Spiritualism’s legacy shines in ‘radical minds’ at Hill-Stead Museum


FARMINGTON — It is an open secret that Theodate Pope Riddle, whose house and collection serve as the basis of the Hill-Stead Museum, practiced spiritualism, but until now the treasure of his writings and documents has been mostly unexplored.

An ongoing exhibit at Hill-Stead, “RADICAL SPIRITS: Tarot and Automatism in the Works of Hilma’s Ghost,” in the museum’s new exhibition space, speaks to Riddle’s passion for divinatory and psychic practices, including the automatic writing and seances with mediums.

Through channeling and drawing sessions in Riddle’s home, Brooklyn artists Dannielle Tegeder and Sharmistha Ray created five new paintings for the show with the help of a professional witch, Sarah Potter.

Tegeder and Ray created the feminist art collective Hilma’s Ghost, named after Hilma af Clint, a Swedish artist and mystic who died in 1944 and was almost unknown until her hit exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 2018 shook the world of art.

Of note was the artists’ discovery of a theorem painting in a drawer in an upstairs bedroom, facilitated by the museum’s senior curator, Mélanie Bourbeau. Theorem painting involves making and using stencils to create artwork, usually on velvet. It was a technique taught in the 19th century in New England girls’ schools. This one was signed by Judith F. Twain, who was either Riddle’s grandmother or great-grandmother.

Judith Twain’s Theorem painting at the Hill-Stead Museum (CT Examiner)

Tegeder and Ray researched theorem paintings and chose to revive the technique using spiritual intervention.

“You have an abstract spiritual theorem where the whole process was triggered by the discovery of real, realistic and historical work of women,” said Anna Swinbourne, executive director and CEO of the museum.

Other works on display include original Tarot card designs from Hilma’s Ghost and selections from their ‘Chromagick’, a series of tarot-based works on paper.

On display are some automatic drawings from Riddle’s sessions with mediums, which represent only a “tiny amount” of the pieces in the museum’s archives, Swinbourne said.

Riddle’s pursuit of spiritualism was probably one of his most deeply felt and passionate endeavours, Swinbourne said, and one that in recent decades has been almost entirely ignored in his legacy.

“We talk about her as an architect, before women were architects, she was the creator of this house. We talk about her as a pioneer, we talk about her as a philanthropist,” said Swinbourne said “We talk about her as a farmer and someone who cared about sustainable land practices. But we hardly ever talk about her spiritualism.”

Asked why the museum hadn’t discussed Riddle Spiritualism, Swinbourne said she thought it was “a bit of a contentious topic for people.”

Another reason, Swinbourne said, is that the experience of seeing masterpieces by Monet, Manet, Degas, Cassatt and Whistler as intended in a home setting is a unique experience for visitors.

“It’s different from other historic houses – we have a world-class collection in a historic house – so just talking about it can take an hour. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches, the amount of material that she left us to interpret.

“RADICAL SPIRITS: Tarot and Automatism in the Works of Hilma’s Ghost” at the Hill-Stead Museum is open until November 1.


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