Go back a relatively short time and souls, angels and demons appeared regularly in art; Stanley Spencer, William Blake, Titian, Hieronymus Bosch, Fra Angelico: the list could go on and on. Angels appeared on mighty wings; demons had tails and teeth; souls were sometimes in paradise; sometimes tormented. But their appearance in paintings was so frequent as to be unremarkable. These days, despite surveys showing that 70% of people in Britain believe in the soul, spiritual paintings are something of a rarity.
I myself fall into the sceptical 30%. The scientific evidence suggests that there is no little person dwelling inside our heads. Read of neuro-psychologist Michael Gazzaniga’s split brain experiments conducted on subjects where the connections between the left and right cortexes of the brain had been severed, and the single self becomes unconvincing. The scientists appeared to be able to communicate with each half of the brain separately. The experiments done by Benjamin Libet suggest that free will could be limited to the power of veto. He showed that subjects believed they had initiated actions such as switching a switch after their brains had demonstrated an electrical surge known as the readiness potential a full half-second earlier. It was the unconscious brain which had started the action, not the conscious self. In the introduction to her excellent book Consciousness, an introduction, Susan Blackmore warns readers, as she had warned her students, that those of a religious persuasion could find their beliefs challenged.
Even those of us who side with the scientists have to admit, it still feels as if the soul is in there somewhere. It is a distinctly reluctant siding. So it was with a sense of delight that I came across De Anima, paintings and sculptures by the Belgian artist Johan Van Mullem at Unit London in Wardour Street. Van Mullem does not question the existence of the human soul but simply paints it. I enjoyed his certainty and I enjoyed the way that the spirits did not appear medieval but thoroughly 21st century.
If there is an afterlife, how would you recognise your loved ones? It could be a problem. Van Mullem’s spirits are largely disembodied; the sculptures reveal that where bodies exist, they tend to peter out at the feet. You might catch a familiar expression or it could be too fleeting.
For the most part the spirits peer out at you through a puff of multi-coloured smoke or an indistinct landscape. They look as though they could melt back into the vapours. Some are apparently caught in a force-field of digital dots. I spied one that looked like Mrs Thatcher, perhaps it was the hooded eye. Indeed, eyes are a feature of many of the paintings but in some cases the journey to the spirit world allows the survival of the mouth, an ear and hair.
A few unfortunate spirits turn out to be nearly all mouth, while some, the bland or the woolly perhaps, find that their features have been obliterated and their surviving essence boils down to something which looks uncomfortably like a ball of yarn.
None of the paintings has a title to help viewers discern influences; they have reference numbers instead. Titles are not needed as Van Mullen does not use a model or apparently have a set destination in mind. Instead, painting with inks on canvas, he works intuitively allowing his subconscious to capture what he perceives as the essential human. Just as I do not like all people, I did not like all his works but I am intrigued by them. If I am wrong and the soul survives, and Van Mullem has captured something of it, we can look forward to eccentricity, to variety, to colour, to chaos, to beauty and, because what is left is derived from the human, to cruelty as well. But at least it will be interesting.
De Anima is showing at Unit London 147 – 149 Wardour Street, Soho, London W1F 8WD until 6 January.