Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Magic of Art & The Art of Magic

"Personaje Astral" - oil on board - 1961 - Remedios Varo

"Behind the veil of all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the shadows and the strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of the old temples, and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvelous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the strange emblems of our old books of alchemy, in the ceremonies at reception practiced by all mysterious societies, traces are found of a doctrine which is everywhere the same, and everywhere carefully concealed. Occult philosophy seems to have been the nurse or god-mother of all intellectual forces, the key of all divine obscurities, and the absolute queen of society in those ages when it was reserved exclusively for the education of priests and of kings. It reigned in Persia with the magi, who at length perished, as perish all masters of the world, because they abused their power..."

"Actually, art and magic are pretty much synonymous. I would imagine that this all goes back to the phenomenon of representation, when, in our primordial past, some genius or other actually flirted upon the winning formula of “This means that.” Whether “this” was a voice or “that” was a mark upon a dry wall or “that” was a guttural sound, it was that moment of representation. That actually transformed us from what we were into what we would be. It gave us the possibility, all of a sudden, of language. And when you have language, you can describe pictorially or verbally the strange and mystifying world that you see around you, and it’s probably not long before you also realize that, hey, you can just make stuff up. The central art of enchantment is weaving a web of words around somebody. And we would’ve noticed very early on that the words we are listening to alter our consciousness, and using the way they can transform it, take it to places we’ve never dreamed of, places that don’t exist."

- Alan Moore via a 2013 interview found here.

“In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central painting of a triptych, titled “Bordando el Manto Terrestre,” were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in the tapestry, and the tapestry was the world."

- excerpt from Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" (full quote)

Remedios, I told you that I am making you a spell against [the evil eye]. There it is. Last night I had a fever of 38, auto-suggestion perhaps—I do not feel well enough to go out—Come to see me if you can? Can both of you come to drink your tequila? … Leonora.

- Alleged Note from Leonora Carrington to Remedios Varo written on a drawing - found here.


Alan Moore, described as "the greatest graphic novel writer in history" - and, a self-professed magician - has been constellating on the web in recent weeks, beginning with the Mysterious Universe article: Artists Manipulate Minds Using Powerful Magic. Well, that's an attention grabber for sure, but, In the article, Lee Arnold is, for the most part, referring to graphic art; pulling examples from the advertising world, and the slick shlock found on television. But, then, the ways and means by which we're manipulated via the televised world is a given; it goes without saying. In reference to magic however, advertising and commercial iconography is the lowest common denominator - the bottom feeder - of the creative spectrum. It represents mere tricks of the trade, a practiced sleight of hand, and not the workings of the "Magus."

But, it got me to thinking about art and magic, and, although Moore was elucidating specifically on the written word - he is, after all, a writer - my thoughts turned to line and form... as they would, in my perennial investigation of a form language.

The reality is that, in Paleolithic times, before written words, humans were already discovering the powers inherent in images, and, although little remains of their efforts beyond a few sculptures, drawings and handprints on a cave wall, many scholars theorize that these prehistoric images represent the first vestiges of what is, at its core, the practice of magic. The drawings of animals were not merely the animals our prehistoric forebears saw, but images of animals they hoped to capture. The handprints weren't merely signatures of the artist, their purpose was to avert death and misfortune, i.e., the "evil eye". Some anthropologists theorize that those small sculptures of grotesque women with swollen bodies, were sculpted by women, looking down at themselves, and, perhaps, concluding (well, I do) that a stone effigy afforded protection - a talisman which would guard them from bodily harm.

Talismanic seals, from left to right: A fragment of a Sumerian cylinder seal; a modern day talisman for good luck and success; an antique signet ring found here.

The Sumerian cylinder seals, which came a little later, were also examples of talismanic magic, a series of images, both symbolic and abstract, which didn't merely identify the bearer, but exuded a protective "divine" and/or magical power. The bulk of the decorative arts of the world's indigenous peoples were intimately tied, both essentially and conceptually to their individual spirits and the magical influence of their gods. I needn't even mention Egyptology here, because, to do so would create another iceberg, whose tip I could barely touch in the confines of one post. (But, a perfect example would be the previously mentioned symbol of the scarab beetle). What's more, this ancient tradition has been carried into modern times with talismanic jewelry, which might echo the genuine talismanic drawings once executed by ritual magicians, but, not necessarily, and, these days, can probably be found in your local department store.

But, it was Moore's remark about the transformative ability of art - specifically in relation to consciousness - that jump-started this post. And, as we begin moving on to the near present, there are numerous examples of this variety of imagery, which, operating on a subliminal level, have been, seemingly, designed to do just that - alter consciousness.

(Left) Mandala with the Syllable Mantra; (Right) Mandala of the Buddha with Auspicious Symbols

Mandala from an unexpected source: the Red Book by Carl Gustav Jung (found here)

There are, of course, the mandalas of the East, which were (and are) designed for meditation... and religious icons and artifacts, which, in themselves held "divine" powers. But, still later, came the emblematic - and enigmatic - drawings of the medieval alchemists, meant to illuminate the adherents of that practice, if not the world at large (see examples below). But, another example of esoterica existing in relatively modern times - and the one I'm using in this post - is that of the Tarot, a collection of images which, both individually and on a holistic level, allegedly, were and, ostensibly, still are, designed, by use of myth, magic and metaphor, to "raise" the consciousness of the observer.

(Left) The Serpent of Arabia - ink/watercolor - 1477 (?) - George Ripley. (Right) Unidentified drawing found here

"Back in the day" there were merely a handful of decks, the cards at the top of this post being examples of the classics. Currently, of course, there's hundreds of versions - new ones appearing every year - which pretty much indicates an underlying secret of art and humanity, in that, some things never change... we are still captivated by the magical and mysterious as if they comprised a portion of our collective genetic code. They continue to represent some deeply ingrained and emotional hunger: the need for "star-gates," portals to realms where the X-factor becomes, at least, partially explained, and our sense of wonder is validated, and reaffirmed. But, the symbols and images we choose to flesh them out are equally as important. They become both the lenses and our preternatural weapons, the ways and means by which we can coexist with phenomena outside our control.

But, when it came to the classic Tarot decks, as an artist of imagery, I was as impressed by the actual artwork as I was by the symbolic attributions of the cards themselves, and, as curious about the artists as I was about their purported designers. I chose the Magician, and/or Magus card for this post, not because it is the first image of the deck - the Fool is, after all, a wild card, generally designated as 0 - but, because it represents the leif motif of the entire Major Arcana, and is, in a sense, the most important card of all for the artist's journey.

In lieu of the identity of the artist responsible for the Marseille deck (represented by "Le Bateleur") I can only provide photos of Pamela Coleman-Smith (above, left) and Frieda Harris (above right), the artists responsible for the two latter cards: The Magician and The Magus. But, comparing the "Magician" of Pamela Coleman-Smith (from the Rider-Waite deck) - center - and, that of Frieda Harris's Magus (from the Thoth deck) (there are several versions of this card), is a kind of like comparing different species. One important difference is that Harris designed her cards using "Projective Geometry",* thereby creating an holistic relationship between the images of her deck. And, it leads us back to that important distinction intimated at the beginning of this post, in that, the images seem to indicate that the artist - in the role of magician - can operate in two ways: exemplifying a true transformative power (and, in essence, translating the transdimensional), or, merely, pulling a rabbit out of a hat for entertainment's sake, or, worse still - in the case of Le Bateleur, the "mountebank" - degenerating into the lowest of the trump cards, a mere charlatan turning tricks for the sake of commerce.

Tarot images, however, were not confined exclusively to the official occult arena. One group of artists, like the Symbolists before them (and the Visionaries after them), the Surrealists of the 20th Century often pulled, from their subliminal recesses, images that reinvented the Tarot forms. I've only included a few of them here, because the images, and the masters who painted them (two of whom appeared on this blog previously) specifically reinvented the image of the Magus.

Pictured above then, from left to right, are Surrealists (and sorceresses), Leonor Fini and Leonora Carrington (image found here). in the center is Surrealist photographer Man Ray's portrait of Victor Brauner (for an example of a Brauner "voodoo doll", try here) , and, lastly, Remedios Varo is pictured with, what appears to be, her ventriloquist's dummy. Their contributions to this post appear at the top of the post, and directly below. 

In the case of the Varo's "Creation of the Birds" the Magus is clearly an alchemist, but, in the case of the Carrington example, the darker aspects of the conjurer have emerged. (Note: For examples of Carrington's "spells," hinted at in the quote at the beginning of this post, a sampling might be found here.) Brauner's "Le Surrealiste", on the other hand, portrays the magician as a playful, eternal child. 

Which brings me to the end of this post actually, but, no, I haven't yet exhausted the topic, and I have a few things of interest I'd like to add about the Surrealists I've included here. But, as it turned out, my plans to produce one post, were premature. Instead, it now appears, I have more than enough material for two posts, perhaps, even a third.

And, so, stay tuned for The Language of The Birds.

Creation of the Birds - 1957 - Remedios Varo

"Creation of the Birds movingly expresses the elements of this theory of life. The atoms come from stardust, as they do in nature, here collected and transformed into pigments by the graceful glass apparatus. The organization scheme is represented once more by music, in the form of the creator’s violin/heart which guides the paintbrush assembling the atoms.  Finally, energy from starlight is focused by a lens to activate the painted bird, which flies off to eat, sing, and reproduce." (interesting .pdf file)

El Nigromonte (The Conjurer) - oil on canvas - 1960 - Leonora Carrington

Le Surréaliste - painting - 1947 - Victor Brauner

"In The Surrealist Victor Brauner borrows motifs from the tarot to create a portrait of himself as a young man. The tarot, a set of seventy-eight illustrated cards used in fortune telling, was a subject of widespread interest to Brauner and other Surrealists. Four of these cards, for example, appeared on André Derain’s cover for the December 1933 issue of Minotaure. A group including Brauner even produced a deck of cards in 1940–41 that was probably a tarot." (see "Le Surrealiste" link directly above)


(Update- 12/6/13)

The Magus of Power - Tarot image - 1971 - Ithell Colquhoun

In the course of my research for The Language of the Birds, I came upon another Magus image (above). The artist, (mystic and writer) is another female Surrealist hovering in the background, Ithell Colquhoun

Colquhoun's image is the perfect counterpoint, evolution and/or conclusion of the sequence presented earlier in the post. Beginning with Le Bateleur, we see the Magican in his his least evolved state, a mere tricks-tradesman. Next in line is the Coleman-Smith/Waite Magician. This one is an illusionist of a higher caliber, but, has not yet penetrated the veil, so to speak. The Harris/Crowley Magus, however, is an avatar; he dances on air and shines like a star. But, when we come to Colquhoun's Magus of Power, an abstraction of consciousness and spiritual power now takes center-stage, in the form of a cosmological phenomenon; the super nova of the psychic realm. Note the use of color - yellow, blue and violet: the colors associated with the intellect, force, the mysteries of the psyche, consciousness and the "soul".

Below is portrait of Colquhoun (once again) by Surrealist photographer Man Ray. Also, see: Women, Surrealism & The Occult: Ithell Colquhoun.

ithell colquhoun - portrait by Man Ray

(Note: all images can be clicked for a larger view.)

A quote from Joel Wendt concerning Projective Geometry: "We today have an even greater opportunity with the study of projective geometry, for here the true mathematics of life can be seen, and thus that within the mind (soul-spirit nexus) that is akin itself to life, comes before us in geometric forms and movement.  We need greatly to step beyond mere abstract concepts, to the living forces within ourselves and the natural and social worlds.  Here then is the first step: the study of projective geometry.

The best, in my view, is currently out of print, but is worth being sought out and photocopied endlessly until those responsible get off their sorry behinds and return this text to general availability: Projective Geometry: Creative Polarities in Space and Time by Olive Whicher.  Here we engage the study of projective geometry, not by the dry methods of abstract symbolism and proofs, but by the living processes of drawing and inner imagination.  There is no better training for our thinking than this study, with its exact and precise disciplines regarding the free and metamorphic movement of form in space and time."

(More interesting titles by Olive Whicher, yet, another female name which has apparently fallen through the cracks of time, can be found here.)


A new link to an excellent blog regarding the Tarot: Mary K. Greer's Tarot Blog 


  1. Amazing, albeit disturbing images, Dia. I look forward to the rest of this post!

    1. Disturbing, really? Oh well, it's a very image rich post (and labor intensive), but, it's overall effect will, ideally, illuminate more than disturb. The subject covers a lot of ground, and there's enough material for several posts, but, I'll see what I can do. Nothing like an esoteric intellectual challenge to mitigate the effects of all the enforced/reinforced consumerism of the holiday season!

  2. This is a superb of your best! I have long been captured by symbolism in magic..and the marriage of that with art..such as the tarot. the reliquaries, statues and art objects of various religious faiths. The image-rich marriage of the unseen with art produces some of the most intriguing art, in my humble opinion, of mankind.

    I look forward to more posts.

    1. Thanks, Bob, but I only formally finished this post just this second! And, knowing myself, the tweaking is far from over.

      And, as for art and the unseen... oh, yes, I'll be addressing that subject again, and soon!