Obsessive Geometry: Emma Kunz At The Serpentine


Swiss artist Emma Kunz had what we might call ‘a beautiful mind’ – that is, she saw things differently from the rest of us and had an obsessive need, from 1938 onwards (when she was already in her forties) to create increasingly large, complex geometric designs that she claimed channelled nature and the energy fields that she saw as a healer and psychic, using a pendulum to plot huge works on seemingly endless pieces of graph paper, that are both precise and sloppy simultaneously. The technique is called radiesthesia, and the works would sometimes be the result of twenty-four hours solid creation. Kunz was also a naturopath who discovered the ‘healing rock’ AION A in a Swiss quarry – you can buy this stuff in Swiss chemist shops to treat back pain. The current Serpentine exhibition of her work includes three stone benches made from the stuff, created by artist and exhibition curator Christodoulos Panayiotou – we sat on them for a while and it did nothing for our aching backs.


Whether you take there view that Kunz was a visionary and psychic faith healer, or simply someone suffering from mental illness – and all things considered, we’ll probably go with the latter – the fascinating quality of her work is undeniable. These are works that sit on the border of art and graphic design, precisely created geometric images that are oddly beautiful. One or two have the weird precision of a spirograph creation, but most are more obviously the hand-crafted work of someone who obsessed over tiny details – small, repeating patterns that spread out across the paper – yet would colour in large shapes with a sloppiness that is quite admirable, using coloured pencils or crayons. The shapes would seem to be the important thing.


You can sit and stare at these paintings and get lost in the detail, the overlayed patterns and shapes, the hidden (and not to hidden) humanoid figures that emerge from the lines and curves, and the colour combinations taking on a somewhat hypnotic feel. Some of the images almost feel alive, the optical illusion of movement giving them a slightly freakier edge. It feels closer to mathematics than nature, though of course the two are connected, and the fact that these were produced as diagnostic elements for ailments gives them a fascinating ambiguity – nothing is named or dated, and Kunz never explained her work, so we have no idea what each piece meant when she produced it. Clearly, they had some meaning beyond the visual, and perhaps this was shared with her  ‘patients’, but for us they remain mysterious and extraordinary. That’s probably a good thing – art is awash with pretentious interpretation from both artists looking to legitimise their work and critics seeking to show off their intellect, and in both cases there is a fair amount of bullshit spewed. I’ve no doubt that there are critics seeking to impose their greater knowledge as to the true meaning of this work, but the very fact that we know why and how these pieces were created does rather render those interpretations meaningless – the only person who really knew what each piece meant was the artist, and she wasn’t telling. It’s better to empty your mind of the need for interpretation with this work, and instead just take it on face value, the remarkable creations of an eccentric proto hippy and faith healer who was driven by forces, either supernatural or mental, to make these unique and somewhat overwhelming works. We very much recommend a visit to the Serpentine Gallery in London to see these for yourself.