Lifting the curtain on art's connection to the supernatural with Thyssen curator Guillermo Solana

With its groundbreaking new exhibition, The Occult in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections, the museum reveals the mystical inspirations hidden in the details of some of its most famous works. Here, Solana shares the challenges of curating such a peculiar theme, as well as the rewards of seeing familiar things in a magical new light.

Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

With The Occult in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections, Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is taking a deep dive into an area of art interpretation once seen as eccentric—or even dangerous.

It's an idea whose time has finally arrived. Early attempts by historians to study the relationship between art and the occult were often ridiculed or ignored, leaving a significant facet of many great works completely unexamined. In his fascinating new exhibition, curator Guillermo Solana brings those dark ages to an end, shining a light on small, often-overlooked details that hint at supernatural inspirations.




On display until 24 September 2023, the exhibition brings together 59 works from the museum's permanent collection and the private collections of various members of the Thyssen-Bornemisza family, which reveal documented traces of the occult. One of the most far-reaching shows of its kind, visitors to the museum can trace occult references throughout the history of painting from the Renaissance to the 20th century.


According to Solana, the exhibition is the museum's latest attempt to view familiar art from a novel perspective.


"The exhibition is part of a series of shows aimed at exploring new aspects of the museum's collection," he says. "At times, we have focused on an artistic movement (for example, with the exhibition German Expressionism in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections); now it is a cross-cutting theme, the relationship with the occult, which is pursued throughout the history of art."


Divided into seven sections, The Occult in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections focuses on disciplines and trends within the occult tradition, including alchemy, astrology, demonology, spiritism, theosophy, shamanism, and dreams, oracles, and premonitions.




The section devoted to dreams, oracles, and premonitions features surrealists such as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Paul Delvaux, whose 1936 Woman in the Mirror draws the viewer in like a portal to another dimension. Spiritism, meanwhile, concentrates on the obsession with communicating with the dead and features evocative nocturnal scenes such as the moonlit roadway walked by a single traveler in John Atkinson Grimshaw's Noche con Luna (1880).


In putting the collection together, Solana found that one of his biggest challenges turned out to be his greatest source of inspiration.


"A basic difficulty consisted of being limited to the museum's collection, which is not centered on esoteric themes, but this same difficulty was also the main stimulus for me," he says. "I overcame it with a lot of research work, examining in detail all the bibliography related to each work in the collection in search of hints of occult ideas."


Among the joys of the show, Solana says, is its ability to uncover new layers of meaning in familiar works.




What has been priceless in this project has been the opportunity to reveal to the visitor of our museum many unpublished details in many of the paintings in our collection," he says. "And to get out of the standardized, routine explanations, suggesting to viewers new ways of seeing the same works of art."