Mirror||rorriM

 

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All mirrors are inherently mysterious and magical. The moment when Narcissus looked into the lake and realized that what he saw reflected was at one and the same time the self and an image was the moment of a great divide, a second Fall, but as certain Gnostic sects argued about the temptation of Eve and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden this recognition was a necessary loss of Innocence.  It was the first experience of a mediated reality. All was needed was the technical expertise to manufacture mirrors to disseminate this heightened self-awareness to every individual. And from mirrors it was only a matter of time before the camera and then film which led to the media landscape that envelops and dominates our perception today.

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Mirrors are mentioned frequently in myth, folk-lore and religion; not to mention in art and literature. In Corinthians Paul says of our knowledge of the divine ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known’. In Vodou, the syncretic religion practised widely in Haiti that combines elements of West African spirit religion, Catholicism and arguably Mesoamerican traditions, the altars of hounfours (temples) are decorated with mirrors as they are  conduits that the houngan use to contact the spirit world. Many cultures at many times held the tradition of covering all mirrors in the house when in mourning, this custom persists today in Judaism. In connection with a heresy held by one of the numerous Gnostic sects Borges states ‘Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men.’

In libertine fiction mirrors play a large part as they increase the pleasure of the moment and enables the libertine to view the erotic scene which they are  actively participating in. In the sparkling sophisticated jewel of a tale Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow) by Vivant Denon the artful heroine describes to her paramour the delights of her chamber with its reflective glass covering every wall, when he enters he is enchanted to find a ‘a vast cage of mirrors’ and then states that, ‘Desires are reproduced through their image’.

One of the most memorable mentions in fairy-tales of the deceptive nature of the looking-glass is the Magic Mirror of the Evil Queen in Snow White, which is a good illustration of William Blake’s quote  ‘A truth told with evil intent beats any lie you could invent.’

However for me the supreme moment for the mirror in literature is when Alice steps through to the other side of the looking glass. Ever since the phrase has been used to describe many different and varying experiences; the transfigured absolute reality glimpsed in insanity; the shifting contours of the nightly dreamscape, the heavens and hells of drug use (the John Tenniel illustration was reproduced on LSD blotters in the sixties) the transcendence achieved in sexual ecstasy, and ultimately death, that unknowing inevitable frontier where we hope that the outward appearance will vanish to be replaced for all eternity by our fundamental essence. For although mirrors are just surface and can deceive, distort and warp, they also always reveal something other than just ourselves.

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Desire in a Different Climate

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Maitresse Erzulie-Hector Hyppolite 1948
In 1945 on their return voyage to France, Andre Breton with his new wife Elise and the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam in tow stopped in Haiti where their friend and Surrealist contributor Pierre Mabille was culture attache. Mabille arranged for the Surrealists to observe a vodou ceremony and it was here that Breton first noticed the work of Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite. Hyppolite was a third generation vodou houngan (priest) and self taught artist who started painting late in life; lacking materials Hyppolite initially used chicken feathers and his fingers to compose his work which centred on the loa, the spirit deities of vodou.

Breton and Lam brought several pieces and Breton wrote about his work in Surrealism and Painting. Although Hyppolite paintings are more religious in nature than Surrealist, the support and recognition from Breton helped Hyppolite in particular and Haitian art in general find a wider audience. Hyppolite’s work was included at the UNESCO exhibition in Paris in 1947 and received an enthusiastic reception.

Erzulie is the loa of love  and sexuality. In the complicated syncretic spirit religion of vodou she is associated with flowers, jewelry and luxury; however in other aspects Erzulie is also identified with the Mater Dolorosa, while at the same time being the patron loa of lesbians.

As for Andre Breton, after his visit to the ceremony events in Haiti took a dramatic turn, however that is a whole other story.

The Flowers of Evil: Litanies Of Satan

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Eliphas Levi-Baphomet Goat-1856

As well as containing erotic poems that led to Baudelaire being prosecuted for insulting public decency, Les Fleurs du Mal contained the blasphemous Les Litanies de Satan (The Litanies of Satan). The English Pre-Raphaelite poet and pornographic writer Algernon Charles Swinburne cited it as the key to Les Fleurs du mal.

Ever since John Milton had cast Satan as the sombre, brooding, archetypal rebel in Paradise Lost, writers had begun to show more than a little sympathy for the devil. Blake had shrewdly remarked ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.’  Gothic novels and the Romantic writers, in particular Lord Byron, produced one Satanic hero after another to great popular demand. The apotheosis of this trend can be seen in the unforgettable character of Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

What is remarkable in Baudelaire’s poem is the presentation of Satan as the Lord of the despised and oppressed, or to use Marx’s memorable phrase in The Communist Manifesto (published in 1848), ‘the wretched of the earth.’

The above illustration is from Dogme et Rituel la Haute Magic (Dogmas and Rituals of High Magic) by the French occultist Eliphas Levi, a contemporary of Baudelaire who is justifiably known as the father of modern occultism. It is not known, though it is often rumoured, whether they ever met. They certainly shared affinities and both would greatly influence the Symbolist and Decadent movements.

Litanies of Satan

Wisest of Angels, whom your fate betrays,
And, fairest of them all, deprives of praise,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

O Prince of exiles, who have suffered wrong,
Yet, vanquished, rise from every fall more strong,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

All-knowing lord of subterranean things,
Who remedy our human sufferings,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

To lepers and lost beggars full of lice,
You teach, through love, the taste of Paradise.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who on Death, your old and sturdy wife,
Engendered Hope — sweet folly of this life —

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You give to the doomed man that calm, unbaffled
Gaze that rebukes the mob around the scaffold,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You know in what closed corners of the earth
A jealous God has hidden gems of worth.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You know the deepest arsenals, where slumber
The breeds of buried metals without number.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You whose huge hand has hidden the abyss
From sleepwalkers that skirt the precipice,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who give suppleness to drunkards’ bones
When trampled down by horses on the stones,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who, to make his sufferings the lighter,
Taught man to mix the sulphur with the nitre,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You fix your mask, accomplice full of guile,
On rich men’s foreheads, pitiless and vile.

Satan have pity on my long despair!

You who fill the hearts and eyes of whores
With love of trifles and the cult of sores,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

The exile’s staff, inventor’s lamp, caresser
Of hanged men, and of plotters the confessor,

Satan have pity on my long despair!

Step-father of all those who, robbed of pardon,
God drove in anger out of Eden’s garden

Satan have pity on my long despair!

Prayer

Praise to you, Satan! in the heights you lit,
And also in the deeps where now you sit,
Vanquished, in Hell, and dream in hushed defiance
O that my soul, beneath the Tree of Science
Might rest near you, while shadowing your brows,
It spreads a second Temple with its boughs.

The All Seeing Eye

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Aurora-Jacob Boehme
No wonder the Surrealist’s found inspiration in old alchemical and occult engravings as its strange symbolism hints toward a deeper reality that cannot be comprehended by reason alone but only in the recesses of the unconscious.

The illustrations to Boehme’s Aurora are a particularly fine example of the early theosophical tradition. Boehme was a German shoemaker and mystic who one day while contemplating upon the exquisite beauty of a beam of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish fell boehme[1]into a visionary state which he believed revealed the spiritual structure of the universe.

His work was a direct influence upon the great English visionary, painter and poet William Blake.

The Ten Largest

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Hilma af Klint-The Ten Largest Childhood No 1 1907

The Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint (see Occult Abstraction) frequently divided her Paintings for the Temple into thematic groups, including The Swan, The Dove, Altarpieces and Primordial Chaos. One of the most stunning groups is The Ten Largest, so called because of their truly monumental size, each canvas is over 10 foot tall. The Ten Largest is an abstract, spiritual rendition of a persons life from Childhood to Old Age.

The Ten Largest with their bold colouring and joyful unfettered line displays an exuberance reminiscent of Matisse, yet Hilma’s mediumistic work painted in secret preceded the acknowledged modern master by a year. Thankfully her canvases survived being stored in frozen Swedish attics for decades and we can now marvel at the splendour of Hilma’s esoteric creations.

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Childhood No 2
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Youth No 3
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Youth No 4
 

 

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Adulthood No 5
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Adulthood No 6
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Adulthood No 7
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Adulthood No 8
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Old Age-No 9
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Old Age-No 10
 

Occult Abstraction

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What a Human Being Is-Hilma af Klimt 1910
Hilma af Klint raises many questions concerning the history of modern art. Wassily Kandinsky’s untitled watercolour of 1910 was long considered to be the first abstract painting, a turning point in the course of Modernism. Abstraction was to influence, and at times dominate the art of the entire 20th Century. Yet this tidy version of events was upset to a certain extent by the discovery of the private abstract paintings of Hilma af Klint, some of which predate Kandinsky’s watercolour by 4 years.

Hilma af Klint was born into a naval family in the Karlberg Palace just outside of Stockholm, Sweden in 1862. After an idyllic childhood she studied at Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm where she graduated with honours and as a post graduate scholarship was awarded an atelier. She made a living as a conventional landscape and portrait artist, occasionally supplanted by botanical and technical drawings

af Klint had developed an abiding interest in Spiritualism and the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky at an early age after the death of her younger sister in 1880. She formed a group called ‘the Five’ with four other women artists with the expressed intention of contacting the ‘High Masters’. The group met weekly to conduct seances and in 1896 experimented with automatic drawing and writing, a full twenty years before the Surrealists. During one seance in 1905 she received instructions from a spirit named Amaliel that she was to execute  the’Paintings for the Temple’. af Klint said she had no idea what the Temple was but from 1906 to 1915 (with a four year hiatus between 1908-1912) she completed 193 large scale paintings , some as large as 10 foot tall, a remarkable work rate, especially considering her petite stature (she was 5ft on the dot).

af Klint was in no doubt that she was receiving assistance from the beyond. Commenting on the Temple paintings she noted, “The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”

In 1915 the guiding spirit left, but af Klint continued painting in the abstract vein, though on smaller canvases. The paintings of this period show the marked influence of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. Upon meeting Steiner, Hilma showed him the Temple paintings, however he said that the world wasn’t ready to see them for at least another fifty years, which may have influenced her decision to stipulate that the 1,200 paintings and many notebooks (which explains in depth the complex letter and colour symbolism of the paintings) wouldn’t be made public until twenty years after her death.

After her death in 1944 her nephew Erik af Klint, Vice-Admiral of the Swedish Royal Navy complied with her wishes. He offered the Swedish Moderna Museet Hilma’s complete archive in 1970 but they declined. In wasn’t until 1986 that an exhibition of her work was held. af Klint’s work is held in by a foundation so none of her work is on the market or held by museums. There are plans however for an exhibition centre dedicated to af Klint just south of Stockholm.

The question whether af Klint or Kandinsky was the first abstract painter is largely academic. af Klint abstracts were created in isolation and remained private until 80 years after they were painted. They show an urgent spiritual need to fashion a personal mythology in the manner of Blake or Goya’s Pinturas Negras. Interestingly the recognised pioneers of abstraction,  Kandinsky, Malevich and the unknown af Klint were all immersed in esoteric and  Theosophical doctrine.

In upcoming posts I will discuss the symbolic system as outlined by af Klint to shed further light on these mysterious paintings as well as a feature on her major series, The Ten Largest.

 

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Primordial Chaos no.17 1906
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The Swan No.17
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Altar No 1
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The Swan No 1
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Buddha’s Standpoint In The Earthly Life
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The Swan No. 18
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Primordial Chaos No 7

Pagan Poetry

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Daria Endresen-2011

The self portraits and the eerie frozen landscapes, empty apart from figures engaged in disturbing occult ceremonies, of Norwegian photographer and digital artist Daria Endresen combine various elements from Nordic mythology, fetishism, Surrealism and a particularly Northern form of romanticism to skillfully evoke a mysterious Gothic, ritualistic dreamworld.

In this cold, isolated, sinister fairy-tale like realm she has managed to capture the essence of a pagan poetry long since disappeared from the world.

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The Disquieting Muses

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Giorgio De Chirico-The Disquieting Muses-1918
A superbly disturbing painting by De Chirico that had an immeasurable impact upon the Surrealists, The Disquieting Muses presents us with the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. But is there a key? If so, do we really want to open the blue box (a version of which is at the heart of the conundrum in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr, see Dreams of Desire 6 (Mulholland Dr.), for fear of what it may be contained inside?

Painted during WWI in the Italian town of Ferrara where De Chirico lived, it features a piazza bordered by the imposing medieval fortress of the Castello Estense and industrial brick chimneys. The only figures within the square are faceless mannequins; the muses of tragedy and comedy, Melpomene and Thalia with their traditional attributes scattered around, and the God Apollo on a pedestal in the shadow. The perspective and the long shadows add to the air of frozen stillness and uneasiness.

Several Surrealists were directly inspired by exposure to De Chirico’s early metaphysical work including Max Ernst (see the series of posts starting with A Week of Max Ernst: Sunday), Yves Tanguy (Time and Again), and Kay Sage (Surrealist Women: Kay Sage). Sylvia Plath also wrote a poem of the same name that was inspired (in part) by the painting and which is included below.

 

The Disquieting Muses

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?

Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.

In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.

When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,

I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.

Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.

Sylvia Plath

The Void

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Yves Klein-Leap Into The Void 1960-Photograph by Harry Shunk & Jean Kender
As I have noted in my previous posts (Fire & Dreams of Desire 48 (Blue) on the French artist Yves Klein his entire body of work is devoted to the concept of the void. As well as the beautiful blue monochromes (inspired by the pellucid light of his birthplace, the Cote d’Azur) painted in his own patented colour International Klein Blue which conveys the pregnant emptiness of both eternity and infinity, and the Fire paintings saturated with esoteric doctrine, Klein also organised an exhibition in 1958 called Le Vide (The Void) that consisted of a empty gallery room painted entirely in white, and the photo-montage Leap Into The Void.

Leap Into the Void was an artistic action executed in 1960 involving Klein jumping from a building onto a tarpaulin held by his friends at ground level. He commissioned the photographers Harry Shunk and Jean Kender to create the seamless photo-montage that gives the impression of flight and a wilful, ecstatic abandon. To further the illusion of flight  Klein distributed a fake news-sheet to Parisian newsstands commemorating the event of the Man in Space! The Painter of Space Throws Himself into the Void!.

In contrast to Klein’s monochromatic mystical void, the Argentinian director Gaspar Noe, one of the most notable figures of the New French Extremity, fills the void with sound and fury in his crazed Freudian psycho-drama Enter The Void. A bold, brilliant and often infuriating, psychedelic exploration of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the void for Noe is a state of mind, death and the return to the source. Below is the frenetic opening credits which Noe condensed as he considered that the film was already too long. Please note that it contains flashing images throughout.