation as an abstract artist was bolstered thirteen years later in 3 x Abstraction at the Drawing Centre, New York. Taking new methods of drawing as its theme, the show also included works by Swedish artist Hilma af Klint and Agnes Martin. In New York, Kunz was brought to the attention of Massimiliano Gioni, the Italian curator, contemporary art critic and artistic director of the New Museum. For the 55th Venice biennale in 2013, he featured Kunz’s work in ‘Il Palazzo Enciclopedico’, an exhibition addressing the line between the insider and outsider artist.
In 2018 World Receivers at the Lenbachhaus in Munich put together the mediumistic practices of Hilma af Klint, Georgina Houghton and Emma Kunz and the recent Visionary Drawings at the Serpentine Gallery in 2019 presented over forty rarely-seen works in an exhibition conceived with artist Christodoulos Panayiotou before travelling to the Museum Susch in the eastern Swiss mountains.
In 1986, the Emma Kunz Centre was founded by Meier at the site of the quarry. Seventy drawings are displayed in the adjoining museum. Works by the Zurich iron sculptor Heinz Niederer are exhibited an outbuilding.
Today, the centre is a haven for calm contemplation. Through a swing gate, visitors to the site are greeted with a quiet, light-filled area where nature and art harmoniously combine. Gravel paths lined with ruby and white angel trumpets lead to the grotto located underneath a forest. In the summer, bees buzz amongst the hollyhocks, Kunz’s favourite flower. Daisies and daylilies dot the landscape scattered with stone blocks, quarry tools and a former sawmill. A cat plays guardian. The place exudes nourishment and generosity.
Sixty drawings, fourteen contemporary artists
The current show in the Swiss-German town of Aarau is part of the museum’s impressive exhibition program largely dedicated to contemporary art. One of the only institutions to hold works by Kunz in its permanent collection, it is within this 21st century context that sixty drawings by Kunz, some of which are being shown for the first time are positioned in dialogue with recent works by fourteen other international artists.
“The idea is to show how Emma Kunz accomplished her practice, which was a holistic practice and thinking in a time where it was not usual, but where nowadays this same approach seems very natural and topical if you look at contemporary art” explains Afschar.
“She moved freely between the disciplines and did not make any differentiation between art or non-art. She invited up her art practice to a wide range of aspects to include research, medicinal, natural, magical, visionary or the supernatural”.
Artists such as Shana Moulton, Goshka Macuga, Agnieszka Brzeżańska, Florian Graf, Mai-Thu Perret and Eitan Efrat & Sirah Foighel Brutmann all personally respond either to Kunz’s own practice or to key themes linked to her work. “Animism, ecology, vision, mapping and healing are all very topical themes right now in the pandemic” says Afschar.
The show also includes a space dedicated to her healing practice. Recorded interviews with friends and patients, archival material and the pendulum she used are on display.
Emma Kunz died in Waldstatt in 1963. Her final drawing depicts a pyramidal form, crowned by yellow, a colour symbolising the spiritual or the divine. Her accomplishments sit alongside those of other rediscovered women artists who were ahead of their time, daring to go beyond the boundaries of art and science, spirituality and abstraction.
Kunz’s teachings are as prescient as ever. Her art was a by-product of her therapeutical endeavours. Today, the act of making art serves as the therapy itself. And it might just heal the soul of the nation.
Emma Kunz Cosmos A visionary in dialogue with contemporary art at the Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau from 2 March to 24 May.
For further information go to www.aargauerkunsthaus.ch
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