ART AND THE OCCULT.
The Latin root of our word ‘occult’ is occultus, meaning hidden, and has long been used to describe the secret teachings of secret societies (real and imagined, either side of the preposition). The ‘occult’ covers a great range of topics, including astrology, alchemy, religious mysticism, spiritualism, witchcraft, voodoo, Theosophy, Tarot, shamanism, the Jewish Kabala, even yoga, and is often used to encompass general ‘mysteries of the unknown’. It is not my intention to provide a primer on such a sprawling, diverse subject so I will quote Nadia Choucha’s general summary of basic occult principles as I feel this might be helpful:
The universe is a single living substance.
The universe is comprised of interactive opposites.
Mind and matter are a unified entity.
Everything that exists corresponds in universal analogy –man/ woman is a microcosm of the universe.
Imagination is a real motivating force that can act upon matter in a subtle way.
Self-realization and thus realization of the universe comes through a variety of methods e.g. intuition, illumination, meditation, accident, self-induced derangement or experimentation.
With this essay, I originally intended to examine the influence of the occult on art, the main emphasis being on the visual arts. While I will be covering the wider and general influence of the occult, I will be trying to focus on instances in which an artist’s study and practice of occultism had a direct effect on their work or whose study and practice could be considered to be a part of their work. By no means do I intend this study to be exhaustive, as this subject is labyrinthine beyond my initial expectations (and I do not feel that I underestimated it). I will be covering the problems faced when researching this particular subject area, as I feel that they are important in understanding the wider context. As a general rule, I have been looking at artists over artworks, so this essay will not be covering works of art where the occult is simply the subject; I am more concerned with the influence of occult theory and practice on the theory and the practice of the art.
All illustrations are to be found in the Appendix on pages 14 – 18. [at the end of the post]
The mainstream view of art history tends to ignore the influence of the occult. When studying this area through the lens of mainstream art history, one immediately comes up against the problem that, in our consensus reality, magic does not exist and therefore mainstream art historians do not see the occult as much more than an example of the artist’s wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, a symbol set, an inspiration, a phase, or even a sign of madness, and so tend to downplay it or ignore it altogether when measuring its specific influence on a particular artist. For instance, Ithell Colquhoun left the English Surrealist group in 1940, expelled because she would not give unconditional support to E. L. T. Mesens as its leader: this is the mainstream view. However, Colquhoun was a life-long occultist and Mesens –unlike Andre Breton- had no time for occult pursuits. Whitney Chadwick claims that it was widely believed at the time that Mesens’ prohibition on belonging to groups (including secret societies) other than the Surrealists was directed against occult-minded members. Rose-Carol Washton Long notes ‘for most art historians, turn of the century mysticism, occultism and anarchism have been considered too irrational and chaotic to be viewed as serious influences on modernist artists’. She is speaking specifically, but her point also stands in a more general context.
Another major problem with the study of occult art is its very nature. Occult knowledge is secret knowledge; it is hidden from the un-initiated. Thus, it possible to look at a piece of occult art, fail to recognise it as such and so miss out on an important interpretation. An illustration from personal experience: while researching Max Ernst in connection with this essay, I encountered for the first time his collage work Une semaine de bonte (1934). My first reaction on seeing these collages was that they reminded me of alchemical symbolic pictures (fig. 1). M. E. Warlick argues “alchemical symbolism provides the central characters, many of the incidental motifs, and the basic chapter structure.” She also states that once this is recognised “the organization of the novel will unfold as being clearly derivative from the alchemical tradition”, in clear contradiction to the received opinion that the novel is without organisation, or is meant to confuse deliberately; this in itself was a tactic of writers in the alchemical (and wider occult) tradition, disguising their work from the eyes of the unilluminated.
It is also important to remember that –for much of Christian history- occult knowledge was disguised for the safety of the practitioner or theoretician. While alchemy, astrology, and the like were considered to be respectable areas of study in the right hands at the right time, they were very close to beliefs that could get a man (or more likely a woman) tortured and killed. This might suggest that there may be a great wealth of occult art from the past that has yet to be recognised.
The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein is a painting full of hidden meanings (fig. 2). Once this was because no record from the time of the painting could be found, and the two figures were not identified as Jean de Dinteville (on the left, in the more sumptuous apparel) and George de Selve for hundreds of years. While most of the symbolism appears to concern the religious, political and philosophical situation in Europe at the time, James Bissell-Thomas detects the influence of Cornelius Agrippa (1486 – 1535, author of De Occulta Philosophia and described as “a German doctor, alchemist, occultist, demonologist and encyclopaedist” by Fred Gettings), arguing that the book under de Selve’s elbow is that of Agrippa. Talking about Bissell-Thomas’s work, David Hambling asks: “Was Dinteville trying to summon the Beast [of Revelation]… in order to defeat it and bring about the promised Millennium?” and suggests that The Ambassadors might be more than a painting of two dignitaries, but an instrument to change the world.
Unfortunately, this may sound a little like The Da Vinci Code, and leads me to a further problem: seeing occult influence that isn’t there. The revelations in Dan Brown’s bestseller are no more or less true than the revelations of the original researchers, all of whom are building their belief based on subjective interpretation, misinterpretation, hoaxes, lies, and blind faith. For example, many people take it as fact that Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper depicts Mary Magdalene amongst the disciples and that this supports the idea of the Priory of Sion, an ancient secret society that has been protecting Christ’s bloodline (and including Leonardo da Vinci as a member). While I am not going to be drawn into the morass surrounding this particular aspect of hidden knowledge, it may be worth noting that the ‘real’ Priory of Sion (registered in Annemasse, France, 1956) included as a member Philippe de Cherisey, described by Steve Ash as “a talented hoaxer and an amateur Surrealist with a taste for bizarre mysteries.” Furthermore, an apparently genuine signature of Jean Cocteau is to be found on 1956 Priory documents.
Mainstream art history, and in particular that relating to what we might call fine art, has a tendency to marginalize certain theorists and practitioners, whether they be folk artists, outsider artists, black artists, woman artists, or occult artists. Ithell Colquhoun split from the English Surrealists over her occult practice, effectively being forced out due to Mesens’ prejudices. In Surrealism and the Occult, Nadia Choucha directs us to Whitney Chadwick’s book for information on the occult tendencies of the female Surrealists. The occultist and artist Austin Osman Spare (1886 – 1956), who exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 19 and was an official war artist during the First World War, started out famous and slipped into obscurity. According to Michael Staley (himself an occultist) “the reason Spare’s work began to be ignored by the establishment in his own lifetime was due to his increasing involvement in the occult and occult themes” (Ahsan).
Staley is entitled to his opinion and, while I agree that Spare’s occult beliefs were at least a factor in the fading of his star, I do not think it was necessarily the only factor or even necessarily the major or a major factor; occult historians tend to emphasise the occult aspect of an artist’s life as much as mainstream art historians sideline it. Thus, there have been claims that Picasso fought an astral battle with Hitler.
There is also a tendency to emphasise the importance of artist’s from outside the mainstream who may be more significant as an artist within the sphere of the occultist, or exaggerate their importance. Thus, Lady Frieda Harris is significant as an artist in the history of occultism, as Aleister Crowley initiated her in order to assist in the design of the Thoth Tarot card deck. Similarly, Crowley was something of an artist himself and his work was very much tied up with his occult practices, although it would seem his work is more of interest because of who he was rather than as art of itself; it also hardly needs to be said that the influence of Crowley has crept into popular culture, art, and occultism in all manner of ways (fig. 3).
Crowley is also an excellent example of a further complication in examining occult artists: they lie. For example, Crowley would often take credit for misfortunes that befall those he felt had wronged him, to enhance his reputation as a caster of curses. More pertinently to the subject of the essay, in 1936 Adolf Hitler tried to commission a portrait from Austin Osman Spare, which the artist refused to do. According to Phil Baker, Spare’s version of this event a few years later involved the artist travelling to Germany, painting the Fuhrer and returning with the intention of creating an anti-Nazi work, possibly as a magical weapon (shades of Picasso versus Hitler on the astral plane). Both stories made the papers so could presumably be checked. Put another way, people in general lie, exaggerating their role in events, or playing up their involvement in already existing narratives; artists and occultists are no different than anyone else.
Except they are different. In some ways, the artist and the occultist are one and the same. Picasso, Dali and Max Ernst have been described as shamans (the latter being portrayed as such in Leonora Carrington’s 1939 portrait: fig. 4), Duchamp as an alchemist, Gauguin as a magus. These titles are often applied to the artist, who may also be ascribed visionary powers, being in touch with a world beyond the mundane. The idea of the artist as some kind of magician goes back to prehistory. The cave paintings at Lascaux, France are at least 17, 000 years old (fig. 5). Hidden deep within the earth, the paintings of prehistoric animals do not seem to have been meant for a wide and casual audience. In fact, they are –quite literally- occult. While we cannot be sure exactly why the paintings were made in the way and the place they were, it is not unreasonable to suggest they might represent a form of sympathetic magic (possibly as part of wider religious practices), intended to bring success in hunting or to encourage the return of migratory prey animals. While Janson and Janson are supremely patronising in suggesting that the cave painters could not tell the difference between the painted animal and its real counterpart, they are on steadier ground when they say that ‘even 20, 000 years ago…the painter was a special kind of person…we might say that he was mainly supposed to be a magician.’
For a variety of reasons, the historical record concerning occult art is hazy right up until the nineteenth century, when there was a widespread and enduring revival of interest in occultism. Séances were a popular pastime of the middle classes, and photography was supposedly producing proof of life after death. Queen Victoria had her own ‘court magician’ in the shape of the self-proclaimed clairvoyant Robert Lees, just as Queen Elizabeth the First had Dr. John Dee. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was formed, with famous members such as the writers Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen and Edith Nesbit, the notorious Aleister Crowley, and the poet, William Butler Yeats. It was during this period that Alphonse Louis Constant wrote, as Eliphas Levi, The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic and from whom we get one of the most famous and recognisable images of the Devil (fig. 6) and who was “a profound influence on [Andre] Breton” (Choucha).
General themes drawn from this occult revival found their way into the art of many artists, including the Pre-Raphaelites and –in particular- the Symbolists. Josephin Peladan, a man who was “infatuated with occultism and mysticism, and [who] behaved as a magician during the whole of his life” (Cassou), attempted to establish a mystical order, the Rose + Croix. This was, however, best remembered for exhibitions of the works of Symbolist painters, their sympathy to Peladan being based on a shared interest in esoteric mysticism. Many of the Symbolists had at least an interest in occultism. For example, according to The Concise Encyclopaedia of Symbolism, Aubrey Beardsley was “involved with black magic”, Jean Delvilles was a disciple of Peladan and “struggled tirelessly in his capacity of initiate to awaken the world to the knowledge of ancient esoteric traditions”, Alfons Maria Mucha was “very interested in spiritual phenomena”, and Felicien Rops made blasphemous etchings celebrating Satanism. While some of those with an interest may have been more deeply involved in the occult, it seems that in most cases the influence of the occult was thematic. Beardsley lifestyle choices and Rops’ blasphemous pornography were meant to shock, to titillate, to cause outrage, and to draw attention. Delvilles later switched from Rosicrucianism, to Theosophy, to Krishnamurti, while Mucha seems just to have been genuinely and generally interested in the esoteric.
In 1818, Jacques Albin Simon Collin, capitalising on the popularity of the occult revival, published the Dictionnaire Infernale under the name of Collin de Plancy, one of many pseudo-occult works he published under various names, which was reissued and expanded for years afterwards. According to Fred Gettings, this book had an influence on “one or two of the French Dada artists”, but does not tell us who or how (and Collin de Plancy’s work is not strictly speaking ‘occult’ in terms of this essay, being very much ‘popular’ rather than scholarly). What is more certain is that the demon Stolas (fig. 7) was chosen from that book by Max Ernst as one of the illustrations for “Some Data on the Youth of M. E., As Told By Himself”, an autobiographical essay (which also include his own natal horoscope).
Max Ernst was not the only artist of the Dada and Surrealist movements to have an interest in the occult. While the influence of the occult is much more readily identifiable in the work of the Surrealists, Nadia Choucha points out that some Dadaists “arrived at an experience of a consciousness that they found could only be defined in occult or mystical terms.”
Probably the greatest artistic magical act of the twentieth century was that performed by the alchemist, Marcel Duchamp. Alchemy is usually thought of as the quest for a Philosopher’s Stone that allows the transformation of base metals into gold, but another interpretation is that it is not tied to the material world and that the Stone is knowledge and the gold is enlightenment, the transformation of consciousness. By signing a urinal and displaying it in a gallery, Duchamp not only effected a physical transformation (urinal to artwork), he managed to transform consciousness. He changed what art was, and we can still feel the effects of that act even today.
When looked at as a piece of history, Fountain may well be Duchamp’s true ‘Great Work’ (the study and practice of alchemy), but it does not seem that he necessarily saw it so. Nadia Choucha reports that J.F. Moffitt traced the influence of occultism –and in particular alchemy- on Duchamp, in his essay Marcel Duchamp: Alchemist of the Avant-Garde. Moffitt believes that Duchamp studied alchemical primary sources as his interest in the subject grew, and that the recurring motif of the circular form in the artist’s work are based on the alchemical symbol for gold. Apparently influenced by Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), Duchamp was already exploring the idea that art had the ability to directly change consciousness when he began work on The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass) in 1915, two years before Fountain. “Duchamp was a modern alchemist, and The Large Glass was his ‘Great Work’ (Choucha), and, as with many of the alchemists of the past, the work was left unfinished: Duchamp was still making notes and diagrams up until he died in 1968, and Nadia Choucha believes it has its origin in two seventeenth century alchemical parables.
Max Ernst was another artist who crossed the bridge between Dada and Surrealism, and the influence of alchemy on his work has already been mentioned. This influence is examined in Max Ernst and Alchemy: A Magician in Search of a Myth by M. E. Warlick, the discovery of the existence of which was too late for me to obtain it for inclusion in my research, so instead I will briefly point out that Ernst had felt he was aware of the occult world since his childhood, and described himself as “a young man aspiring to become a magician” following his ‘death’ at the beginning of the First World War and ‘resuscitation’ at the end; a symbolic initiation.
As has been noted previously, the writings of Eliphas Levi were influential upon Andre Breton. In the 1920s, the Surrealists borrowed the spiritualist practice of automatic drawing and writing, and by the 1940s, according to Choucha, “we find concepts and imagery borrowed from Alchemy, the Tarot, Gnosticism, Tantra, Shamanism amongst others, not only as subject matter, but influencing production and technique.” As a group, the Surrealists were fairly open-minded when it came to occult ideas.
Female Surrealists found strong role models in the female archetypes arising from mythology and occultism, identifying with goddesses and witches. The Surrealist poet, Valentine Penrose, “liked to think of herself as a witch, [according to] Noma Copley” (Chadwick). Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Ithell Colquhoun were just some of the female artists who drew on the occult in their work. As we have already seen, Ithell Colquhoun was a serious occultist and Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo both had a shared interest in the magical world. Carrington went through a harrowing ‘initiation’, her rape and institutionalisation during the Second World War being an encounter with madness and destruction of the self that she survived, and wrote about using alchemical symbolism. In Mexico, she developed a close relationship with fellow artist, Remedios Varo, and the two of them explored the magical possibilities of creativity, working with occult themes. They exchanged ‘magical formulae’ (though it is not certain how seriously they took them as one of Varo’s includes corsets, hats and false moustaches, although a modern Chaos Magician might see the value more clearly) and Carrington mentions casting a spell against the evil eye in a note to Varo. While they might not have been occult practitioners in the strict sense, a sense of magic pervades their work (fig. 8).
Ithell Colquhoun had left the English Surrealist group to pursue her occult studies almost a decade before she published her essay “The Mantic Stain” in 1949. Her conclusion is that Surrealist techniques of automatism are close to the processes of divination. Sfumage, ecremage, frottage, decalomania, automatic writing and drawing are no different to reading tealeaves, or staring into a crystal ball. Soror Kieja 115 recommends these Surrealist techniques as useful for Chaos Magicians, in effect returning the favour.
For some ten years before the French Surrealists began experimenting with automatism, the English artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare had been producing automatic drawings. Spare was no Surrealist, preferring a style (fig. 9) that owed something to Symbolism and Art Nouveau, but “his automatism and some of his ideas come so close to surrealism, it is difficult to believe that they had never heard of him, yet all the evidence points to the fact that he was totally unknown to them” (Choucha). However, Spare believed that automatism was only of real use to one already possessing artistic ability, rather than as a way of subverting the traditional creative process. It is important to remember that a great deal of Spare’s work was supposed to represent actual occult experiences.
Spare’s most enduring legacy is not in the artistic sphere but in the occult. Much as Duchamp created a paradigm shift in the art world, Spare did the same in the occult world. As well as developing his own theoretical system, Spare also created a practical system using magical sigils, which he would sometimes incorporate into his work. Put very simplistically, in sigil magic the individual writes down their desire and then uses the letters to construct a symbol, which is then used as a focus for the will(fig. 10). This technique is widely praised as being highly effective, and modern practicing occultists owe more to Spare than to Aleister Crowley, Eliphas Levi or Cornelius Agrippa.
It has been demonstrated that occultism has had an influence on the theory and practice of art, although obtaining authoritative evidence is sometimes hard. Alchemy was obviously a key influence on some of the Surrealists, and it could be argued that Duchamp was more successful in the ‘Great Work’ than a whole legion of mediaeval proto-scientists eager for gold. However, it would seem that there were few who seriously combined art and the occult -Ithell Colquhoun and Austin Osman Spare being notable exceptions- while receiving the interest of those outside specialist circles. The profusion of ‘minor figures’ has led me to exclude a number of interesting individuals who could not fit the narrative I was constructing, such as Hilma af Klint, the Swedish mystic who requested that her clairvoyant paintings not be viewed until twenty years after her death, and Rosaleen Norton, the Australian occult artist whose work and lifestyle disproportionately scandalised the conservative establishment and led to censorship and harassment. Even Austin Spare is included more for his contribution to occultism than his place in mainstream art history, showing –along with Ithell Colquoun’s “The Mantic Stain”- that the current of influence runs both ways.
Nowadays occult artists can be more open about their affiliations and intentions, in part because occultism has become interwoven with popular culture. Artists who are also occult practitioners are no longer as isolated or as secretive, as we can see from the films of Kenneth Anger, a number of which are explicit in being Crowleyian occult rituals, and the work of individuals such as Genesis P-Orridge, and bands such as Coil, who blur the line between music, performance art and ritual.
Given the blurred line that exists between art and magic it should be no surprise that a group such as The HermAphroditic ChAOrder of the Silver Dusk (their format) exists and I will give them the last word: “The Silver Dusk is a counter-point to The Golden Dawn -that where the Golden Dawn was a magickal order established by poets and artists, the Silver Dusk is an art movement instigated by magicians and sorcerers.”
Figure 1: Comparison of alchemical illustration with Une semaine de bonte
I can’t find the image I originally used as an example, so for the time being you’ll have to take my word for it.
Figure 3: Hierophant card from the Thoth Tarot/ Self-portrait of Crowley
Figure 4: Portrait of Max Ernst (1939) by Leonora Carrington
Figure 5: Hall of Bulls in Lascaux Caves
Figure 6: Eliphas Levi’s Goat of Mendes
Figure 7: The demon Stolas, as it appears in Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernale.
Figure 8: Queira ser Pajaro (1960) by Leonora Carrington/ To Be Reborn (1960) by Remedios Varo.
Figure 9: Head with Green Hair in the Depths of Hell (c.1939)/ Astral Body (1925) by Austin Osman Spare.
Figure 10: Example of the sigilisation process
AHSAN, Tania. Magick Art, Prediction Magazine (online archive).
ASH, Steve. The Mask of Harlequin, Fortean Times Magazine July 2006.
BAKER, Phil. Stroke of Genius, Fortean Times Magazine March 2001.
CASSOU, Jean. The Concise Encyclopedia of Symbolism, 1984.
CHADWICK, Whitney. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, 1985.
CHOUCHA, Nadia. Surrealism & The Occult, 1991.
DRURY, Nevill. Echoes From The Void: Writings on Magic, Visionary Art and the New Consciousness, 1994.
GETTINGS, Fred. Dictionary of Demons: A Guide to Demons and Demonologists in Occult Lore, 1988.
HAMBLING, David. The Holbein Code, Fortean Times Magazine October 2005.
JANSON, H. W. and Dora Jane. The Story of Painting, 1968.
LONG, Rose-Carol Washton. Occultism, Anarchism and Abstraction: Kandinsky’s Art of the Future, Art Journal Spring 1987.
SARGEANT, Jack. The Witch of King’s Cross, Fortean Times Magazine July 2007.
TONDRIAU, Julien. Occultism: Secrets of a Hidden World, 1972.
WALDO-SCHWARTZ, Paul. Art and the Occult, 1977.
WARLICK, M. E. Max Ernst’s Alchemical Novel: “Une semaine de bonte”, Art Journal Spring 1987.
Prediction Magazine: www.predictionmagazine.com
Surreal Games by Soror Kieja 115: philhine.org.uk/writings/rit_surrealg.html
The HermAphroditic ChAOrder of the Silver Dusk: www.crossroads.wild.net.au/order.htm