Symbolism, Mediumship, and the “Study of the Soul that has Constituted Itself as a Positivist Science”

Allison Morehead


While most research on the medium Hélène Smith focuses on her linguistic capabilities and their celebration in Surrealist circles, this article situates her “trance” paintings between Surrealism and Symbolism, and argues for the usefulness of mediumistic creativity for the transformation of Symbolist theory into visual practice. In the late 1890s, before she became an object of fascination for André Breton, Smith “collaborated” with the experimental psychologist Théodore Flournoy, who based his theory of the “creative imagination” on Smith’s extraordinary capabilities. In seeking out Smith, Flournoy was working entirely within the paradigms of French experimental psychology, which was institutionalized in the nineteenth century by initial recourse to a pathological method. Mediums and their attendant phenomena became crucial sites of experiment, alongside Théodule Ribot’s infamous recommended triad of psychological subjects: “primitives, madmen and children.” Mediumistic phenomena, including an unusual kind of creativity, were therefore believed to offer a scientific pathway to truth about the inner life of man, a way, in short, to “objectify the subjective.” While no direct links between Smith’s work and that of Symbolist artists such as the Nabis can be established, the writings of Jules Bois, and in particular his suggestive commentary on a “spirit aesthetic” must be placed in relation to French experimental psychology and its revaluing of the pathological as scientifically useful. Contextualizing Hélène Smith as a privileged object of French experimental psychology thus provides a glimpse into the intellectual pre-conditions enabling alterity to become a defining site of avant-gardism.


Hélène Smith; Théodore Flournoy; Art and science; Art and Mediumship

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