The visionary Swiss artist and healer Emma Kunz (1892–1963) was born into a family of weavers, yet instead of taking up the warp and weft of textiles, she created an electric form of nonrepresentational drawing. While her wildly innovative and abstract works were principally a means of understanding the world, they were also tools for her research on the therapeutic qualities of plants and minerals. According to witnesses, during Kunz’s healing sessions with patients she would lay her meticulous drawings on a table “in order to divine energy disruptions.” Of this divination Kunz wrote, “Everything happens in accordance with a specific system of law, which I feel within me, and which never allows me to rest.” Kunz wasn’t channeling spirits, á la the contemporaneous artist-mystic Hilma af Klint. Rather, she was tapping into the vibrations directly under her feet and the electromagnetic energy fields surrounding her through extrasensory perception.
Never exhibited in Kunz’s lifetime, these radiant drawings were made on large sheets of graph paper with graphite, colored pencils, and a pendulum for radiesthesia. Observers noted that Kunz would work unceasingly and intensely on a piece, sometimes for up to twenty-four hours. A pattern of pulsating and repetitious thread-like lines forming geometric structures became a major visual motif, uniting nearly all of her drawings. However, the exact details of how Kunz made these—how she used her hand and her divining pendulum to channel the earth—remain wonderfully elusive. Art critic Annelise Zwez wrote that “early on, Emma Kunz learned through her pendulum work that vibrations are numerical patterns.” If that is the case, Kunz never fully explained how the work works and preferred instead to speak of how the drawings were influenced by the four formative “powers of nature”: crystal, plant, animal, and human. Kunz remained deeply skeptical of language pinning down and pigeonholing her capacious drawings, which were of course based on telepathic experiences that could not be classified.
In her lifetime Kunz produced over 400 unique, untitled, and undated works, which lingered in her home until they were first shown in a museum in 1973. It’s not that she didn’t want them to be seen. During her golden years she attempted to share aspects of her technique publicly and, in 1953, self-published two illustrated books featuring some of the drawings. However, it would take decades for the world to catch up with her (and af Klint, too). As the art historical canon now opens up to a new, expanded understanding of the catchall term “modernism,” Kunz’s spellbinding work is thankfully coming into fuller view. And since her output is so deeply connected to a sympathetic and holistic understanding of nature, ecology, and healing, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect artist to be elevated, finally, in 2019. We need her now more than ever.
Emma Kunz: Visionary Drawings, an exhibition conceived with artist Christodoulos Panayiotou, is on view at the Serpentine Gallery in London through 5.19, and will travel to Muzeum Susch in Switzerland thereafter.
Lauren O'Neill-Butler is a writer based in New York.