The painter, writer and occultist Ithell Colquhoun became acquainted with the Surrealist movement in 1938 and it was to forever change her direction as an artist, even though she was only formally a member of the British Surrealist Group for one brief year before being expelled for her refusal to quit several secret societies that she belonged to.
After her encounter with Surrealism Colquhoun would experiment with several Surrealist automatic techniques including decalcomania, fumage, frottage and collage, as well as inventing new techniques such as entopic graphomania and parsemage. Her painting Scylla makes use of Dali’s paranoiac-critical method, resulting in a double image that is both a painting that references the Greek legend of the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis and a phantasmagorical vision of Colquhoun taking a bath.
J.G Ballard, the genre busting English science fiction writer responsible for such novels as The Drowned World, Crash, High Rise and Empire of the Sun as well as some of the finest short stories in world literature, frequently remarked that he really wanted to be a painter in the surrealist tradition that he so loved instead of a writer.
This deep reverence and constant engagement with the visual arts can be most clearly seen in his demented and wildly perverse cult classic collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition. Referencing Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Dominguez, Matta, Bellmer, Delvaux, Tanguy as well as Pop Artists Tom Wesselman and Andy Warhol in the frequent free association tests and ‘condensed novels’ that comprise the text, The Atrocity Exhibition could easily be used as a textbook primer on surrealism and popular culture in the sixties.
In 1990 RE/Search Publications issued an expanded edition with four new stories, Ballard’s bizarre yet illuminating annotations, disturbing illustrations by the medical illustrator/graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and photographs by Ana Barrado of brutalist buildings and weapon ranges. It also features a preface by the Hitman for the Apocalypse himself, William S. Burroughs.
Below are some of the many paintings mentioned in the text, some of which are very well known and others less so.
Guiseppe Arcimboldo is a hazy peripheral figure in art history. Enjoying noble and royal patronage he was honoured during his lifetime before completely falling out of fashion during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries only to be rediscovered by the Surrealists in the 20th. Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Man Ray were all admirers and Arcimboldo’s visual puns and double meanings undoubtedly influenced Dali’s infamous paranoiac-critical method. Other art historians posited Arcimboldo as the most mannered of all the Mannerists. His composite portraits certainly show the period’s taste for enigmas and riddles taken far into the hinterlands of the grotesque and the whimsically bizarre.
Vertumnus is Arcimboldo’s most famous painting, a composite portrait of his patron, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Rudolf II as Vertumnus, the Roman God of metamorphosis, the seasons, gardens and vegetable growth. The plants, flowers and fruits that form the portrait of Rudolf II are from every season and are taken to represent the perfect harmony and balance with nature that his reign would re-establish. Unfortunately events and history had other things in mind for the studious, occult inclined Rudolf II and his notably tolerant court of Prague, leading eventually to the calamity of the Thirty Year War between competing Catholic and Protestant states before engulfing the majority of European great powers.
Other notable composite portraits painted by Arcimboldo include the Four Seasons, the Four Elements and the witty The Librarian (below).
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes.Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks.
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
T.S Eliot The Waste Land 1922
It is no surprise really that the Tarot are mentioned at length in the masterpiece of Modernism, T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land from 1922. The notes alone are a treasure trove of esoteric references, making mention of the Cumaean Sibyl, The Golden Bough of James Frazer, the study of Arthurian legend From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L. Weston, Buddha’s Fire Sermon, Gérard de Nerval’s densely hermetic sonnet El Desdichadoand the Upanishads.
Interest in all matters esoteric and occult had become a feature of the avant-garde ever since the later Romantics, especially Charles Baudelaire and the above-mentioned Gérard de Nerval. Later in the 19th Century there would be Arthur Rimbaud with his theory of ‘the alchemy of the word’, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s stint in Paris as a practising alchemist, known as the Inferno Period, and various writers and painters connected to the Symbolist and Decadent movements, most notably J.K Huysmans and my personal favourite Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders).
As the century progressed the Tarot became increasingly esoteric itself. This was quite a recent development, previously the Tarot had been a card game popular in Italy, France and Switzerland, though it also undisputedly used in cartomancy as well. However it was a theologian and Freemason, the Count Gébelin who first advanced the theory in 1781 that the Tarot was a repository of lost ancient knowledge, a theme developed at length by that strange figure known as Etteilla, who added that it was initially conceived by Hermes Tristemegistus himself and was actually ‘The Book of Thoth’. When the man responsible for the French Occult Revival, Eliphas Levi incorporated the Tarot into his magical system and tied the 22 cards of the Major Arcana with the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, the occultation of the Tarot was complete and it became an essential tool for any would-be magician. A quick comparison between any of the older versions of the Tarot with the most famous deck, the Rider-Waite-Smith of 1910 makes this clear, the Rider-Waite-Smith is self-consciously more “mystical”, with an over-abundance of symbolism.
In certain respects the Tarot was tailored-made for Modernism and Post-Modernism, with its emphasis on chance, interpenetration and the shifting, elusive nature of meaning. I have written previously on the Surrealist take on the standard deck of playing cards, Le Jeu Du Marseille-A Surrealist Pack of Cards, and both Salvador Dali and Ithell Colquhuon produced Tarot decks. The Italian post-modernist fabulist Italo Calvino wrote The Castle of Crossed Destinies where the entire plot is told through the Tarot. The Chilean-French film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky has written eloquently on the Tarot de Marseille and weaves the arcana throughout the acid western El Topo (The Mole) and The Holy Mountain.
In Douglas Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s midnight classic movie Performance, the on-the-run gangster Chas Devlin (James Fox) turns up at the Notting Hill home of the reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) claiming, somewhat inexplicably, to be a juggler. The first numbered card of the Major Arcana is sometimes called The Juggler, though it nowadays most commonly referred to as The Magician. This hermetic figure points both downward (to the underworld) and upwards (to the stars), a perfect illustration of as above, so below, and prefigures the merging identities towards the end of the movie. Turner seems to realise the import of Devlin’s claim to be a juggler as he immediately comments, ‘You’re a performer of natural magic’.
A quick word on the selection of images; there are thousands of variants on the Tarot available so I have limited myself mainly to the classics. My own preference is for the Tarot De Marseille and the Swiss 1JJ, however the most recognisable is the Rider-Waite-Smith. I have included selections from Dali and Colquhuon as well as the deck designed by Lady Freida Harris for Aleister Crowley. For a contemporary rendition Ulla Von Brandenburg’s excellent deck shows that Tarot continue to fascinate and inspire.
There are days and there are days,
Days like this, days like that,
The long ago and barely remembered
Days of wine and roses:
Slow kisses beneath a soft spring sky
Your look spells out a symphony
A communiqué from a soul
That holds out the possibility
Of untying this knot of inarticulate
Longing and overwhelming desire
That strangles all my attempts
At communication, at establishing
A rapport or just being
On the same page for once.
There are days and there are days,
Days like that, days like this,
The burning urgent and hotly evocative
Days of anger and wrath:
When in my primal rage
I scream out at the roiling sun
Why did you have to do me like that?
I gave you everything I had to give,
But you didn’t need anything from me
And haughtily rejected my heart
Laughing as you turned away in disdain,
So I tend and fuel this boiling hate,
Waiting for an other to inflict
The same wounds upon and so taste my pain.
There are days and there are days,
Days like this, days like that,
The oh-so awaited and rapturously received
Days of retribution and judgement:
The end is nigh, thank God for that
Who in their right mind would want to miss
The cinematic descent into chaos,
The unleashing of pandemonium,
Slights are revenged with vig on the vig,
Enemies crushed and ground to dust,
Free from stricture, desire is unbound,
The orgy to end all orgies, everything goes,
Make haste on this day of days
For the righteous are crowned only in heaven.