Few people ever observed Emma Kunz, a Swiss alternative healer and artist, at work. One of the only accounts comes from a man called Anton Meier, who first met Kunz when his parents asked her to cure his childhood polio. Kunz was a spiritualist who used drawing as a way to divine the future. Meier recalled watching her in the early 1940s as she attempted to predict the outcome of a meeting between Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
Standing in front of the sheet of graph paper and concentrating on her question, she held her pendulum in her right hand above the paper. The movements of the pendulum indicated points, which she marked down; the drawing thus began with an array of pencilled dots. She then used the pendulum to establish the main lines and drew them directly on the paper, before starting to connect the dots with lines in pencil, coloured pencil and crayon.
The drawings Kunz created through this unusual process – more than 400 in total – are kaleidoscopic, hypnotic and enigmatic. They remained in her workroom during her lifetime, and weren’t exhibited until 1973, more than a decade after her death, when they went on show at a museum in Switzerland. Now, around 60 of them are on display at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
Kunz was born in Switzerland in 1892 into a family of handloom weavers, and developed an early interest in the paranormal. As the exhibition catalogue puts it (perhaps too matter-of-factly), she “[discovered] her telepathy and extra-sensory powers as a child.” In 1910 she took up radiesthesia, a form of divination she practised with a pendulum. She had a strong independent streak and at the age of 19 travelled to America in pursuit of a pastor’s son. The trip was not a success, and she returned to Brittnau, the town where she grew up, where she was given the cruel nickname “Mrs Philadelphia”. She never married, although she did live with Jacob Friedrich Welti, an art critic, for five years, after working as a part-time housekeeper for his family.
Kunz did not formally train as an artist, and only produced the first of her large drawings at the age of 46, in 1938, after leaving Welti and moving back to Brittnau to live with her sisters. Later, she would use them as part of her healing practice: after intuiting what ailed a visiting patient, Kunz would reportedly reach for one of her drawings, lay it on a table before her, and use it to help her detect “energy disruptions”. The two spheres of Kunz’s pendulum, made of jade and silver, were central to her work.
Meier wrote of her creative process: “There was no counting, no calculating, no measuring, no geometrical construction: only the execution of a direct inspiration.” Even so, many of her creations seem mathematically crafted. Drawn on millimetre graph paper, her pieces often feature symmetry along a number of axes – symmetry that, on closer inspection, turns out to have been subtly subverted. Brightly coloured, sharp-edged flowers seem to unfold before the viewer. Sometimes human-like figures appear, entangled in the geometrical mesh. They inadvertently symbolise the effect of Kunz’s drawings on the viewer: vortexes of pencil and crayon, they pull you in and are hard to escape.
Work no. 020
According to the somewhat uncritical exhibition catalogue, Kunz predicted the atom bomb through the process of drawing this picture in 1939. She was so alarmed that “America would develop a weapon capable of destroying the world” that she reportedly stopped drawing at once. It isn’t immediately clear what about the image suggests an atomic bomb; does the hole at the centre represent loss, or an abyss? Perhaps we are looking at a mushroom cloud from below: the white circle is the stem, the diagonal lines gills, and the pink outer rim the meat of the mushroom. In true Swiss fashion, Kunz appears to have been a pacifist during the war. In 1942, at the request of an advisor to the Principality of Liechtenstein, she attempted to “re-polarize the negative forces of Adolf Hitler”.
Work no. 13
If Kunz aimed to capture raw energies through her work, nowhere is this more apparent than in Work no. 13. The explosion of yellow, red and orange beams projects vitality, power and movement. The beams are revealed through a cobweb-like veil, which flanks them on all sides. As in some of her other works, the bright aesthetic creates an effect strangely similar to Japanese anime, in which such arrays of colour are used to communicate energy and atmosphere, particularly in action scenes.
Work no. 094
In this image, the yellow kites on the four sides seem to release powerful streams of energy. The deepening shades of green in the sharp beams converge in the centre, where they give rise to a network of black triangles. You can almost feel the kaleidoscope turn in real-time as you stare into the diagonal mesh. The angular nature of the image is broken by the eight concave diamonds holding the external green frame together.
Work no. 100
Many of Kunz’s works have the quality of a Rorschach ink blot: each viewer sees in them what they will. In this piece, a number of mystical symbols seem to feature. Sickle moons, as well as four- and eight-pointed stars, seem to emanate from the mind of the figure below, entangled in the fine net enclosed by a double-edged square. Perhaps it’s a dream? I can’t help but see the figure as a man sitting on the toilet reading a newspaper, his diamond head scanning the pages held up by his wiry arms.
Work no. 003
This hypnotic array of concentric diamonds appears to contain eyes shot through with red lasers. It is symmetrical across the vertical and horizontal axes, and initially appears to be so along the diagonal axes as well. But a closer look reveals that the colour composition varies slightly (sometimes she uses grey, sometimes white). The thin lasers criss-cross through the image, merging with the diagonal eyes at the centre – giving rise to pyramids that seem almost to emerge, three-dimensional, from the graph paper.
Emma Kunz - Visionary Drawings Serpentine Gallery until May 19th