One day last week, I found myself in central London with a few hours to spare before my bus back to the west country. I wandered through Hyde Park, along avenues of dappled plane trees, ending up at the Serpentine Gallery, where there was an exhibition by an artist I had never heard of – Emma Kunz.
Inside, the gallery walls were hung with large geometrical drawings, traced on 5m printed graph paper like you get in maths workbooks as a child. Squares making circles, lines making stars. Shapes twinned, tripled, quadrupled. Where lines intersected, symbols were created: crosses and crescents, and even a sort of stylised cubist fertility goddess. Hexagons and circles and triangles bloomed and imploded. Grids converged and radiated. The eye is bewitched by receding perspective lines, conjuring depth out of flatness. The drawings seem to pulsate, like energy lines caught on paper.
Back in the seventies, Spirograph was all the rage. When I was a kid, I used to spend hours spinning those perforated plastic wheels to create patterns on paper. The pinwheels and circles, with their interlocking cogs, created a miniature pattern-making machine, each rotation moving the pattern on a notch, and adding a layer of complexity. I remember vividly the thrill of creating what I imagined to be the most beautiful, complex and beguiling wallpaper in the world. Eat your heart out, William Morris.
Emma Kunz’s artworks take the Spirograph aesthetic to a whole new level. Despite the graph paper and coloured pencil, there’s nothing childish about them. Kunz never thought of herself as an ‘artist’ but a healer, and her drawings as emanating from the spiritual realm.
Born in Switzerland in 1892, Kunz was fascinated by the paranormal from an early age. She devoted her whole life to developing her powers of telepathy, prophesy and mystical healing, becoming particularly adept in radiesthesia – divining by using a pendulum. The interlocking gridlines of her artworks are the result not of careful, mathematical calculation but the swing points of Kunz’s jade and silver plumb-line. Using her pendulum to first plot the key points, she would then work in a trance-like state sometimes for twenty-four hours at a stretch, to create these unique, and uniquely modernist, mandalas.
I sat in the centre of the cool, white gallery surrounded by these extraordinary drawings. Like mandalas, each offered a chance for the mind to focus, to involve itself in intricate detail, leaving the thoughts to quieten to meditative stillness.
Kunz was interested in energy lines, in cosmic unity that underlay everything. Once you start looking, it’s there everywhere – the perfect spiral of a sea shell, the Fibonacci sequencing of sunflower seeds, nature organising itself according to the principles of the golden ratio – right down to the elegant double helix of our DNA.
In the weeks leading up to Kunz’s exhibition, a new geometrical figure had been flying high: two triangles balanced one on top of the other, their points intersecting at the centre of a circle. Walking through London in April, the Extinction Rebellion (XR) logo was everywhere – stickers, graffiti, flags, banners, posters galore. It’s a great logo with multiple meanings. ‘ESP’ the unknown London artist credited with designing it (in 2011), likes the combination of ‘X marks the spot’ and ‘time’s running out’, within the circle that simple stands for (in both senses of the verb) Earth.
Extinction Rebellion is an environmental campaign group that espouses non-violent civil disobedience to get politicians to tell the truth about global warming. It calls for net carbon emissions to be at zero by 2025. XR began just six months ago and has snowballed into a mass movement. In April, protestors brought the capital to a standstill for almost two weeks and resulted in over a thousand arrests. This, along with David Attenborough’s documentary Climate Change: The Facts aired on the BBC on 18th April, has brought the ecological crisis into sharp focus – for politicians, the media, industry and ordinary people.
In 1942, Emma Kunz was commissioned to do something about the Second World War. Armed with her jade pendulum, and the healing rock AION A which she discovered, she set about trying to “re-polarise the negative forces of Adolf Hitler.” Quite a tall order.
Compared to the catastrophe of mass extinction and climate change, the evils of Nazism look relatively – if not benign exactly then at least manageable. We live today in a world so drastically off-balance, so out-of-sync with our natural world, it’s no wonder that the XR logo exerts such a powerful pull. It suggests there is something in the crosshairs. It presents the visual idea of convergence, of a meeting of minds and hearts, of a gathering. There’s also defiance in the central intersection – the crossing of arms and planting of feet.
This new geometry gives me courage rather than hope. I wonder what Emma Kunz would have made of it? From whichever cosmic plane she is currently inhabiting, I am sure she is sending her energy – in lines and circles.