Wassily Kandinsky has long been hailed as the first abstract artist but there may be worthy challenger to the title, with the rediscovery of the works of Georgiana Houghton. Born in 1814, Houghton was a Victorian medium who claimed that the spirits of the dead worked through her to produce a number of extraordinary works. She held her first exhibitition in London in 1871, three years before the inaugural Impressionist exhibition in Paris and an astonishing 40 years before Kandinsky's Composition V.
Although Victorian spiritualists featured amongst their number many crackpots and charlatans, Houghton seems to have been a genuine believer, declining payment and refusing to provide public displays. Having said that, her photographs of visiting spirits look decidedly dodgy...
Her artwork, on the other hand, can be judged on its own merits. She claimed that the works were conveyed through her by a number of long-deceased artists, including Correggio and Titian. True or not, the paintings display a vibrant and radically original approach, quite unlike anything else seen at the time.
Given the often-hostile response to the initial Impressionist and Post-Impressionist exhibitions, it seems a little surprising that Houghton's paintings seem to have provoked curiosity and bemusement rather than outrage. Perhaps the connection to the spirit world, taken seriously by so many Victorians, made them reluctant to mock. And perhaps, as a female artist, she was simply not seen as a threat to the art establishment or worthy of a detailed critique. As Jonathon Jones wrote in The Guardian, “This woman was a genius – yet she could only create and show her art by attributing it, quite literally, to dead white males.”