Cockney Rebel: Austin Osman Spare

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Austin Osman Spare-Portrait of the Artist 1907
Phil Baker’s excellent 2011 biography of the gloriously eccentric artist/magician Austin Osman Spare should hopefully revive interest in an unjustly neglected London artist. Hailed as the new Aubrey Beardsley at the tender age of 17 he fell into obscurity and lived in Dickensian squalor  when the satyrs and general air of Yellow Book decadence that impregnated his drawings fell out of fashion after the First World War. Later years saw Spare inventing his own idiosyncratic form of magic involving the intensive use of Sigils; using automatic drawing techniques years before Breton posited Surrealism as pure psychic automatism, hanging out with The Great Beast himself Aleister Crowley; hawking his ‘Surrealist Racing Card Forecast’ cards (a divinatory artwork to help you pick winners at the races) in the back pages of the Exchange and Mart, experimenting with anamorphosis in his Experiments in Relativity series which in their use of film stars could be said to have anticipated Pop Art, and holding art exhibitions in dodgy South London pubs.

Because of his self-mythologizing tendencies and the willingness of certain friends to give credence to his amazingly tall tales he has gained a certain cache in occult circles since his death. The above Portrait of The Artist is in the private collection of Led Zeppelin guitarist and previously avowed Crowleyite Jimmy Page.

Like Blake, that other inspired Londoner, Spare created his own system rather than be enslaved by another man’s.

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Austin Osman Spare-Joan Crawford 1933

Surrealist Women: Ithell Colquhoun

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Ithell Colquhuon-Man Ray 1932
Although Ithell Colquhoun distanced herself from the London Surrealist Group in 1940 she considered herself a Surrealist for the rest of her life. The schism occurred when Colquhoun was unwilling to submit to the group’s leader E.L.T Mesens dictates that any member was forbidden to belong to a secret society: Colquhoun was a serious occultist and was a member of several lodges and organizations including the Typhonian O.T.O, an order that had fallen under Aleister Crowley’s sway and which he had re-directed towards the practice of his own Thelemaic sex-magic. Colquhoun had her run-ins with the Great Beast, one time when she had rejected his advances Crowley chased her around his house.

As well as being a painter and occultist, Colquhoun was a gifted writer. Published by Peter Owen, the same independent firm that published Anna Kavan, Colquhoun wrote two idiosyncratic travel books on Ireland and Cornwall respectively; a brilliantly sustained Surrealist narrative dealing with alchemy,  The Goose of Hermogenes (with what must be the only description in literature of a Green-Light district, like a Red-Light district but with the important difference that the clientèle are phantoms) and a biography of MacGregor Mathers, one of the founder members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which numbered among it’s distinguished literary members Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gustav Meyrink,  Arthur Machen and W.B Yeats.

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Ithell Colquhuon-Song of Songs 1933

The Grammar of Magic

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Sigilium Dei Ameth-John Dee
Writing and magic have always been closely associated. The Egyptian God Thoth was thought to be  the inventor of writing and the patron of every magical art. The considerable cultural contact and resulting overlap over the centuries because of conquest and trade between Egypt, Greece and Rome led to the deities Hermes and Mercury who shared many of the same attributes as Thoth before they all further blended together, creating the composite figure that was to later a immeasurable influence in the history of ideas, Hermes Trismegistus. At a later date and further north in what Roman writers christened as Ultima Thule, Odin, was the God of Seid (Sorcery) and, as described in the strange scene where Odin sacrifices himself to himself in Havamal, the inventor of runes which it is suggested throughout Norse mythology as being an alphabet with an inherently magical purpose. Even in modern day English the connection remains; spell needs no explanation and a grimoire refers to grammaire which is a book of Latin grammar. Continue reading

Bewitched

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Ellen Rogers-Valerie 2015
The work of English analogue photographer Ellen Rogers evokes many different epochs and styles: nineteenth century fin-de-siecle Symbolism, the Golden Age of Hollywood and the Swinging Sixties. Rogers skillfully combines these disparate periods in her hand coloured photographs to create a unique and evocatively timeless realm overlaid with a ritualised erotic charge and an mysterious occult significance. The avant-garde films of occultist and author of Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger would appear to be a touchstone, especially Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome that starred the Scarlet Woman herself, Marjorie Cameron.

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Melencolia I

Melencolia I (B. 74; M., HOLL. 75)*engraving  *24 x 18.8 cm *1514
Albrecht Durer-Melencolia I-1514
The most famous of the many outstanding works by the genius of the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Durer’s etching Melencolia I (Melancholy I), is replete with esoteric and alchemical  references and has been the subject of much debate and interpenetration. The title is taken from the German occultist Cornelius Agrippa’s theory of melancholy, in his influential book  On the Occult Philosophy he states that in artists Melencolia Imaginativa predominates over both mind and reason.

A winged figure, Lady Melancholy sits slumped surrounded by symbolic objects. In Medieval and Renaissance medicine, melancholy was a humour caused by an excess of black bile and her posture suggests the  contemplative attitude and the mental anguish produced in people who suffer with this temperament. Artists, philosophers, theologians and craftsmen were thought to particularly susceptible to melancholy and were often said to have a Saturnine nature, that is to be under the influence of the planet Saturn. Further allusions to Saturn can be found in the purse and keys which are traditional attributes of the patron god of melancholy.

Directly above Melancholy’s head is an hourglass showing the passing of time, and a magic square that adds up to 34 every which way. Additional references to alchemy can be found in the darkened countenance of the brooding figure, the so-called facies nigra, pointing to the adept that the first stage of the Great Work is nigredo (blackness), the putrefaction necessary for all creation. The geometric tools are symbols of various other stages of the magistery, leading up to the six-sided prism (imprinted with a faint human skull) which represents Prime Matter and the seven steps of the ladder, each rung a phrase in the Magnum Opus. The blazing comet in the sky and the rainbow heralds its final completion.

Contrary to the contemporary belief that melancholy has to be banished at all costs, either by chemical means or positive thinking, the Renaissance view of melancholy was that it was the necessary, preliminary stage of all creativity.  Without the putrefaction of melancholy you cannot take the first step on the journey that will led to a transformation of matter and, more importantly, the self. Only art can produce this metamorphosis.

The First Rebirth

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Frida Kahlo-My Birth 1932

A phrase, a phase
The first rebirth,
The final resurrection.

From the flames the screams
Of primal rage resound
As the phoenix emerges
Whole and resplendent,
Steady steady higher
Into the unbreathable
Aether circling round
And round the unmoving center
That steady still-point
In the whirling chaos
Of concentrated matter
I contain all this and more
Within the confines of my skull
I am immortal, God-size
The unbearable vastness
Of innumberable Aeons
Contracts in a single second
Revealing the designs
The presence of the absence
The dancing specks of light
That feed the inexorable
Hunger of the vainglorious
Deluded Demiurge unaware
Of the imprisonment
Within the constricting coils
Of the self-devouring
Eternally gyrating snake.

The final resurrection
The first rebirth
A phrase, a phase.

Pay Close Attention

 

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Pay close attention.

Open the door, no,
Not that door, the right door
The one on the left straight ahead,
That’s it just keep on going
Nearly there now, I think;
Step inside the dissolving mirror
And what happens?
What do you see?
Come on, spit it out
I need to know
No, you can’t
Or won’t divulge.
Time now to recast
This production its
In a terminal turnaround
However the show goes on
Between the ivory thighs
Of Lady Babalon lies
The possibility of
A new beginning
Even in fact
The Second Coming
But not very likely,
In all probability
It will be
Yet another
Botched Messiah
Jesus the doomed sequel
Christ one point five
Leaving us with the
Ashen taste of revelation
My God I am tasting stars
But they are burnt-out
Extinguished, just inert
Dead heavenly bodies.
This jerry built universe
Badly designed
By a preening savant
Does it ever end?
No, the joker
Hits repeat
And it replays on
And on and on
This infernal loop.

The final curse
Is that we once saw
That unknowable face
Of the untouchable
Goddess up above.
Giving us
A distant glimmer
Of hope in this hell
Of eternal exile
Down here,
Down below.

Surrealist Women: Leonora Carrington

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Paul Eluard, Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst-Photo by Lee Miller 1937

An exceptional artist and in my opinion an even better writer Leonora Carrington was the inspiration for many of Max Ernst masterpieces, notably The Robing Of the Bride (see A Week of Max Ernst: Friday) and was in many aspects the archetypal Femme-Enfant of Surrealist desire; a dubious honour that Carrington, as one of the founding members of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico in the 1970’s, found galling.

Daughter of a English industrialist and an Irish mother, Leonora identified closely with her  Celtic heritage which was to play an important part in her art. She was a rebellious child and was expelled from two private boarding schools for her unruly behaviour, subsequently she was sent to Florence to study art. In 1936 at the age of her 19 her mother gave her Herbert Read’s book Surrealism and she was intrigued. When the International Surrealist Exhibition came to London Carrington visited and was struck most forcibly by Ernst’s work. Shortly after she met Ernst at a party, they were immediately besotted and so began one of the most passionate and productive of all Surrealist love affairs. The 46-year-old Ernst immediately left his second wife for the 20-year-old Carrington; however a divorce wasn’t immediately granted and a torrid love triangle ensued until the outbreak of WWII which changed the situation dramatically. Ernst was interned twice first by the French as a German national and then by Gestapo as a degenerate artist. He managed to escape with the aid of Peggy Guggenheim who later became his third wife for a short period. Leonora suffered a mental breakdown that resulted in her being institutionalised in a Madrid psychiatric hospital; a period she characterised as  living on The Other Side of the Mirror. Later Andre Breton encouraged her to set down her experiences and the result was published as Down Below.

Leonora and Max met again later in New York but their wartime experiences had been too intense for their affair too continue, however they carried a candle for each other till the end of their days despite their respective marriages. Carrington ended up in Mexico City where she was good friends with Benjamin Peret’s wife and  fellow Surrealist artist who shared her occultist affinities, Remedios Varos (though Frida Kahlo wasn’t impressed, she referred to them as ‘those European bitches’) and would get occasional visits from Luis Bunuel, who speaks of  Carrington with genuine fondness in his autobiography My Last Sigh as well as highly praising her marvellous Surrealist novel The Hearing Trumpet.  Another friend from this period was the maverick film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky who frequently stopped by to discuss the Tarot and alchemy. Carrington remained in Mexico City producing art and sculpture up until the first decade of the 21th century, becoming in the process something of a Mexican National Living Treasure until her death in 2011 at the grand old age of 94

 

 

A Week of Max Ernst: Friday

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The Robing of the Bride-Max Ernst 1940
Friday’s Ernst is a gorgeous, grotesque erotic fantasy. Ernst’s art is always cryptic and open to a wide range of interpretations but any interpretation of The Robing of the Bride will fall woefully short before this magnificent, sumptuous masterpiece.

The long-legged, small breasted  Bride is robed in spectacular, vivid red feathered cloak which also completely covers the face with the exception of a pair of owl eyes and a beak. To the left is a bird warrior/attendant whose spear (surely the symbolism is deliberate) is broken before the sexual glory of the Bride-Queen. To the right is a tiny weeping four-breasted hermaphroditic monster. Behind is an enraptured pale-skinned naked women with a stunning headdress that Ernst fashioned using decalcomania. The picture on the wall of another bride of another time amidst classical ruins also uses decalcomania for her robes.

Of all Ernst paintings The Robing of the Bride has the most visible alchemical and esoteric elements. The Bride is generally accepted as being inspired by Ernst’s lover and fellow Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Ironically the painting can be seen in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Both Guggenheim and Carrington were involved in a bitter rivalry for Ernst’s affectation. Guggenheim would become Ernst’s third wife in 1942 but the union was short lived. Ernst married his fourth wife Dorothea Tanning in 1946, they were to remain married until Ernst’s death in 1976

Recurrence

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Max Ernst

It’s a repetition of the recurrence
Don’t believe the hype
This ain’t no singularity
Nowt new beneath
The gaudy painted disk
That meanders monotonously
Against the banal backdrop
The Ingenue is always searching
In other people’s bathroom cabinets
And the Melancholy Lieutenant
Is eternally on the verge
Of nodding off, drifting away
To a place that only exists
Within the confines of his skull
While the Rebel is forever swerving
Just a fraction too late
On the rain slick Parisian street
The serpent eats it tails
So that whatever happens
Happens again just so
Everything returns
Exactly as it was
And there is no end in sight
Because there was never
A starting point to begin with
It’s the recurrence of a repetition