I think contemporary art is a myth. It’s like a fashion, there’s only ever been one idea in art, all the arts deal with it, and you have to look beyond fashion to see it…. The question of life and death?…
Exactly, Gauguin’s old question.
– An interview with Damien Hirst, 20061
For most people, the term ‘occult art’ tends to conjure up images of devils, demons, pentagrams, and obscure and shocking imagery far removed from what many see as acceptable and valid contemporary art. In an industry which prides itself on being cutting edge, the mainstream art world remains largely distrustful and reasonably uneducated on occult art and all that comes with it, yet when one looks at its origins, one is actually looking to the origins of art itself.
The term ‘occult’ means simply ‘hidden’, and is derived from the Latin, occullere, meaning to cover over, to hide, or conceal, and essentially occult art is Man’s search for hidden knowledge of himself and his place in the universe. Removed from the usual commercial modes of contemporary art, it has heavily influenced major movements including Symbolism and Surrealism, and often the process of creating work is more important than the result.
Occult art is an exploratory practice for divining, decoding, re-visioning, and re-reading the human condition and takes us beyond the screen of our everyday senses to evoke a dimension of creativity operating powerful archetypal images and symbols. Hidden deep in the psyche are concepts which can be both enlightening and terrifying, and many artists have been able to uncover these worlds via trance, meditation or comparable methods, gaining an insight into the unbounded potential of human creativity and the range of positive and negative impulses which dwell within us all.
Art as a pure spiritual pursuit has its origins in early human evolutionary prehistory. Scientists have put forward that along with various forms of rhythmic expression such as dancing and singing, visual art developed very early in human evolution by the forces of natural selection in order to reach an altered state of consciousness.2 Researcher Joseph Jordania wrote recently that in this state, early humans lost their individuality, and acquired a “new collective identity, where they were not feeling fear or pain, and were religiously dedicated to the group interests, in total disregards of their individual safety and life.”3
Ritualistic actions involving heavy rhythmic music and movement coupled with body painting, were universally practiced in traditional cultures before hunting or military sessions in order to induce specific altered states of consciousness and raise the morale of participants.4 From the outset, art served a dual purpose of recording life, as in Palaeolithic cave drawings, and also as a spiritual and ritual practice reserved to achieved a specific end.
With the invention of writing, along with the rise of the great civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the pictorial and ideographic system found an expression in the cuneiform script, which emerged circa 3500 BCE. In ancient Egypt hieroglyphic writing developed, with one of the earliest examples appearing on the Narmer Palette, circa 3100 BCE. Here the practice was formalised under the direction of the High Priest, the only one charged with commissioning the creation of artwork for the land, and often the only one allowed to read and write the sacred hieroglyphic symbols inscribed on ritual objects and public monuments. The high arts of writing, painting and magic were inextricably linked and presided over by the same deity, Tahuti or Thoth (the Greeks later equated Thoth with Hermes). Tahuti maintained the balance of good and evil within the universe, stood with Maat as one of the two deities on either side of Ra’s boat, was the judge of godly disputes, judge of the dead and keeper of all secrets of arts and magic.5
Artistic practice during this period was a function reserved for the initiate as a communion with the sacred. This line of practice continued throughout the following period into the classical era where temples and divinatory statues were designed in keeping with universal geometry based on star patterns, earth lines and the movement of the Sun.
Occult art provided windows to the sacred for both the initiate and the non-initiate to reach the divine, but never entered the public gallery system until the Salon of the Rose-Croix, a series of six art and music salons hosted by Joséphin Péladan in 1890s Paris. These were followed by various underground exhibitions throughout Germany and Europe in the 1930-1940’s.
The genre entered the domain of the critic during the 1960’s when art historians began looking deeper into this forgotten spiritual and mystical explanation for the modern art avant-garde. In Germany, Otto Stelzer looked to the early Symbolist origins of abstract art, while Sixten Ringbom researched how occultism had inspired painters such as Wassily Kandinsky.6 In America, Robert P. Welsh presented the theosophical influences of Piet Mondrian7 and Rose-Carol Washton Long illustrated hidden images within Kandinsky’s greatest works.8 In 1984, Robert Rosenblum drew his own conclusions from these new discoveries in proposing a Northern Romantic tradition leading directly from Caspar David Friedrich to Mark Rothko, taking in on the way the cosmogonies of William Blake and Philipp Otto Runge, Vincent Van Gogh’s quest for religious truth and Mondrian’s transcendental abstraction.9
Over the following years, major exhibitions devoted to the spirituality of the artistic avant-garde were organised in Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, with the best-known and most important of these – directly inspired by these new art-historical researches – being The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting, 1890-1985. Opening in November 1986, the exhibition presented 257 works by 95 artists, and inaugurated the new wing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Taking its title from a famous essay by Kandinsky, the curator, Maurice Tuchman, proposed that Abstract Art be reviewed through the modes of occultism, mystical thought, Theosophy and Anthroposophy. The exhibition opened with a substantial selection of Symbolist works including works by Gauguin, Redon and Ranson, along with occult and mystical books from the 17th to the 20th century, leading on to the principal rooms devoted to five pioneers of abstraction: Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian and Hilma af Klint.
The staging of such a major exhibition in a high profile museum achieved a great deal in bringing the occult roots of contemporary art to public awareness, and paved the way for the innovative and highly attended 2008 exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris entitled, Traces du Sacre. Its aim was to address more than a hundred years of art’s response to what Max Weber diagnosed as “the disenchantment of the world,” and what the curators call the “irrepressible need for spirituality.” A broad selection of paintings, sculptures, installations and videos brought together some 350 major works by almost 200 artists of international renown.
Across twenty four thematic sections, the exhibition looked at art history from the late nineteenth century to the present day, showing contemporary pieces alongside Romantic and Modern works and so bringing out the continuing importance of the question of the sacred in the art of the present day.10 The exhibition included works by de Chirico, Brancusi, Caspar David Friedrich, and Eduard Munch alongside spiritual works by Wassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Piet Mondrian, and those by iconic magicians Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare. A highlight of this exhibition was the satellite showing of The Nightmare Paintings by Aleister Crowley at the Palais de Tokyo. Sixteen never before seen works were exhibited to the public, all of which were painted during the artist’s creation of the infamous Abbey of Thelema in Sicily.
The fascination of Australian culture with the occult is something unique and enduring. The writer Keith Richmond wrote,
In the late nineteenth century Australians welcomed Theosophy and Spiritualism with a zeal surpassing that of most other nations, and during the First World War local interest in the occult reached such a level that for nearly two years one Sydney newspaper was able to run a column in which it satirised a different occult group (and sometimes a number of them) every week.11
Along with Richmond, writers such as Neville Drury did much to create a dialogue on occult art in Australia during the seventies and eighties. Drury is credited with the first serious overview of occultism in Australia with his 1980 book co-authored by Gregory Tillet, Other Temples, Other Gods, that featured, in particular, the forgotten Sydney artist Rosaleen Norton.
Dubbed the “Witch of Kings Cross” by the popular press, she remains without doubt the most famous Australian occult artist. Born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1917, Norton moved with her family to Sydney in 1924, where they established themselves in the middle-class suburb of Lindfield. Norton was expelled from the Church of England Girls’ School, Chatswood, at the age of 14 for producing ‘depraved’ drawings of vampires, ghouls and werewolves thought likely to corrupt the other girls. She later studied for two years at East Sydney Technical College.
A key influence on the young Norton was her lecturer George Rayner Hoff. A skilled sculptor, he is credited as transforming the face of Australian sculpture in his adoption of art deco principles and redirecting monumental statuary in Sydney towards classicism. In 1919, Hoff began studies at the Royal College of Art, London, under the professor of sculpture Francis Derwent Wood. He exhibited two sculptures at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1920 and one in 1922. He won the Prix de Rome scholarship in 1921 and was awarded the Royal Society of British Sculptors’ diploma in 1923. After meeting the Australian architect Hardy Wilson at Naples, and discussions with Derwent Wood in London, he accepted appointment as teacher of drawing, modelling and sculpture at East Sydney Technical College in May 1923 and reached Sydney in August.
Joining the Society of Artists, Sydney, in 1924, Hoff served on its executive and became a force for liberal ideals combined with stylistic moderation in art. The medal for the Society of Artists was created by Hoff in 1924. Later he produced, among others, the Sir Peter Nicol Russell memorial medal for the Institution of Engineers, Australia (1927), the Sir John Sulman medal for the Institute of Architects of New South Wales (1932) and the contentious Victorian centenary medallion (1934). He showed sculpture regularly with the Society of Artists, the Victorian Artists’ Society and the Australian Sculptors’ Society. He entered various official and prize exhibitions, and was awarded the Wynne prize in 1927.
The most significant contribution Hoff made was his large-scale sculpture for various buildings and public memorials: he produced the large reliefs of the war memorial at Dubbo, New South Wales, in 1925, the figures for the National War Memorial, Adelaide, in 1927-31, and the more numerous and controversial sculptures for the Anzac Memorial, Sydney (made with the aid of students and assistants) in 1930-34. Hoff was also responsible for fine decorative reliefs in the now demolished Liberty Theatre (1934) and Hotel Australia (1934-35). He began work on the King George V Memorial, Canberra, in 1936, which was completed posthumously by John Moorfield. He also interestingly created the famous “lion and stone” logo for Holden Motors in 1928, based on a prehistoric fable, in which observations of lions rolling stones led to the invention of the wheel.
At East Sydney Technical College Hoff taught drawing and sculpture, and amongst his students were Norton, James Gleeson and many others who both revered and imitated him – and were particularly inspired by his openly pagan approach to creation. Along with Norman Lindsay and Kenneth Slessor, Hoff pioneered the pagan movement known as “heroic vitalism” which was entering the mainstream of early twentieth century Australian art. The early works of James Gleeson shows elements of this approach in depicting an overtly sensual and writhing landscape dotted by idealised male figures.
Norton no doubt would have seen first hand the vilification of Hoff’s friend Norman Lindsay and his flight from Australia in 1931 under the continual backlash against what were considered his “pornographic and occult artworks.” In response, Lindsay wrote in 1920:
To whom does one offer the gift of a thought? To him who already thinks it. The mission of the thinker is not to enlighten, but to confirm. The material for enlightenment is already there, like a piled-up beacon; the new thought is but a spark that sets it alight. Anger at the stupidity of common minds is foolish, save in youth, when it is a stimulus. Yet all high minds wish to offer the gift of thought to mankind, and because it is rejected they become bitter. But gold is no use to a savage. He prefers iron, which is useful to him. And here the savage is wise. One cannot blame the common mind, because it seeks common thoughts – vulgar utilities – for these things help it. If the common man is also able to catch a little at higher thoughts, so much the better; but he has caught something in passing not addressed to him. The message of the Creative Effort is to him whose mission is to carry on the Creative Effort.12
Hoff’s sculpture in contrast, while remaining robustly erotic, was never prurient, embodying a neo-paganism different in quality and kind from Lindsay. His work, Idyll: love and life in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW, “might be described as chaste, despite the languor of its poses.”13 His work was softer and less obvious but held the same ideals. For many years he managed to avoid public outcry until later in his years. In 1932, he was embroiled in controversy with the Catholic Archbishop Kelly, the Master Builders’ Association of New South Wales, and the local chapter of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects over the morality of the form and symbolism of the Anzac Memorial Group ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Crucifixion of Civilisation’ and ‘Victory’. He was also attacked over his design of the Victorian centenary medal in 1934 for its depiction of a Ram’s head as the central motif.
Amongst the basics of art technique, Hoff would have shown Norton that art has the potential to make the artist a significant target to the public, a warning most likely lost on the young artist at the time. Despite her admiration for Hoff, Norton generally found it hard to take direction and preferred to follow her own path rather than the set college curriculum.
In December 1933, whilst still at college, she submitted the first of three short stories to Smith’s Weekly that immediately drew the admiring attention of the editor Frank Marien. He saw promise at the author’s “vivid imagination” that was “quite beyond the ordinary,” and offered Norton a cadetship as a writer and illustrator. However, her graphic illustrations were deemed too controversial, and soon she lost the job. From there, Norton’s life took many turns, punctuated with high profile legal cases and often vehement vindication by the media.
Her focus throughout her time remained on the core principle of developing and exhibiting her art and magical practice. However, the art world in Australia was generally far from responsive to Norton, and she found it all but impossible to have work accepted by any serious galleries. The dubious honour of being the first Australian artist to have her work seized by the government did little to help, and the book on her art, The Art of Rosaleen Norton, was also banned. Unable to reach a wider audience and forced to find some sort of income, Norton had to rely on selling her paintings to friends and acquaintances, and found it impossible to rid herself of the ‘Witch’ image. She died on 5 December 1979, at the age of sixty-two, having spent the last few years of her life as a semi-recluse. In 2000, an exhibition of Norton’s paintings was held in Kings Cross, Sydney, organised by writer Keith Richmond, and artist/curator Barry William Hale.
It was not until the early 1940s that Norton began to seriously study the occult, starting with Eastern and theosophical texts, and slowly moving to the Western esoteric tradition, practicing Ritual Magic, and studying the texts of Aleister Crowley, Eliphas Levi and Dion Fortune. She became an active proponent of sex magick, and made regular use of drugs in her ceremonies, all of which contributed to Norton’s true lasting legacy, the techniques she developed to heighten her artistic perception. Through self-hypnosis she learned how to transfer her attention at will to inner planes of awareness in what could be termed “astral projection.” She wrote in her diaries that this practice “produced a number of peculiar and unexpected results… and culminated in a period of extra-sensory perception together with a prolonged series of symbolic visions.”
In an interview conducted with Norton at the University of Melbourne in 1949, she explained further:
I decided to experiment in self-induced trance, the idea being to induce an abnormal state of consciousness and manifest the results, if any, in drawing. My aim was to delve down into the subconscious mind and, if possible through and beyond it. I had the feeling (intuitional rather than intellectual) that somewhere in the depths of the unconscious, the individual would contain, in essence, the accumulated knowledge of mankind; just as his physical body manifests the aggregate of racial experience in the form of instinct or automatic reaction to stimulus.
In order to contact this hypothetical source, I decided to apply psychic stimulus to the subconscious: stimulus that the conscious reasoning mind might reject yet which would appeal to buried instincts as old as man, and which – I hoped – cause psychic ‘automatic reflexes’. (Religious cults use ritual, incense etc for the same reason.) Consequently, I collected together a variety of things such as aromatic leaves, wine, a lighted fire, a mummified hoof etc… all potent stimuli to the part of the unconscious that I wished to invoke. I darkened the room, and focusing my eyes upon the hoof I crushed the pungent leaves, drank some wine, and tried to clear my mind of all conscious thought. This was a beginning (and I made many other experiments which were progressively successful).
Following a surge of curious excitement, my brain would become emptied of all conscious thought: my eyes would shut, and I was merely aware that I was drawing on the blank sheet of paper in front of me… I seemed while experiencing a great intensification of intellectual, creative and intuitional faculties, to have become detached in a curiously timeless fashion from the world around me, and yet to be seeing things with a greater clarity and awareness than normally…
Through these practices, Norton came to have a special reverence for the pagan deity Pan, regarding him as, “Totality of All Being and the true God of the World and Overlord of the Balance of Nature.” Various manifestations of Pan became a regular feature of her painting from the late 1940’s to the time of her death. While she also depicted Lucifer, Baphomet, Hecate and other similar deities, Pan was a regular visitor to her trances and held a special place in her consciousness.
According to Norton, the other gods only appeared to her in trance visions if it pleased them – they could not be conjured. Some of the magical entities appearing in her artistic works seem to be atavistic hybrids – half-human, half-animal and often naked – revealing the primeval aspects of humanity’s spiritual evolution. Neville Drury saw great similarities between Norton and the English occult artist Austin Osman Spare:
There are distinctive parallels between Austin Spare and Rosaleen Norton. Both were influenced by witchcraft and the occult traditions of western magic, both utilised trance states, and both believed that the realm of the gods had its own intrinsic existence – the artist simply serving to manifest these archetypal energies by acting as an inspired channel. It is also interesting that both employed mental focusing techniques – using sigils or specific physical objects to induce a state of trance. As in the Eastern forms of meditation which utilise “one-centredness of mind,” it seems that the focusing of intent is a valuable way of unleashing stored psychic energy.14
Perhaps the most widely known occult artist, Austin Osman Spare died in 1956, similarly a recluse like Norton. In his younger days his work was applauded by the artistic establishment, until in the 1920’s he ceased showing commercially and returned to his native East End and created works almost entirely as part of his magical practice. He is particularly noted for his automatic drawing where images manifest through the artist, rather than being consciously devised. This was a practice inspired by the Surrealists of the early 1920’s who believed that art accessed through the unconscious or subconscious was more “real” or “true” than rationalist art works.
Surrealism’s initial proponent was Andre Breton, who during World War I, served in a neurological hospital where he used Freud’s psychoanalytic methods with soldiers suffering from shell shock. After returning to Paris to find many of the local writers and artists scattered, he joined the anti-art movement, Dada, and started the literary journal Litterature. Along with other writers, he began experimenting with automatic writing, which was essentially a trance inspired form of spontaneous writing without self-censoring. He also started recording dreams in the same way and published them alongside the automatic writings in the journal. These works became the pointers for writers and artists across Europe to start looking to the unconscious and trance practice to create ‘true art’. Freud’s work with free association, dream analysis, and the unconscious became of utmost importance to the Surrealists in developing methods to liberate imagination and unlock the true creative mind. As Salvador Dali explained it: “There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”15
The Australian Surrealist James Gleeson
While not considered an esoteric or occult art form, Surrealism is saturated with occult ideals and practices all of which manifested openly in the work of its practitioners, and has maintained a central conceptual association between fine art and occult dialogues. The Australian father of surrealism, James Gleeson, was a skilled practitioner of trance technique in creating his unique landscapes, and influenced a great deal of contemporary occult and esoteric artists locally including Barry William Hale.
Gleeson said that as a young artist, he caught the idea, “there existed a whole world behind what we see with our eyes, and my artwork became a way of finding and understanding that world.”16 At its heart Surrealism was an exploratory process demanding a level of mental discipline unlike any other of its day. The automatic drawings of James Gleeson remain full of insight, and up until his passing in 2008, he was at the height of his powers channelling the unconscious.
A student at East Sydney Technical College around the same time as Rosaleen Norton, and also under Hoff, he discovered Dalí, De Chirico, Ernst and Magritte, but also Freud and Jung’s theories on the unconscious mind. His most famous work features writhing nightmarish landscapes, full of sometimes violent and disturbing imagery, ranging to serene and soft humanoid forms. The early paintings, it is said, made women faint, and at least one hysterical girl had to be escorted from an exhibition. The middle period of his life saw Gleeson better known as an art critic, author, poet and curator, until the age of 65, when he devoted himself to art full-time, and went on to produce more than 400 canvases. Unlike his contemporaries, who merely dabbled in Surrealism, Gleeson remained true to its philosophy until his death at the age of 92, securing his place as the Father of Australian Surrealism.
This last phase of his artistic life is widely regarded as his most brilliant, yielding some truly monumental paintings, which Gleeson called “psychoscapes.” A key work, entitled Icons of Hazard, drew further dark inspiration from the atmosphere generated by 9/11 and the war in Iraq. One critic wrote of these works: “Representing an ineffable world in the furthest recesses of the human mind, these form an imaginary coastline, not of water, rock and sand, but a disturbing, organic morass of muscle, sinew, carapace, shell, hair and dripping membrane.”
Another work that Gleeson suggested was amongst his most successful, The Wheel Has Come Full Circle, is a major study in what the artist described as the “great return.” A pure unconscious journey back to the source of life. Another entitled, A Moment in the Process depicts the glimpse “behind the curtain” to the world behind the world we see around us. An exceptionally talented draughtsman and painter, Gleeson never received the recognition he deserved, and his major 2004 retrospective, Beyond the Screen of Sight, was belated. Some blame his subject matter. While near-contemporaries such as Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale focused on Australian themes, Gleeson described the world of the imagination. On his passing, the director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon, said: “James saw into our inner soul.” More than any other Australian artist, Gleeson successfully mapped the unconscious and opened the doors for local curators, critics and museums to consider esoteric and occult art.
This article includes a range of artwork, including a spread of Aleister Crowley paintings, courtesy of Buratti Fine Art. To view this, purchase the digital version of this magazine.
Part 2 of this article, published in New Dawn 134, examines The contemporary Australian artists working in the occult tradition, including the work of Wolfgang Grasse, Norman Lindsay and Barry William Hale.
1. Damien Hirst, The Death of God, Conversation Between Damien Hirst and Hilario Galguera, 2006, 11
2. Joseph Jordania, Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution, 2011, 98-102
4. William McNeil, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, 1995, Cambridge: Harvard University Press
5. Budge, The Gods of the Egyptians Vol. 1
6. Sixten Ringbom, Occult Elements in the Early Theory of Abstract Painting, 1966; Sixten Ringbom, The sounding cosmos: a study in the spiritualism of Kandinsky and the genesis of abstract painting, 1970
7. Robert P. Welsh, PIET MONDRIAN 1872-1944, 1966
8. Rose-Carol Washton Long, doctoral thesis on the hidden images in Kandinsky, 1972
9. R. Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, 1984
10. Traces du Sacre, Editions du Centre Pompidou, Paris 2008
11. K. Richmond, The Occult: An Exhibition of material from the Monash University Library Rare Book Collection, Monash University, 1998
12. N. Lindsay, Creative Effort: An Essay in Affirmation, 1920, Art in Australia, Sydney
13. Art Gallery Handbook, 1999, Art Gallery of NSW
14. N. Drury, Three Magical Artists: Austin Spare, Rosaleen Norton & H.R. Giger, 1984
15. S. Dali, Diary of a Genius, quoted in The Columbia World of Quotations, 1996
15. R. Buratti, Interview with James Gleeson, 2006
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