TIF editor at large John Lardas Modern reviews Charles Colbert’s Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art. In this book, Colbert argues that spiritualist themes had a major influence on nineteenth-century American art. Modern explains:

The gist of Colbert’s argument is that this limned tradition was integral in setting the stage for the emergence of modernist art and spectatorship. Modernist works were self-consciously dependent upon and invested in promoting higher levels of consciousness. The surfaces of these works were intended as portals to somewhere else precisely because they had captured the depth that clings to all surfaces—a macrocosmic economy of forces that was ever present but visible only to the properly initiated. “The psychic content of late nineteenth-century art,” writes Colbert, “resides beneath the surface and implies an existence that usually operates beyond the threshold of the senses. An observer attuned to the possibility enters a meditative state at the behest of these intimations and resonates sympathetically with them” (19).

Interestingly, Colbert adopts such a critical gaze when explicating the spiritualist content that underlies the works he surveys. In other words, Colbert seeks to illuminate an invisible depth for his readers, which is tantamount to his argument that spiritualism mattered, intensely mattered, for artists and audience alike.

In Colbert’s telling, spiritualism comes across as primarily about beliefs, principles, what might be called doctrine-effects. Questions of artistic practice are engaged pointedly at times and there is much to be admired in such a line of inquiry, for it reveals the presence of spiritualist proclivities in arenas not often seen as wrapped up in occult sympathies. Yet in Colbert’s rendering of spiritualism as largely a reaction against the anti-intellectualism and sensational excess of evangelical revivalism, the non-ideological life-world of spiritualism (i.e., the bat-shit crazy wonder of it all) does not often come to the fore.

Read the full review here.