Emma Merkling

PhD student, Associate Lecturer

Thesis: ‘Imponderable: Physics, Mathematics, and Psychical Research in Evelyn De Morgan’s Art and Spirit Writings, 1885–1914’

Supervised by Caroline Arscott and Jo Applin

I specialise in interdisciplinary research on the intersections between late nineteenth-century art and science, especially in Britain. I am particularly interested in photography and painting; queer and women artists; Aestheticism; Symbolism; Victorian physics, mathematics, and psychology; and heterodox belief systems such as spiritualism and theosophy.

My PhD research focuses on the paintings of English artist Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919). I examine her art and automatic writings (communications with spirit beings) in relation to Victorian physics, mathematics, philosophy of science, and (para-)psychology. I argue that De Morgan’s works — which have received insufficient scholarly attention to date — frequently expressed their spiritualist subject matter by exploiting the imagery and theoretical structures of contemporary science, which both helped her visualise invisible phenomena and imbued her concerns with scientific authority. De Morgan’s automatic writings reveal that she found spiritual clarity through art-making, clarity she pursued by constructing visual allegories of energy transfer and ethereal transmission, exploiting the symbolic potential of mathematical logic, manipulating the mobile spatio-temporality of hyperspace and non-Euclidean geometries, and envisaging atomic motion as a portal to other dimensions. I mobilise a range of theoretical frameworks, from Sigmund Freud on Eros and Thanatos to Gilles Deleuze on figuration, to provide new insights into persistent elements within De Morgan’s oeuvre, such as her fascination with the borderlands of life and death, with the spatiality and temporality of infinitude, and with the dynamics of (physical) containment and (psychical) release.

My research contributes to a growing body of scholarship demonstrating the importance of treating science, occult beliefs, and the arts as aspects of a shared culture, rather than wholly distinct areas of study. It challenges ahistorical assumptions about the supposed polarity, in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, of science and art; science and religion or the occult; fact and feeling; and associated modalities. My analysis of De Morgan’s art in context reveals her fluid navigation of these binaries, and her willingness to activate a broad range of epistemological and representational frameworks to explore her concerns. This approach offers new insights into her art — reassessed here as serious and relevant to today’s issues — and into the intersections between the arts, sciences, and quasi-sciences in fin-de-siècle Britain generally. More broadly, my approach moves beyond conventional disciplinary boundaries to mobilise a range of materials that generate novel understandings of Victorian art and culture at the fin-de-siècle.


Education

  • PhD History of Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art (2017 – 2021)
  • MA History of Art, The Courtauld Institute of Art (2017)
  • BA Art History and Archaeology, Columbia College, Columbia University (2015)

Awards, Grants, and Fellowships


Professional Activities


Research Interests

  • History of 19th-century science (physics, mathematics, physiological psychology, and philosophy of science)
  • Art and science
  • Late Victorian art
  • History and theory of photography
  • Fin-de-siècle art in Europe
  • Symbolist art
  • Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Esotericism
  • Occult history and histories of magic
  • Histories of death
  • Queer and women artists
  • Interdisciplinarity

Blogs and Media


Teaching

  • 2021 – 2022: Associate Lecturer, Body Politics: Art, Gender and Class in the Victorian Metropolis (BA3), The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • 2020: Teaching Assistant, Summer University: ‘Art and Identity’ (pre-BA, non-selective state schools), The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • 2019 – 2020: Teaching Assistant, Core Methodologies (MA), The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • 2019 – 2020: Guest Lecturer, Victorian Science and Aesthetic Movement Art (MA), The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • 2017 – 2018: Guest Lecturer, Victorian Science and Aesthetic Movement Art (MA), The Courtauld Institute of Art

Publications


Conference Papers & Invited Lectures

Citations