Enter the dream state: alternative subjectivities in the occult performances of Elise Muller
By Kat Cutler-MacKenzie
In the spirit of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), French artists-cum-art historians Louise Herve and Clovis Maillet (b.1981) can be described as archaeologists of knowledge. They use research based performances, films, radio transmissions, and texts, to unearth histories and modes of thought that have, historically, been discredited by established institutions of academia, such as the proto-socialist actions of The Saint-Simonian commune or, as we will discover today, the otherworldly communications of Genovese painter and medium Elise Muller (1861-1929). In doing so, the duo propose alternative ways that we can, as a society, imagine a future out-with dominant (read neoliberal, capitalist, patriarchal etc.) systems of thought.
In 2018 Herve and Maillet undertook a residency at Fondation Thalie in Brussels, where they produced a book entitled L’Iguane. Like Muller, the iguana that the artists encounter in their book also has a third eye — a pineal eye that is sensitive to the passing of time — which allows it to access different knowledges and alternate perceptions of the world to the rational human body. In fact, as Herve and Maillet note, when Muller painted under trance, it was always the eyes that appeared first; floating, the primary portal into the extramundane realms that she encountered. The third eye was able to walk across time.
When Muller painted under trance, it was always the eyes that appeared first; floating, the primary portal into the extramundane realms that she encountered.
Indeed, L’Iguane is not only an artwork, but also a portal of sorts, acting as a medium between the reader and Muller’s phantasmagorical, dream-like painting (process). Why? Because Muller’s work has attracted little attention outside of the field of psychiatry and psychology, where she was made famous under the pseudonym Helene Smith by the French psychiatrist Theodore Flournoy (1854-1920).1 That is to say, outside of Herve and Maillet’s book, and under her given franco- german name, Muller’s oeuvre is almost invisible to the trained art historical eye. However, in 1899, the same year that Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, Flournoy published his study of Muller’s trances From India to the Planet Mars: A Study of a Case of Somnambulism with Glossolalia to widespread attention across multiple disciplines. Like Freud’s study, From India marked a period of ideological transitions in Western Europe from popular belief in the spirit world to popular belief in Reason, and took the reader on a probing tour of the extra- terrestrial and a-temporal communications made by Muller during her increasingly popular seances.2
During her performances, Muller would embody a range of personae including such figures as Queen Marie Antoinette and Hindu Princess Simandini.3 Over the course of the soiree she would “retrieve” their memories as if her own, “her past lives”, and present them to the growing crowd of guests in front of whom the seance was taking place.4 For psychiatrists such as Flournoy, as well as artists such as the founder of Surrealism Andre Breton, these somnambulisms presented a key into the subconscious mind, which for both posed extraordinary creative potential and freedom, and stood in firm opposition to Freud’s didactic, matter-of-fact approach to the subconscious. Indeed, as historian of occult practices Claudie Massicotte notes, thanks to Muller’s performances “a new kind of subject — distorted, multiple, and excessively creative — was born”, leading key psychoanalysts and psychologists to challenge Freud’s notion of the singular, unified subject.5 Yet for Muller, Flournoy’s findings were less than pleasing, as he made great efforts to underline that her trances were not inductive of other worldly, spirit communications, but rather a simple, reducible case of somnambulism. So what was she really seeing?
Herve and Maillet suggest that Muller’s paintings and communications can be understood as “attempts to transmit knowledge and means of profound transformation of society, to circumvent earthly impasses” — to think outside of the very (patriarchal, rational) academic limits within which Flournoy was working, albeit at what some deemed the margins, to propose new ways to organise and enact the subject.6 From a French feminist perspective, this has strong resonances with what Julia Kristeva calls “intimate revolt”, which at its heart is learning — returning to the same event, such as a memory (be it personal or social), again, only this time knowing it differently, and seeing another way forward. And it is this potential for women, or women’s histories, that we see in the a-temporal, inter-generational communications and personae of Elise Muller.7 That is to say, Muller’s trans-generational practice offers us a model of thought through which we, as writers, thinkers, makers, painters..., are able to re-inhabit the thought space of women (or indeed anyone not served by dominant narratives) for whom traditional modes of (written) history have failed to acknowledge alternative, creative ways in which society can be imagined and subsequently enacted.
That is to say, Muller’s trans-generational practice offers us a model of thought through which we, as writers, thinkers, makers, painters, are able to re-inhabit the thought space of women (or indeed anyone not served by dominant narratives)...
Unsurprisingly, the field of art was deeply impacted by Muller’s performances. Breton, when committing his first definition of Surrealism to paper, was evidently moved by the possibilities of Muller and other mediums’ trances, writing that, like these mediumistic voyages, Surrealism was analogue to “a certain psychic automatism that corresponds rather well to the dream state, a state that is currently very hard to delimit [emphasis mine]”.8 In other words, for Breton Surrealism was a state in which to think outside of logical, deemed ‘sensible’ thought patterns; a state in which interior and exterior worlds slip and morph into one another; and, I would add, a state in which the imaginary is revealed as an inextricable, necessary part of the real. For Breton, Surrealism was what we might call a way out whilst being within — potential for change, for new modes of interacting with the world and its ideas, whilst for Muller, who was a woman, I would argue that it was not only this, but also a necessary part of her identity, which was multiple, fragmentary, and a-temporal — quite beautifully impossible in a rational world. It was what we might call ‘feminine’, and stood at firm odds to the beliefs of the unified, reasonable, ‘masculine’ subject.9
Thus, whilst we recognise that Elise Muller was always present in body during her performances, we note that this body — this subject — was permeable to, if not creative of, change. It was a unity made of multiplicities. By inhabiting a body of imagination Muller was able to envisage a future for women outside of the patriarchal constraints of the society into which she was born. By re-living the memories and experiences of those women whom before her had come, Muller was able to show that progress, Revolution, the relentless thrust of time, were experiences that shaped the masculine subject, but that were necessarily defied by the a-temporal, imaginative, and revolutionary feminine subject. Therefore, rather than studying Muller’s paintings as depictions of an attainable better world, a utopia — which is where art history has often tended, and would indicate Revolution in the masculine sense, without “return, displacement or contestation” — I would argue that what is most important about her work is the way in which her performances problematised notions of unified subjectivity and chronological bodily time.10 Consequently, throughout Herve and Maillet’s text we are prompted to question the very concept of ‘truthful’, ‘logical’ knowledge and knowledge transmission, to see the power structures that have invisibly shaped how we think, imagine, and dream the possible. As their work so often reminds us, if we enact our dreams they necessarily become reality.
Enter the dream
1 Muller’s work briefly appears next to the paintings of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) in the Surrealist and art historian Jose Pierre’s (1927-1999) survey book Le Symbolisme (1976). 2 Glossolalia is the practice of speaking in an unknown language.
3 Claudie Massicotte, ‘Spiritual Surrealists: Seances, Automatism, and the Creative Unconscious,’ in Surrealism, Occultism and Politics: In Search of the Marvellous ed. Tessel M. Baudin, Victoria Ferentinou, and Daniel Zamani (New York: Routledge, 2017), 23. I use the word “performances” here to suggest that all depictions of the self are performed, or at least performative, as well as to indicate the spectacular, crowd-drawing quality of Muller’s seances. 4 Massicotte, ‘Spiritual Surrealists,’ 23. 5 Ibid. 6 Sebastien Martins, ‘L’Iguane by Louise Herve & Chloe Maillet,’ Fondation Thalie, June, 2018, https:// www.fondationthalie.org/en/in-person-events/liguane-projection-lancement-du-livre. 7 Julia Kristeva, Intimate Revolt: The Powers and Limits of Psychoanalysis, trans. Jeanine Herman (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
8 Massicotte, ‘Spiritual Surrealists,’ 29. 9 Rosi Braidotti, ‘Writing as a Nomadic Subject,’ Comparative Critical Studies 11.2, no.3 (2014), 171. 10 Julia Kristeva cited in Anne Marie Smith, Julia Kristeva: Speaking the Unspeakable (London: Pluto Press, 1998), 1-2.
Kat Cutler-MacKenzie is an artist and writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She obtained her MA Fine Art (Hons) at The University of Edinburgh in 2021. Her primary research interests are collage, cinema, historical reconstruction, and French Feminist Theory. She is currently producing a 16mm film entitled ‘Mineral Bodies’ with her artistic collaborator Ben Caro, and researching the value of historical reenactment to the study of (art) history. Her portfolio can be found at https://katcutlermackenzie.cargo.site.
You can find Kat on Instagram: @katcutmac and Twitter: @KatCutMac.