Esoteric Australian Art

Wed, 06/08/2014 - 04:32 -- eyeline

The notion of esoteric art may bring to mind mystic triangles, or half-naked women coiled around swords. This would be to mistake fantasy for the esoteric, illusion for the experience of astral travel, automatism, ceremony and trance. Perth has recently become the centre of esoteric art in Australia, as Buratti Fine Art’s 2012 exhibition, ‘Windows to the Sacred’, is touring nationally in expanded form. The show was inspired by the Pompidou Centre’s 2008 blockbuster ‘Traces of the Sacred’, that showed the metaphysical aspirations of all manner of avant-garde, contemporary and cult art. For the Paris curators, the artist is the key to the divine in a secular era, inheriting the role of gatekeeper to the dimensions beyond. Perth’s Windows to the Sacred takes an antipodean view of the esoteric, as it places an eclectic mix of Australian artists alongside paintings by the English occultist Alastair Crowley.

Crowley’s place in both the Paris and Perth exhibitions is instructive for thinking through the history of esoteric modernism. For his work turns up in two of the themed rooms of the massive Traces of the Sacred, first as one of the ‘Grand Initiates’ of the avant-garde with Piet Mondrian, and second as one of the ‘Doors of Perception’, alongside William Burroughs and Harry Smith. So that Crowley bridges two distinct periods of the esoteric, these being the avant-garde and the psychedelic, the first in which he was a minor figure and the second a major, as his ideas coincided with a more general interest in drugs, magic, mysticism, the occult and sex.

Crowley’s transition from one kind of esotericism to another is mirrored by the Australian artist Rosaleen Norton, whose work features alongside Crowley’s here. She went from modelling for Norman Lindsay to becoming lauded and loathed as the Witch of Kings Cross during the 1950s. Norton read Crowley’s writings to enrich her ritual life, that embraced a sophisticated mix of paganism, sex magick and wicker. Norton was devoted to Pan, the pagan god of shepherds and their flocks, nature and its wilds. Pan appears in many of Norton’s drawings, amongst all manner of beings that she encountered in her inner travels. Norton’s art is not metaphoric but manifest, produced in trance and out of ritual experiences to illuminate beings and worlds beyond Christian and secular consciousness. Her drawings, in which humans are bound to beasts and fauns, and morph into bats and flames, attest to a life that was intimate with magical forces.

Norton came to Australia’s attention through a series of scandals over obscene illustrations, black masses and photographs of flagellation at her King’s Cross flat. The most famous controversy of all came out of her magical and sexual relationship with the English musician Sir Eugene Goossens. In 1956 he blamed Norton for leading him astray when he was caught bringing erotic photographs and ritual paraphernalia into the country. While she survived these incidents unscathed, some of those who claimed an association with her were ruined by bankruptcy, jail and psychiatry.2

Norton’s biographer and researcher into Australian esoteric traditions, Nevill Drury, reports that she offered him LSD in the 1970s when he visited her.3 Drury is careful to distinguish her from the recreational drop-out culture of this time, pointing out that the fashionable drug would have enhanced an esoteric awareness she had already developed. Yet the presence of LSD in Norton’s basement flat, and Drury’s report that Norton thought Pan alive and well in the emergent counterculture, lends herself to that doubled interpretation the Pompidou exhibition afforded Crowley. Norton is certainly one of the ‘Grand Initiates’ who carved their own path into the realms of a universe populated by spirits, as well as being a guardian of the ‘Doors of Perception’ in a psychedelic New Age. Ironically, the moment at which LSD tabs were at their strongest, in the 1960s and 1970s, also marked the beginning of the dilution of Norton’s own reception as a serious artist. Instead of being targeted by police for the threat she represented to Christian values, she came to bear a cult value amidst the washed out drug and sex culture of the 1970s. Norton’s own art practice suffered in this transition. As she found a market for her work, her brush became more brutish, her paintings often reproducing well known works from her past.

To unpack one of the many misrepresentations that Norton suffered in Australia, it is possible to turn to the Australian surrealist James Gleeson, who is also represented in Buratti’s Windows to the Sacred with a spectacular late work. While Norton was exhibiting and selling pictures in the cafes of Kings Cross, Gleeson was writing reviews for a major Sydney paper. In 1952, Gleeson was asked about Norton and called her painting adolescent: ‘This is art school stuff … She doesn’t seem to have evolved an individual style of her own.’4 He was not impressed by Norton’s demons. There are a couple of reasons why we might speculate that Gleeson reacted to Norton’s work with such condescension. One is that Norton’s work was in some respects all too close to his own.

Art historian David Lomas argues that Gleeson found refuge in surrealism because his own sexuality could not be expressed in any other way in conservative, mid-century Australia.5 Gleeson’s paintings of the time focus upon the muscles of naked men amidst psychic vortexes of the surrealist kind. For the artworld, these statuesque figures recalled neo-classical paintings. Yet they also allowed him to picture desirable male bodies in a way that skirted around the homophobia of mid-century Australia. Gleeson was playing a dangerous game, as reviews of his work noted the way he was driven by sex, without naming the subject of his desires.6 Sexuality was also at work in Norton’s pictures, and was the terrain upon which it was attacked. Housewives’ Association Vice-President Mrs D. Woodward declared in 1952 that ‘These drawings could ruin any home they went into … I think the woman who drew them is maligning womanhood.’7

Ultimately, however, Norton’s nudity, trans-sexuality and bestiality is as neo-classical as Gleeson’s own work, as it revives the Ancient Greek pantheon. As Norton and her name were hauled before the Australian courts, Gleeson would have remembered the controversy and legal case that had so recently destroyed William Dobell.8 He was dragged through the courts for a picture that he had won the Archibald Prize in 1943 that did not fit its fellow contestant’s criteria of a portrait. The picture also displayed a queer sensibility, and exposed Dobell and his subject to the nation at large, driving the artist into isolation for years afterward. Gleeson knew Dobell, and may have sensed, through this incident and the controversies around Norton, his own vulnerability to being outed by the Australian media.

If sex and its repression is something of a continuity within the history of Australian esoteric art, Australian symbolism is another. A fourth artist in Buratti’s exhibition, Kim Nelson, paints landscapes of the mind, recalling the symbolist art movement that has suffered much neglect in Australia. When the art historian Bernard Smith championed Arthur Streeton at the origins of a self-consciously Australian art, he did so by distinguishing him from what he called the neo-romantics.9 Yet he also neglected the other, symbolist side of Streeton’s practice, his paintings of nudes and nymphs. As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, a secular nation emerged out of the decadent paganism of the 1890s, Streeton clothed his pagan fantasies, painting nymphs out of an impressionist derived naturalism. As impressionism became the lingua franca of modernism, pagan images slipped further from the consciousness of the modern mainstream.

A visitor to Buratti’s exhibition may turn to Danie Mellor to cast these versions of Australian art, from surrealism to symbolism, into the long shadows of time. For Mellor works with two long running esotericisms, the Aboriginal and Masonic. Once a Freemason in Canberra, Mellor is intimate with the rituals that have been passed down through this secret society and into the present day. He describes the way the Masons are guided by passwords that have been inherited from the medieval guild system, words that once allowed a master builder to introduce himself and his skills to a foreman. These words determined what kind of work you could do, and what you would be paid.10 Mellor’s work alludes to parallels between the secret, ritual life of the Masons and that of hieratic, Aboriginal societies that also use stages of initiation to create esoteric order. As the Masons turned a pragmatic system for trade across Europe into an esoteric society, so too Aboriginal religion, the Dreaming, became a site for mysticism and secrecy in the twentieth century.  It is not so much that Mellor is tracing the confluence of these histories than he is the discontinuities. For the Masonic tracing board that Mellor pictures in A Trace of History (of Death and Resurrection) (2010)  combines a blue, Chinese style of porcelain painting with naturalistic illustration to show the disjunction of visual practices. Mellor’s mode of image making is tied to these cultures of reproduction, so as not to impinge upon the greater, metaphysical truths that his symbols may contain within them. The work is a model of the way Windows to the Sacred assembles the different currents of the esoteric, currents that both conflict and cohere as they wind their way into Australian art and beyond it.

It is as if to resolve the conundrums of multiple esotericisms that a final artist in this exhibition presents the shadows of esoteric figuration. Barry William Hale outlines auto-demons that he calls Legion 49 (2012), and sculptural perspex versions of them that are designed to throw candlelight shadows of tooth and claw. While Norton’s figures loom out of the drawing, seducing and threatening in playful glee, and Gleeson illuminates caverns of his own subconscious, Hale outlines the sharp edges of an hallucination machine. He has broken through the problem of representing the nether-world by reducing its representation to a single cut, that lies between nether shapes and the shape of this world. While Norton and Mellor rely on illustrative, hallucinatory styles that betray the depth of some mode of inner experience, Hale’s graphic Legion report nothing but their own shadow. They are glyphs marked by their own finality, by the metaphysical certainty of the shadow itself. Hale, then, marks out a very different shape for esoteric art, one that eludes the circle of the avant-garde and New Age represented by the Pompidou exhibition. If Crowley and Norton oscillate between our understanding of these generations, between original and cult value, Hale collapses the inner and outer dimensions of the subjective history of esoteric art with auto-demons that belong nowhere. He also overcomes the weight of classical representation, and refers instead to an open-ended universe of his own making. 

Barry William Hale, Legion 49, 2012. Graphic on cotton rag paper, each panel 30 x 20cm, overall installation 180 x 300cm. Courtesy the artist. 

James Gleeson, A Moment in the Process, 2005. Oil on linen, 133 x 178cm. Courtest Gleeson O'Keefe Foundation. 

Danie Mellor, A Trace of History (of Death and Resurrection), 2010. Pastel, pencil and wash with studs, glitter and Swarovski Crystal on Saunders Waterford paper 207 x 80cm. Private collection, Perth. Courtesy the artist and Buratti Fine Art. 

Rosaleen Norton, Lucifer and the Goat of Mendes, 1967. Oil on board, 80 x 60cm. Courtesy Buratti Fine Art and Walter Glover.

notes: 

1. With thanks to Robert Buratti, David McMillan, Danie Mellor, Thea Porter, Kathleen Williamson, and all the staff at the Institute of Modern Art who welcomed me into their darkest den to present a paper on Australian esoteric art.

2. Nevill Drury, Homage to Pan: The Life, Art and Sex-Magic of Rosaleen Norton, Creation Books, New York, 2009. pp.35-52.

3. Drury, ibid., p.10.

4. ‘Book has Stark Sex Paintings’, The Mail, Adelaide, 6 September 1952, p.8.

5. David Lomas, ‘James Gleeson’s Desiring Production’, Papers of Surrealism, No. 6, Autumn 2007. Available at http://www.surrealismcentre.ac.uk/papersofsurrealism/journal6/index.htm

6. See ‘Show by James Gleeson’, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 3 September 1952, p.2.

7. ‘Book has Stark Sex Paintings’, op. cit.

8. ‘William Dobell’, Dictionary of Australian Artists Online. Available at http://www.daao.org.au/bio/william-dobell/

9. Bernard Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition: A Study of Australian Art since 1788, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979, pp.120-129.

10. Author’s interview with the artist, April 2013.

Windows to the Sacred was shown at Buratti Fine Art, Perth, 2013; at S.H Ervin Gallery, Sydney, 2013, then will tour nationally until 2016 at Devonport Regional Gallery, Tasmania; Orange Regional Gallery, New South Wales; Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Victoria; and Queensland University of Technology Art Museum, Brisbane.

Dr Darren Jorgensen lectures in art history at the University of Western Australia.