“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” was the personal motto of Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) once known to the headline writers as “the Great Beast” and “The Wickedest Man Alive.” It was a philosophy that would endear him to the counter-culture of the sixties and make him a hero for rock stars such as Jimmy Page and Jim Morrison. Perhaps the sealer for Crowley’s second coming was his inclusion on the album cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (1967), at John Lennon’s insistence.
A famous sorcerer such Crowley has an obvious appeal for a popular culture saturated in stories of witches and vampires, but he was no Harry Potter. Selfish, brutal, addicted to drugs and sexual perversion, Crowley was a terrifying but hugely charismatic individual. Those who fell under his spell often found themselves ruined for life. Today Crowley probably has more disciples than ever before, but his image has been cleaned up for public consumption. The Great Beast has been transformed into the Great Libertarian.
Like Crowley himself, the study of the occult has become almost respectable, although the price is a high degree of Disneyfication. One of the revelations of Windows to the Sacred at the S.H. Ervin Gallery is the extent to which contemporary occultists have adopted all the trappings of popular culture.
It’s a sign of the times that such a show could ever be held at the S.H. Ervin. Not long ago it would have been unthinkable that a gallery operated by the National Trust would host an exhibition of ‘esoteric art’, featuring work by figures such as Crowley; Rosaleen Norton – the so-called “witch of Kings Cross”; and Austin Osman Spare, a notorious British artist devoted to the supernatural.
This doesn’t mean the S.H. Ervin has become a haven for mystics and Satanists. It would be more accurate to say that nowadays those mystics and Satanists are about as controversial than the Australian Watercolour Institute. If the pictures by celebrated figures such as Crowley and Spare have a hermetic feeling, the works of contemporary esoteric artists such as Barry William Hale and Kim Nelson, seem to be pitched at a mainstream audience rather than an élite group of initiates.
Windows to the Sacred: An Exploration of the Esoteric, has been put together by Western Australian art dealer, Robert Buratti, as an obvious labour of love. It’s not simply a way of advertising his commercial activities, because Buratti identifies as a member of Collective777 – the “art guild of the Ordo Templi Orientis Australia”, represented in this exhibition with a full-scale Gnostic altar and a set of smaller altars.
The Ordo Templi Orientis, should you be wondering, is literally the ‘Order of the Temple of the East’. It is a religious organisation that grew out of Freemasonry, but underwent a radical reshaping at the hands of Aleister Crowley in 1904. The Eastern Altar (Gnostic Temple) that Collective777 has contributed to this show, is laid out along the lines stipulated by Crowley in The Book of the Lore, the major doctrinal statement of his homemade religion, Thelema.
A copy of the book sits propped up at the centre of a display that might have been borrowed from a children’s pantomime. Although it looks cheap and tacky, the altar is fully functional and will be used for a Gnostic Mass being celebrated tomorrow at 3 pm, as one of the gallery’s public programs.
Buratti has also written a small book that serves as the catalogue for this exhibition. It’s a strange mixture of art history and long-winded discussions of Freemasonry, witchcraft and Thelema. When he gets away from doctrinal issues Buratti is a fluent writer, although it’s hard to put much faith in someone investigating the mysteries of the universe when he is unable to negotiate the comparatively simple mystery of the possessive apostrophe.
‘Esoteric art’ is one of those elusive terms that contains multitudes. Where one might expect the curator to provide a working definition he tiptoes around the subject. “One of the underpinnings of esoteric art is its rejection of beauty and form,” he tells us. “It is an exploration not an idealisation.” He suggests it is a search for a truth that transcends mere appearances – which is also true of the Symbolist movement of the late 19th century, and of Surrealism, which enjoyed its heyday in the period between the world wars.
Sure enough, both Symbolism and Surrealism are discussed at length, along with the “Visionary Art” of figures such as Norton and Spare. One is left to conclude that ‘Esoteric Art’ is an umbrella term that includes all of the above, along with a large helping of kitsch. The trail stretches from the paintings of Aussie Surrealist, James Gleeson (1915 -2008), to pictures that would look right at home on the side of a panel van.
It feels a little strange to view paintings and drawings by Gleeson in this context. Mild-mannered and scholarly, Gleeson was the complete gentleman. His devotion to Surrealism did nothing to alter the quiet, suburban life he led on Sydney’s lower north shore. One can hardly imagine anyone less likely to rub shoulders with Aleister Crowley.
The other wild card in this show is Danie Mellor, the most erudite of artists who identify as ‘indigenous’. In a series of precise, cerebral works, Mellor has combined the imagery and symbols of Freemasonry with Aboriginal figures and native Australian fauna, to critique the imposition of western cultural values on an existing civilisation. Mellor’s pictures could hardly be considered as a protest; they are more concerned with pointing out the superstitious, mystical currents underpinning a society that saw itself as a child of the Enlightenment.
In Social Darwinist thought it was only to be expected that the primitive ways of the Aborigines would be swept aside by the superior rationality of the colonists. Mellor pokes fun at these pretensions, but Buratti is less interested in the satirical side of this work than its appropriation of Masonic emblems. While Mellor’s knowledge of such an abstruse subject is impressive, his interest in Freemasonry is most probably only a means to an end.
Gleeson and Mellor may not truly belong in this company, but are easily the stand-out artists in Windows to the Sacred. They do not reject beauty and form, even though their subject matter is unconventional. Too many of their fellow exhibitors are possessed by rather banal ideas about how to capture supernatural themes, or update them for a contemporary audience. Barry William Hale feels it is cool to paint Satan like a cartoon munchkin, in the style of a street artist. Another work features lots of little plastic Rorschach-style silhouettes of demons arranged as a designer wall hanging.
Kim Nelson combines the skills of an academic realist with the taste of an adolescent heavy-metal fan. His version of a Pièta features a Madonna who looks like she has stepped out of the pages of a bikers’ magazine. The same might be said about many of the small altar paintings of Collective777.
The silliest works in the show are surely those of Rosaleen Norton (1917-79), which betray her admiration for that supreme Kitschmeister, Norman Lindsay. It may seem impossible to imagine works more ludicrous than Lindsay’s pneumatic, pouting nudes and leering pirates, but Norton’s devils and demons provide stiff competition. Regardless of the trances, drugs, and sex magic that may have inspired these pictures, they are no more than cartoons. When Buratti writes: “her draughtsmanship was exceptional”, one can only agree.
Norton was a novelty act, and she knew it. Her distinctive makeup and provocative statements were fuel for the tabloids, which delighted in being periodically scandalised by her lifestyle and her pictures.
Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare (1886-1956) stand out from the rest of the occultists. The latter because he was a trained artist whose drawings have a distinction, even if they were made in a trance. The Great Beast is the precise opposite, being one of those rare creatures who could call himself an intellectual but paint like a naïf. His works in this show are completely airless, with every face and form being daubed in with the most deliberate strokes of the brush. The Sun (Auto portrait) is like a piece of tribal art, while The Moon (Study for Tarot), and Cock and Serpent (all painted in 1920), are engaging fantasies. They have the same crude vitalism one finds in the early work of Emil Nolde, or the paintings of D.H. Lawrence.
Crowley may have loved to shock and offend, but as an artist he was untouched by the need to conform to any avant-garde models. As a practising megalomaniac he was always a leader, never a follower; pushing himself and others to the limits of experience. In life this was a recipe for disaster, but in painting it has left us with a vivid record of the world as seen by one of the darkest, strangest sensibilities of the modern era.
Windows to the Sacred: An Exploration of the Esoteric, S.H. Ervin Gallery, August 30 – September 29, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 14, 2013