In the apocryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful, daring young widow Judith (feminine form of Judah), distressed by her fellow Jews lack of faith in God to deliver them from the Assyrian conquerors, ingratiates herself with the General Holofernes. Having gained his trust she is admitted into his tent where he is lying in a drunken stupor. With the help of her loyal maid she proceeds to decapitate Holofernes and shows the severed head to an awe-struck crowd of her fellow-countrymen. The Assyrians demoralised by the loss of their leader retreat and Israel is liberated from the foreign threat.
The story of Judith was a popular source of art from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. The Symbolists interpenetration brought the perverse and sadistic elements to the forefront. The great Austrian Symbolist painter and Viennese Secessionist Gustav Klimt’s (The Succubus) JudithI of 1901 was the cause of considerable scandal when first exhibited. The focus of the painting is Judith, only a part of the decapitated head of Holofernes is shown and even that is regulated to the bottom right-hand corner, beneath the exposed breast of Holofernes. With an expression of rapt depravity Judith caresses the head, all set against a ornately gilded, Art Nouveau decorative background.
An interesting comparison with Klimt’s Judith is with two masterpieces from the Baroque period on the same subject, Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes circa 1599 and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes 1614-1620. Here the paintings are concerned with the act of murder itself. Caravaggio who led a tumultuous life and would die on the run after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni, manages to convey with his trademark chiaroscuro all the tension and ambivalence Judith must have felt as she saws through the neck of Holofernes, while Gentileschi’s Judith surpasses Caravaggio (she was the most famous of the Caravaggisti, followers of Caravaggio) in showing the bloodiness and sheer physicality of the scene. It has been interpenetrated as a vivid rape revenge fantasy.
Walking down the street I entered one of those passageways that are created when a city block is undergoing renovation. It was longer than usual and I was starting to feel hemmed in. Finally it ended and I had a view of the open sky again between the buildings. It was even greyer than usual, the clouds were pregnant with rain. As I carried walking along I kept on staring at the sky, I had this anticipation of some kind of inauguration. The clouds coalesced into an eye enclosed within a triangle inside a double circle. I saw the workings of the system, all the letters and words and symbols revealed their latent content to my new self. The weight of the revelation overwhelmed me and I passed out.
In fact I was sleeping on the bus driving through the countryside, the whole vision had been a dream. I looked out of the window and saw up ahead a massive sprawling council estate that seemed oddly out-of-place in the valley that was hundreds of miles away from any urban area. The ominous feeling that everything was off-kilter only increased as the bus inched closer to the development and I could see the smoke rising from the burning buildings. The bus pulled to a halt at a bus stop even though a riot was in full swing and it was being pelted with bricks and Molotov cocktails. A stone shattered the window and hit me on the temple and I immediately lost consciousness.
But I was actually under sedation the whole time and I was lying in a hospital bed. Coming too I briefly remembered my dream within a dream, before going back to sleep.
Then I woke up for real but it felt like those Russian dolls, you open it and inside is an identical smaller doll that opens to reveal yet another identical doll only smaller and so on. A nausea inducing object lesson in infinity.
Nightly, though sometimes in the daytime too, it has to be admitted, whenever I close my eyes, empty my mind and begin to drift, you appear against a shimmering, shifting background of various shades of blue. Sky, Klein, Royal, Electric. The hues of sex, sorrow and the sense of shame that can only be savoured because there is no succour to be found anywhere in this world.
An anthology of every one of your conceivable postures is imprinted indelibly upon my memory.
Sometimes you tentatively gesture with your forefinger, knowing full well that your feigned shyness is the ultimate aphrodisiac and that I will follow you wherever.
The red zonal markings of your target areas (mouth, tongue, the areola, the labial lips and the cleft of your cunt) beckon to me against the white hesitations of your flesh. You lead me into the shower where the water beats against our shoulders while outside the rain drums against the windows and the roof. I hold your glacial stare with difficultly (never have I known such icy depths) as we embrace each other with one arm (our other hands exploring our respective tropics).
Some nights I am rendered immobile. Yet you still approach, straddle my face with your firm flanks as you take me in your mouth.
While on the still deeper nights, you torment me with black echoes of our imagined union with a succession of strangers –your heavy breasts rubbing against the swollen nipples of a series of sluts or mounted from behind by a stable of studs.
During the interminable nights (and days too, if the truth be told) you taunt me, tease me, tempt me, tie me, bind me… I can never get enough, I will never be sated; this fire cannot be quenched.
Till the time when I unwillingly open my eyes and the vision vanishes, all my lust fades in the grey half-light of an ashen dawn and I am left with an unbearable leaden ache in the centre of my being that weighs down every passing moment. That is, until I fall asleep again.
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.
Anne Kavan is inevitably smiling in photographs. It was that smile which initially intrigued me. I was browsing through My Madness when I saw the photo that served as the frontispiece. It shows a rather smart
middle-aged woman beaming away at the camera. The contrast between the blurb which alluded to drug addiction, mental breakdown and confinement in psychiatric institutions and the photograph of a lady who obviously lunched at expensive Kensington restaurants was too incongruous. Here, I felt, was a mystery. I brought the book and went home to found out something about the enigmatic Anna Kavan.
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.
Sara was sickening for something. Every day Alex had noticed that she was a little more drawn, a little more drained. Upon awakening he saw that her pale skin was flushed with fever. He felt her forehead and nudged Sara awake.
“You‟re burning up baby,” he whispered.
“I know, I don’t feel so good,” she replied drowsily. Her breathing was a ragged gasp, sweet with distemper.
“I should really get you to a doctor,” Alex suggested.
“I don’t have a doctor down here. The only doctor I know is the family doctor back home. I have never really needed one, apart from my bout of anaemia.”
“Well I think you need one now Sara, I’m worried about you. Don’t they have to take you on as a patient if you turn up at the practice?”
“Not sure about that really. Look it isn’t that serious, just a touch of the flu. A couple of days in bed will see me right. Besides, I hate doctors, they give me the creeps. The only person I want examining me is you, Alex.”
Alex felt that Sara was deluding herself as to the extent of her illness but was relieved at the same time that she didn’t want to see a doctor. He shared her aversion to the medical profession; found their probing of orifices and suggestive personal questioning highly intrusive. He doubted if there was a career more suited to people who held a deep-seated grudge against the human race. Continue reading →
My lust quickened senses
Compile an extensive inventory
Of your body’s geometry
An algebra of desire
Forming a composite picture
Of continuing treachery.
The curves of innocence
Ascend to the zenith
Of calculating corruption
I’ll bite you until
The blood fills my mouth
With its iron taste
I’ll bury my lips
Into your hollow core,
Divide the golden ratio
Seeking to draw out
A long withheld sigh
From your wanton mouth
Unlock from the inside
The centrifugal forces
Bisect inverted triangles
Fill your womb with
This unbearable lightness
Of being and becoming,
Watch you die Ten-
Thousand little deaths,
But only then
Will the Circle
This equation resolved
To my complete satisfaction:
To my absolute regret.
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.
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.