A Heresy for the 21st Century

Jerusalem-William Blake
Jerusalem-William Blake

Increasingly in the Western democracies there has been a polarisation between the ‘progressive’ left and the emboldened hard right that has resulted in a decay of political discourse. As they hold diametrically opposing views regarding almost everything it seems that no compromise is possible, especially as the one aspect they have in common means each side views the other as deluded at best, if not actively in league with evil. The shared trait that can be gleaned through all the glaring differences is a general Gnostic worldview and a belief in gnosis. Reading writers with progressive views one regularly encounters the term woke and a discussion on a given persons degree of wokeness. A central tenet of Western Esotericism (one directly borrowed from Gnosticism) is to wake up to the true nature of the world, beyond the reality directly perceived by the senses. To be woke means you have been roused from sleep and become aware of the power structures that oppress the vast majority of humanity while controlling all aspects of existence on earth. Conversely the alt-right often speak of being ‘red-pilled’, a term taken from The Matrix, a film of pure gnosticism. Take the blue pill and you stay safe in an ersatz world that is little more that a hologram created by malevolent entities; take the red-pill and you see the world as the prison it really is.

To trace how the progressive left and the hard right came to the same conclusion (though with markedly conflicting proposals for solutions) we are going to have to trace the history of Gnostic thought from 2nd Century AD Alexandria via Northern Italy and Southern France in the 12th-14th Century, detouring to take in the Jewish mystics of the Iberian peninsula during Muslim rule and onto the outpourings of a solitary English genius till we reach the 20th Century when a Swiss psychologist, an American science fiction writer, a French Marxist theorist, the Godfathers of Rap and various occultists, confidence tricksters and cult leaders, amongst others, along with a spectacular discovery in the desert laid the ground for the revival of the most perennial of heresies; Gnosticism. All of which to follow shortly.

Tyger Tyger

The Tyger, written and illustrated by William Blake
The Tyger-Written and Illustrated by William Blake from Songs of Experience 1794

The Tyger which was first published in 1794 in  William Blake’s Songs of Experience  was later merged with Blake’s previous collection of 1789 Songs of Innocence as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. As with all of Blake’s work it was illuminated and printed by himself.

The Tyger is probably the most famous of Blake’s poems and justifiably so. It is a magical distillation of Blake’s major themes and metaphysics in a short poem of six, four line stanzas with a miraculous melding of form and content. It is in my opinion, the one poem in English literature that comes closest to achieving absolute perfection.

At the time of writing tigers would still have possessed a near mythical status. It is possible that Blake may have seen a tiger cub that was exhibited in a travelling rarity show, hence the childlike and rather cuddly tiger depicted in the plate. The poem is a different matter altogether though. The beauty and the ferocity of the Tyger prompt Blake to question the idea of a benevolent God and leads to a vision of the sublime.

Blake’s Tyger is a Platonic Ideal Form which explains the idiosyncratic spelling. The poem opens with a reiteration, pointing towards the symmetry which plays such an important part in the poem. The rest of the line and the next highlights the duality of the Tyger, who shines with the intensity of the sun (blazing bright) and its nocturnal nature (in the forest of the night). The following couplet that completes the stanza asks what kind of creator could fashion such a violently amoral animal, a question that is reiterated with greater force in the fifth stanza when Blake wonders, Did he who made the Lamb make thee? . The Tyger companion piece in Songs of Innocence  is The Lamb, an animal that has obvious connotations to Christ. The sixth and final stanza repeats the opening stanza with one important difference, dare replaces could in frame thy fearful symmetry.

Blake developed his own personal mythology and his view of God the Creator was idiosyncratic and complicated to say the least. He equated the Old Testament Jehovah with the Gnostic demiurge whom he called variously Urizen and Nobodaddy in his writing. The Ancients of Days is his most famous artistic representation of the Divine Architect of the material universe.

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William Blake-The Ancient of Days 1794

The Infernal Vision of Sibylle Ruppert

Sibylle-Ruppert_Decadence 1976
Sibylle-Ruppert-Decadence 1976

Quite recently I was researching H.R Giger’s illustrations for De Sade’s Justine when I stumbled across the work of the German artist Sibylle Ruppert. I immediately wondered how I had never heard of her before as I take some pride in being well versed in Surrealistic/Fantastic/Dark Art and here was an exceptional example of the genre, that furthermore took its cues from the masters of transgressive literature: De Sade (of course), Lautreamont and Bataille, all of whom I have written about.

One can only wonder at the vagaries of recognition. Although she did have some influential admirers, namely Alain Robbe-Grillet, Henri Michaux and especially Giger, who owned a large collection of her work (the only major retrospective to date was at the H.R Giger Musuem), the critical and commercial success that other Fantastic artists of the period enjoyed eluded her. Instead she worked quietly away at producing ever more horrific images from hell.

Born in Frankfurt in 1942 in the middle of a bombing raid of the city, Ruppert’s father was a graphic designer. She would sit entranced watching her father draw. One day she seized his hand and said that she would also draw nice colourful pictures like he did. Soon afterwards she presented her first drawing; it was a brutal picture of a fist striking a face. Sibylle was six at the time.

A determined  and driven child Sibylle would produce twenty drawings a day as well as studying ballet. Too tall to be a ballerina, she became a revue dancer, touring the world until one day in New York she decided to quit and dedicate herself to art. Sibylle returned for a while to Frankfurt, giving drawing instructions at the art school her father founded, then moved to Paris, where she exhibited for a number of years before resuming teaching.

As well as the literary influences cited above, all of whom she illustrated, visual traces and echoes can be observed of Bosch, Giger, Fuseli, Bellmer, Blake and Bacon, though this doesn’t in any way detract from her singularly visceral and kinetic imagination. In her paintings and drawings the flesh is always in motion; writhing, straining, collapsing, before undergoing the final monstrous transformation. A truly infernal vision that lingers unsettlingly in the mind.

Bible du Mal-Sibylle Ruppert 1978
Bible du Mal-Sibylle Ruppert 1978
Sibylle Ruppert
Sibylle Ruppert
Sibylle_Ruppert___Flucht 1971
Sibylle_Ruppert___Flucht 1971
Sibylle Ruppert-Hit Something 1977
Sibylle Ruppert-Hit Something 1977
Sibylle Ruppert-Snake 1976
Sibylle Ruppert-Snake 1976
Sibylle Ruppert-Kamm 1977
Sibylle Ruppert-Kamm 1977
Sibylle Ruppert-Les Chants de Maldoror
Sibylle Ruppert-Les Chants de Maldoror

A Heresy for the 21st Century: Nobodaddy

The_Ancient_of_Days-William Blake 1794
The_Ancient_of_Days-William Blake 1794

The strange, visionary genius of the English poet and painter William Blake, one of the touchstones here and the feature of a number of posts including The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, Proverbs of Hell, Auguries of Innocence and Tyger Tyger, is of such depth and complexity that it has invited any number of interpretations, including, somewhat improbably in my opinion, becoming a standard bearer for atheistic humanism. That Blake espoused an idiosyncratic, Hermetic form of humanism is beyond dispute, however Blake was deeply religious, albeit in a unorthodox and heretical fashion, and was vehemently opposed to the materialistic atheism that was beginning to emerge during the Enlightenment, a period where quantity began to supplant quality.

Suggestions for possible sources of Blake’s dense and highly personal mythology have ranged from Neo-Platonism to Buddhism and although Gnosticism is mentioned in the melange, it has been sidelined to a degree. However I believe that Gnosticism (of a libertine variety) and Hermeticism are the two major components that formed the basis of Blake’s belief system.

The most notable element of Gnosticism within Blake’s art and thought is the idea of the Demiurge. In a conversation with Crabb Robinson Blake noted concerning the poems of his fellow Romantic William Wordsworth, “The eloquent descriptions of Nature…were conclusive proof of Atheism, for whoever believes in nature, disbelieves in God – for Nature is the work of the devil.” In the magnificent poem Tyger Tyger, the creator of the Tyger is memorably presented as a craftsman and the original meaning of the word Demiurge in Greek is craftsman or artisan.

In Blake’s art and poetry, the Creator, the Ancient of Days, is named Urizen (either Your Reason and/or To Limit from the Greek) or Nobodaddy (Nobody’s Daddy and/ or possibly an anagrammatized riff on Abaddon, the angel of the bottomless pit). Urizen is the representation of abstraction and reason who creates the universe with architectural tools and ensnares humanity in a web of conventional law and morality.  He constrains us in the ‘prison of the senses five‘ and is quite clearly identified with the Old Testament Jehovah and is definitely Satanic. Hence Blake’s anti-clericalism, priests are literally devil worshippers. Prophets, on the other hand, can ignite the divine spark within us, which Blake identifies as Imagination. Imagination allows us to escape from this cage of matter created by Nobodaddy, the Father of Jealousy who farts and belches in darkness and obscurity while enjoying a spot of ‘hanging & drawing & quartering/ Every bit as well as war & slaughtering’.

I sincerely hope that in the preceding posts in the series that I have presented the basic outline of Gnostic thought, though admittedly in my own eccentric way, with many regrettable gaps, omissions and lacuna. So with this information in mind we can proceed to the 20th & 21st Centuries, a time when new discoveries into the origins of Gnosticism and the rapidly changing nature of reality itself saw a remarkable resurgence of the oldest of heresies.

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