Friday, 7 June 2019

Seeing and believing on the BBC


The final episode of the three-part BBC series Victorian Sensations, broadcast on 5 June 2019, was titled ‘Seeing and Believing’.  It was presented by Philippa Perry, whose remit was to examine the last decade of the nineteenth century to show, at a time when established religion was under pressure, how the Victorians squared major scientific and technological developments with their interest in the paranormal, particularly life after death.  Perry is a psychotherapist who appears to have no credentials in this area and spent much of her time depicting wide-eyed awe.

It was a rich field to get her teeth into with only an hour to do it, and the result was not entirely satisfactory.  She began by describing Marconi’s work, noting the parallel between the development of wireless telegraphy and the possibilities of telepathy and contact with those in the afterlife, utilising the supposed ether. Such speculations demonstrated that the implications of scientific developments, such as communication at a distance by invisible means, could be co-opted by Spiritualists and psychical researchers.

Naturally we were shown examples of physical mediumship.  In a segment on spirit photography, Almudena Romero, not a noted expert and looking out of her depth, attempted to demonstrate the principles.  W T Stead’s Julia’s Bureau, set up to allow messages to pass between living and dead, and Stead’s association with Ada Goodrich Freer, with whom he conducted editorial meetings telepathically (though contrary to the impression given they did use the postal service as well), was the subject of some amusement.  Slightly off-topic was a segment on the fascination with life on Mars and its depiction in popular culture.

For part of the film Perry relied on the archive of the Society for Psychical Research at Cambridge, visiting the University Library to leaf through the records that make up the 1894 Census of Hallucinations and describe a crisis apparition.  The scientific and psychical researches of Sir Oliver Lodge (SPR president 1901-1903 and 1932) featured prominently, while other famous SPR members William James (SPR president 1894-1895), Alfred Russel Wallace and William Gladstone received name-checks.  Conan Doyle was shown getting his hands dirty going out on an SPR poltergeist investigation at Charmouth, in Devon.

Oddly, considering how prominent the SPR was in the programme, meriting first-billing in the acknowledgements at the end, nobody from the Society was interviewed.  Instead Matthew Tompkins popped up, presumably on the back of his Wellcome exhibition-related book The Spectacle of Illusion, to discuss Eusapia Palladino and some of the tricks mediums used in the séance room, including a demonstration of slate writing the secret of which, as a magician as well as a psychologist, he did not reveal.

There was an intriguing programme trying to get out on the overlap between psychical research and the new medium of cinema, which early on began featuring spooky themes.  While there was a mention of Hove filmmaker James Williamson, as Perry pointlessly recreated his The Big Swallow, there was no reference at all to G A Smith, who would have exemplified the connections between psychical research – working as hypnotist, among other things, for the SPR – and later, as a colleague of Williamson’s, as a film pioneer.  Bryony Dixon, silent film curator at the British Film Institute, was interviewed at length and showed a variety of trick film snippets, so it was a surprising omission.  And if you are going to quote from Maxim Gorky’s famous essay beginning, ‘Last night I was in the kingdom of shadows,’ why call him ‘one early reviewer’ rather than give his name?

Despite the weaknesses it was good to see the SPR receive this much coverage in a mainstream programme, and treated with respect rather than as an organisation filled with cranks.  Perry was at pains to show the extent to which its activities fitted in with scientific explorations of new frontiers in the 1890s, ‘an era when anything seemed possible’ as she put it, hence the SPR’s ability to attract a wide range of members, many of them possessing a scientific background.

Unfortunately she laid on the eccentric persona a little thickly, with the time-wasting Williamson ‘tribute’, having her picture taken sitting in front of someone completely covered by a sheet as a ‘spirit photograph’, and recording a humorous message on an Edison phonographic cylinder (there was nothing on Edison’s interest in communication with the dead either), but the programme was enjoyable as far as it went.  A better one would have ditched the Mars section, good for a documentary in its own right, and focused on the other topics in greater depth.

Monday, 20 May 2019

The Society for Psychical Research in Smoke and Mirrors at the Wellcome


The ‘Wellcome Collection’ in Euston Road, London, is currently running a free exhibition called Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic.  Divided into three sections, ‘The Medium’, ‘Misdirection’ and ‘Mentalism’, it considers the connections between stage magic, Spiritualism and psychical research, and how collectively they laid the groundwork for psychologists to study the vagaries of perception, memory and eyewitness testimony.

Members of the Society for Psychical Research were at the forefront of the scientific exploration of ways witnesses can be misled when experiencing séance room phenomena, demonstrating that what participants thought had occurred was often far from the reality.  Magicians also played a role despite the mystical trappings of their acts, frequently using their expertise to expose fraud and distinguishing what they did as entertainment from what mediums often did to convince clients they possessed genuine paranormal abilities.

The Society’s name appears prominently at the start of the exhibition, where a panel, after mentioning Spiritualism, includes the statement that:

‘Alongside this popular interest in spirit communication, the disciplines and institutions of modern science were being founded.  In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research became the first organisation to carry out research into the phenomena witnessed in the séance room.

‘Psychical researchers collaborated with magicians, who drew on their knowledge of conjuring tricks and illusions to test the paranormal claims of mediums.  They laid the foundations for important discoveries about the nature of belief and memory that psychologists still draw on today.’

Another panel, devoted to psychical research, mentions researchers applying ‘rigorous scientific methods to investigate claims of psychic and paranormal phenomena’, including the development of a strict methodological approach to experimentation, and assessing whether natural explanations could be found for phenomena, in terms of psychological mechanisms rather than the paranormal.

There are some wonderful images and artefacts on display, and the SPR has lent the Wellcome a number of items from its archive, looked after by Cambridge University Library.  The objects indicate a balanced approach, neither gullible nor debunking, but demonstrating the intent, as the SPR has always had, ‘to examine without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognised hypothesis.’

There are photographs of Eusapia Palladino during her visit to Cambridge in 1895 when she was investigated by the SPR, and caught cheating.  A fair amount of space is devoted to the medium ‘Margery (Mina Crandon), most strikingly a life-sized reproduction of the large box Harry Houdini used to confine her during séances.  Numerous objects have been lent by the Libbet Crandon de Malamud Collection, including the chair she sat on during séances and her lovely kimono.  The SPR supplied photographs, and some book plates with annotated overlays analysing material Margery produced during séances when she was tested in London by the Society, as reproduced in Eric Dingwall’s report in the SPR’s Proceedings, June 1926.


Enlarged SPR photographs show fingerprints in wax taken from sitters to distinguish them from those allegedly left by Mina Crandon’s deceased brother Walter, and wax impressions possibly claimed to be by Walter himself (the ‘Walter’ prints actually matched those of her dentist, Dr Frederick Caldwell, given the pseudonym Kerwin in reports).  A photograph from the SPR shows Margery with a cloud of ‘ectoplasm’ and the bell box which was supposed to be rung by the spirits – though Houdini was convinced Margery herself was responsible.  An investigation kit that belonged to Dingwall was lent by Senate House, where his archive is held in the Harry Price library, but the information card refers to his membership of the SPR.

Another medium, Mrs Piper, is represented by a large poster from 1901 advertising a statement she had given to the New York Herald in which she made what they asserted was a confession that spirits did not communicate through her (‘CONFESSION’ in huge type, followed by ‘The world’s greatest clairvoyant’).  What the poster did not include was her statement to the newspaper not that she was a fraud, but that she thought she was gaining information using telepathy from the living, rather than from discarnate entities.  Shortly afterwards she spoke to the Boston Advertiser to say she did not know whether it was spirits or her subliminal self at work.  The days when interest in mediums could justify billboard posters!


In a section devoted to ESP there is a large frame containing post- and lettercards collected by the SPR resulting from an experiment run on the BBC in 1967.  The backs of ten playing cards were displayed to viewers, who had to guess what was on the front.  This is a sample of the hundreds sent in by members of the public.  The final contribution by the SPR to the exhibition is a set of Telepatha cards from 1939.  These were developed by Harry Price as an alternative to the Zener cards used by J B Rhine, but they did not catch on in the public imagination the way Zener cards had.


There is a lot more in the exhibition, including a section on recent academic research using magic to examine cognitive processes, and it is fascinating to see a through-line from the early experiments of the SPR to the latest work elucidating how magicians can assist in showing how we make sense – and sometimes fail to make sense – of the world.  The clear implication is that we generally overestimate our ability to spot deception, and those who seek to fool us can call on a wide array of strategies which play on weaknesses in our processing of incoming information, weaknesses of which we are not aware.  We may feel we are in control of our choices, while we are being cued to the desired outcome through the manipulation of our assumptions and the power of suggestion.  The SPR can be proud that it played a pioneering role in such a key aspect of psychology.

The exhibition runs until 15 September 2019.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Mother Tongue – an exhibition at Pushkin House, London


Mother Tongue (Родная речь) is a small exhibition at Pushkin House in Bloomsbury Square, London, mounted in collaboration with GRAD.  It consists of panels and photographs by Yevgeniy Fiks, a Moscow-born artist living in New York, exploring Russian gay argot.  This is a secret language dating to Soviet times, as can be seen by some of the expressions it contains.  The organisers liken it to Polari, a similar underground language in England, though Polari has a longer tradition and was spoken by a broader group than homosexuals.

Such language helps to establish a group identity, particularly important when under attack by the authorities, and provides an element of secrecy when one’s sexual preferences could be severely punished.  It is significant that use of Polari began to decline following its ‘outing’ by Julian and Sandy, accelerating after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, whereas the Russian equivalent lasted much longer.  That a form of it exists today is an index of continuing adversity for gay people there.

Remarkably, homosexuality was only decriminalised in Russia in 1993.  The exhibition information notes how for a couple of decades after legalisation there was slow but steady progress in the acceptance of gay rights, but the introduction of the Gay Propaganda Law in 2013 ushered in a new period of difficulty as the political and social climate once again became overtly homophobic.

Sadly the slang thus still performs a function, though since the fall of the Soviet Union it has undergone a process of internationalisation, with Anglo-American imports diluting the Soviet-era lexicon.  Fiks’s project is therefore one of nostalgic excavation, showing the language as it was, though in practice it has moved on.

The exhibition falls into three parts: a video, not operational during my visit; sheets of text listing words and phrases; and photographs of cruising spots, ‘pleshki’.  The text element includes translations, highlighting the wit and subversiveness of the coinages.  They are presented in an academic manner, as if in a classroom, a blackboard reinforcing the feeling of being in a learning environment.

An initial panel is devoted to grammatical constructions, presenting the slang as bearing the same linguistic significance as any other Russian vocabulary.  Terms are displayed alphabetically, the initial letter in the sort of oversized style that might be used to help small children remember them.  Underneath each in much smaller letters is a Russian slang expression beginning with that letter, plus English translation, and what it means, one sheet per letter of the alphabet (i.e. 33 sheets, 33 expressions).

Some terms are amusing (a ‘reader’ is someone who sits in a lavatory cubicle waiting for a partner) but there is bite here as well.  An ‘agentess’ is a gay person who betrays his or her people and, my favourite, sexual minorities are ‘Mensheviks’.  The unsnappy in English ‘kgboonchik’ is a ‘young provocateur who is sent to entrap gays.’  Weirdly an orgasm is a ‘grandfather clock’, while a penis is a ‘voice’.  Tellingly, homosexuality itself translates as ‘storminess’ and meeting places are ‘zoos’.  A gay person who hides his or her sexual orientation is an ‘undergrounder’, suggesting an affinity to others at odds with the regime.

The photographs are labelled with the dates between which the sites were used, often going back to the 1920s – the end dates presumably signifying when the authorities cracked down and meeting places moved elsewhere.  Many were also tourist spots, and without the extra information that they were employed as rendezvous points they would simply be record shots of parks, public buildings and lavatories.  No people are visible and Fiks chose overcast days, rendering them rather forlorn-looking places.  He must have talked to individuals with knowledge of these sites’ gay histories because it was unlikely to have been included in guidebooks, but the weakness of the exhibition is that it omits the first-hand experiences of those who used the language, and frequented the locations.

It is a small show occupying one large room, and really does not justify a long trip, but if in the vicinity of Pushkin House it is well worth taking a look.  The exhibition is free, with only donations requested, and runs from 9 March to 11 May.  An accompanying bilingual book by Fiks, with the same name as the exhibition, is available.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

An Unsuccessful Lottery Experiment


There is a chap in Norfolk, Virginia, USA, by the name of Chris McDonald who predicts the results of American state lotteries.  He operates on Facebook and claims to have been extremely successful.  He offers two types of service, free and paid-for.  For the former, he throws out 3-digit numbers when people ask him about particular lotteries in the comments to his posts.  Curiously nobody seems to have replied thanking him for a win.

As well as providing the free 3-digit numbers, he has a private service predicting the better-paying 4- 5- and 6-number lotteries, for which he takes ‘donations’.  For this, people contact him on Facebook to ‘schedule’ ‘consultations’.  To someone wanting to make a ‘donation’ he replied by requesting they contact him privately and added ‘my fee is cheap’.  This method may result in lack of public feedback by any dissatisfied paying customers.

His psychic ability must be fairly recent because in July 2017 he ran a Gofundme effort to purchase an aeroplane ticket to start a new job in Washington DC which only raised $25.  Presumably that is why he is still in Virginia.  However, in preceding years he did win free pizzas in giveaway competitions so perhaps there was a psychic component to that.

In December 2018 he began a YouTube channel which he intended to update with weekly predictions starting in January 2019, but this has not taken off and only the initial video exists thus far.  In it he says he also predicts the outcomes of American football games, but there is no more information available on this aspect of his claimed abilities.

McDonald is not promising correct numbers for specific lottery draws.  He will make a series of predictions for the next few days that might apply either to daytime or nighttime draws.  Thus following his tips will require some outlay as one of a selection of numbers supplied might be predicted to come up in one of say six games, two per day over three days.

As to how I know of McDonald’s existence, he contacted me on the Society for Psychical Research’s Facebook page to tell me about his ability.  Over the years have handled a number of approaches to the SPR claiming abilities of various kinds such as telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition, though fewer recently than used to be the case.  I was quite happy to see if McDonald could predict lottery numbers accurately, or at least enough to come out ahead financially.

Often there is an assumption that success would result in an endorsement by the Society.  When I have explained that as the SPR does not hold corporate views it cannot as an organisation endorse a psychic claim as true, claimants often fade away, the demonstration being of secondary importance to the desire for validation they can use for promotional purposes.

Some stay and say they would like to demonstrate the ability anyway.  I have done a variety of simple tests that would not in themselves provide strong evidence of psi, but might perhaps throw up possibilities warranting more rigorous examination.  To date I have not had any successes, and when this happens I try to be kind.  I will say the result might be due to the test not accurately reflecting their ability, it was an artificial situation so perhaps did not generate the required motivation, such abilities cannot be summoned on tap, or perhaps I was not the right person to conduct the test.

I never say the ability does not exist because I would not want to hurt their feelings, and who knows, perhaps one of those reasons was correct.  The person invariably takes the result with good grace, I suspect mostly concluding they do have the ability but it works best in spontaneous circumstances, and we part amicably.

McDonald, however, was to prove far from amicable.  He got in touch via Facebook Messenger on Monday 4 March to tell me he can predict lottery numbers ‘accurately’.  He had called his local radio station last July when they asked for ‘psychic stuff’ and given them numbers live on air.  He stated he had correctly called numbers for a $100,000 win, plus a correct ‘mega ball’ number.

He said that for proof I should check the show’s archive or call the station.  Doing so would not have proved anything because all lottery games are won by somebody getting the numbers right (leaving aside rollovers).  Assuming McDonald had called the numbers correctly, and I have no reason to doubt him, it could have been by chance.  In any case, if his ability was as strong as he led me to believe I hoped to be able to see for myself.

I replied by congratulating him and wondering if he could maintain that success rate.  He then assured me he had been keeping records of his predictions, amounting in October 2018 to the incredible total of about $534,435,000, since when he has been predicting all 50 US state lotteries.  He implied he had been placing bets when he said ‘do you see how serious this is?? ~ or ~ do i need show you my bank acct. for proof??’

He told me he wanted to be studied and gave me more anecdotes of impressive guesses, though not ones he had put cash on.  Already I was getting conflicting messages of a great talent but not one backed by consistently placing bets.  Still, it seemed worth pursuing further as from what I could deduce reading his rambling messages he claimed a hit rate of about 50% from making predictions for ‘Facebook psychic groups’.

So I asked him if he would make predictions for me, stating the lottery the prediction related to and when it would be drawn, to allow me to make my own check.  At the same time I asked why he did not always place a bet to back his guesses.  Strangely he told me to forget the financial part and asked me if I wanted to be the first to believe him – which was curious if he was giving numbers to strangers on Facebook.  Wouldn’t they believe him when they were successful, and keep coming back for more?

I stressed that I needed the predictions in advance because anecdotes of past glories were irrelevant to a controlled test.  After asking me if I was in North Carolina (no), he chose the Virginia Pick 4, which is called twice daily.  He gave me five 4-digit numbers and said one should come up in the next three days; a generous latitude, but at this stage I was happy to set the bar low.  Conditions could be tightened after an initial success.

Sadly, his numbers did not come up so I was glad I had not placed bets on his recommendations.  While not a promising start, I was happy to give it another go.  When I sent the results I mentioned that he had said he could demonstrate his success by showing me his bank balance, and I asked how often he actually put money down.  I was thinking of the point sometimes made that psi employed for one’s own financial gain will fail, whereas when used with a humanitarian motive it is more likely to succeed.  What I got back surprised me, as I had not realised I must have touched a nerve:

‘You idiot...call the radio station I gave 100,000 dollar win numbers to and again the Mega ball number on air live...you do that or explain as mathematical probability?? Go fuck yourself’

Once again I pointed out that, while suggestive, claiming hits retrospectively cannot be compared to conducting a controlled test.  He did not have to be able to succeed every time, but he needed to be able to at a rate significantly greater than chance.  In return he reiterated his successful past results as I tried in vain to explain the scientific method.  After further rudeness from McDonald our correspondence petered out.

My concern is that people may actually be giving him money for shaky predictions, leaving them out of pocket.  Naturally, as always in such cases, one wonders why somebody successful at making predictions would want to take a few dollars from Facebook acquaintances if the lottery itself is a potential cash cow providing free money.  More to the point, why isn’t McDonald now a multi-millionaire?

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Antoine Wiertz

A door to another world

In Brussels recently I visited 62 rue Vautier in the Leopold district, housing a museum dedicated to Antoine-Joseph Wiertz (1806-65).  While mainly known as a painter, he was also a sculptor and writer.  It is the enormous canvases in the main gallery, however, which make the greatest impression on entering the building.  Having read about Wiertz in Fortean Times a few months ago I had some idea what to expect regarding his themes, but walking into the cavernous gallery was still a surprise.  I found the pictures remarkable, and think their creator deserves to be better known.

Driven by pride in his achievements, he was keen future generations should enjoy them as well, to which end he made a deal with the Belgian government that his work should be kept intact in perpetuity and available for public display, despite his contemporaries not being universally enamoured by it.  He was unbothered by their indifference, claiming it takes a couple of centuries for an artist’s reputation to bed down and a definitive verdict to be reached.  In exchange for undertaking to donate his creations to the state, in 1850 the Belgian government, looking to cement the identity of the new nation, financed construction of the building which became his final studio.  As well as the large gallery there are three smaller rooms (‘salons’) added after his death.

According to the brochure produced by the museum, written by Brita Velghe, there are some 220 works in a variety of media on display.  Pictures are crammed together in the sort of hanging style prevalent during Wiertz’s lifetime.  The end salon houses a large display case containing smaller artefacts associated with him, and his death mask is on display in the main gallery.  There are two maxims written in charcoal by Wiertz himself, translating as: ‘Pride, a virtue which inspires great works and wounds the vanity of others’; and ‘Modesty, a mask which flatters the vanity of others in order to attract praise.’  Clearly he did not feel the need for modesty, feeling it would be a dishonest pose.

Main gallery

 Self-confidence was necessary for the young man to improve his prospects.  Born into very modest circumstances, his father encouraged his talent and he was lucky enough to acquire benefactors who assisted his development.  Through them he was exposed to a number of old masters, particularly Rubens, who became a major influence, and with whom he eventually considered himself on a par.  After training at the Antwerp Art Academy he was further submerged in art history by stays in Paris and Rome.

He achieved early success and made a reputation for himself, in the process becoming critic-proof, a profession for which he had little time.  Nor did he care much for Paris, a city that had snubbed him, and he published a pamphlet foreseeing a time when Brussels would become the capital of Europe and Paris a provincial town.  In a way the EU returned the compliment, as rue Wiertz runs through the European Parliament complex nearby.

Rue Wiertz

 As if to answer his critics, the canvases got bigger and grander, but it is in his smaller paintings, with their often morbid subject matter, that his view of the world is most clearly expressed.  If his reputation had rested on the large pictures, it is doubtful whether he would be as well remembered.  While he became imbued with the values of the Romantic movement, often in tension with formal academic tendencies, he is also seen as a precursor of the Symbolists and Surrealists, offset by a marked gothic sensibility.  As the list suggests, he can be hard to pin down.

His oeuvre encompasses the large paintings, on classical and religious themes, self portraits, and nudes.  The last includes La Liseuse de romans (The Reader of Novels), 1853, who obligingly has stripped completely and lies recumbent to peruse her tome, oblivious to a hand reaching in to steal one of the volumes lying next to her on the bed (perhaps symbolising the self-indulgence and escapism of reading).  The most interesting paintings, at least to my mind, are those dealing with macabre themes, though the categories are not mutually exclusive.  Les Deux jeunes filles ou La Belle Rosine. (Two Girls, or The Beautiful Rosine), 1847, combines nudity and the macabre by depicting a naked woman staring at a skeleton, no doubt pondering on the way of all flesh, while La jeune sorcière (The Young Witch), 1857, has a naked young woman suggestively astride a broom with an old crone and other shadowy figures watching her.

One virtue of Wiertz knowing his own mind and not having to worry about the marketplace was his indifference to what others thought.  In his contemplation of suffering his pictures may not be on the same level as Goya’s horrors, but there is still a power to shock.  The titles of many of these speak for themselves: in L'enfant brûlé (The Burned Child), 1849, a terrified woman pulls a baby from a brazier, alas too late.  L'Inhumation précipitée (The Hasty Burial), 1854, shows a terrified face peering out of a coffin in a vault as the prematurely interred individual attempts escape.  Le suicide (The Suicide), 1854, shows a man shooting himself in the head, the smoke from the pistol thankfully obscuring his face.

More explicitly gruesome, in Le soufflet d’une dame Belge (The Outrage of a Belgian Woman), 1861, a nearly-naked woman defends herself against a soldier about to rape her by shooting him upwards through the bottom of his head, causing his face to explode.  (Apparently Wiertz’s wanted to promote training in the use of firearms by women, and proposed the setting up of a rifle range for ladies.)  In Faim, Folie, Crime (Hunger, Madness, Crime), 1853, a woman driven insane by starvation, though actually looking in rude health, has cut off the leg of her baby and put it in a cooking pot, the wrapped corpse held on her lap with a stain from the amputated limb seeping onto the material.  Her exposed breast contrasts the nurturing maternal attitude with the monstrous act she has committed (but the salaciousness of the exposure undercuts the horror).

There is still more maternal agony in La civilisation du XIXème siècle (The Civilization of the Nineteenth Century), paired with Le soufflet d’une dame Belge on the wall, the two in identical frames: a terrified woman clutching a baby flees soldiers who are shooting at her at close range, a box with jewellery spilling out at her feet.  Now we are not only talking about Belgium, we are talking about civilisation generally, or the lack of it.  Wiertz was acutely aware of and sympathetic to the vulnerability of women and children, while leaving himself open to the charge he was willing to use nudity to titillate the viewer, employing classicism as a fig-leaf.

The cover of the Penguin edition of Maldoror and Poems, by Comte de Lautréamont, has a detail from L'Inhumation précipitée, and unsurprisingly a detail appears on the cover of Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, by Jan Bondeson.  Bondeson, who regularly appears in Fortean Times, contributed an article to the July 2018 issue, extracted from his book The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, which in part discusses Wiertz.  After a general biographical sketch, Bondeson uses Wiertz’s remarkable triptych Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée (Last Thoughts And Visions Of A Severed Head), 1853, to discuss speculation about the length of time a decapitated head can maintain consciousness.  (Clearly fascinated by decapitation, Wiertz also painted Une tête coupée (A Severed Head), 1855, exhibited nearby, showing a guillotined head in close-up on straw.)

L'Inhumation précipitée

In 1848 Wiertz had had the idea of being mesmerised in order to enter the mind of a convicted murderer as he was guillotined.  This Wiertz did while standing on the scaffold, and he wrote an elaborate and frightening account of the condemned man’s final moments until extinction, which by the calculation of witnesses lasted three minutes (Bondeson points out that in reality, with blood flow to the brain terminated, it would be a matter of seconds).  The three panels of Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée show the stages of the execution as a whirl of action, losing form as the dying man’s thought processes decay.  Wiertz included his account as a légende in the triptych’s trompe-l’oeil frame (a form he was fond of), and it was published posthumously in his collected literary works in 1869.  Despite stating that Wiertz’s description of his mesmeric rapport is given in full, the version in FT is abbreviated.

A fuller, though still not complete, translation by Walter Benjamin and originally published in German in 1929, can be found in the English-language collection of his writings The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility.  In addition, the editors provide a description of the three panels, which is useful as they are rather murky.  Benjamin had an interest in Wiertz’s work and there are numerous references to him in The Arcades Project, including to Wiertz’s writing on photography: Wiertz penned an article about the subject after seeing an exhibition in 1855, and was one of the first to recognise both photography’s own artistic potential and the impact the new medium would have on painting.  Elsewhere Benjamin refers to the ‘panoramic tendency’ of Wiertz’s paintings, though it does not seem he visited the museum to see the large-scale canvases for himself.

Benjamin describes him as ‘progressive’ and a precursor of montage (doubtless thinking of Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée).  Less positively, he quotes Baudelaire’s unflattering assessment of ‘that infamous poseur named Wiertz, a favourite of English cockneys,’ actually a fairly mild beginning compared to the foam-specked invective following.  Baudelaire refers to Wiertz’s notion of Brussels as capital and Paris as province, which one suspects was what got him riled.  Baudelaire asks what Brussels will ‘do with all this after his death?’  Doubtless he would have been grinding his teeth to see the Wiertz museum still in existence, giving the ‘poseur’ the last laugh.

According to the museum brochure, when Wiertz died, in the museum, his body was ‘embalmed in accordance with Ancient Egyptian burial rites.’  Presumably they entailed submersion in natron for 70 days, having his brain removed through his nose, and his organs preserved in canopic jars.  One suspects it was in fact embalming light, but if he had gone the full Egyptian it would have been a fittingly bizarre end to a singular career.  He had wished to be buried in the garden, making him part of the museum and therefore an exhibit in his own right, but permission was denied and he was buried in the more bourgeois surroundings of the municipal cemetery at Ixelles, a suburb of Brussels.

The description in the Rough Guide to Belgium & Luxembourg is sniffy about Wiertz and the museum, focusing on the morbid and the nudity, and overegging the yuck factor.  By saying he came to believe he was better than Rubens and Michelangelo, they invite the reader to dismiss him as a talentless egomaniac with a penchant for melodrama, which probably serves to put readers off visiting but is most unfair.  There are fans though: Olivier Smolders and Johan van den Driessche made a short film about Wiertz in 1991, Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée, though sadly it seems to have done little to raise his profile.  To its credit Dinant, the city of his birth, has a statue of him, even though he left to go to the Antwerp Art Academy at the age of 14 and did not look back.

Musée Wiertz was very quiet while I was there, and this is the common state of affairs I understand (Bondeson says that when he went in 2011 he was the only visitor).  One suspects the Belgian government would prefer not have to foot the bill for its upkeep, but I am glad they do as my time there was a highlight of my stay in Brussels.  I was surprised how brief the official brochure – at least the English-language version – is, and Wiertz surely merits a catalogue raisonné.  Entry is free, though opening hours are limited, and I urge anyone visiting Brussels to make the time to call in and experience this fascinating artist at first hand.


References

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 1999.

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, Harvard University Press, 2008.

Bondeson, Jan. ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Severed Head’, Fortean Times, July 2018, pp. 36-43.

Lee, Phil and Trott, Victoria (eds). The Rough Guide to Belgium & Luxembourg, 7th edition, Rough Guides, 2018.

Velghe, Brita. Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865), Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, n.d.