The Surreal Paintings of the Occult Magician, Writer & Mountaineer, Aleister Crowley

I am not equipped to judge whether the notorious Aleister Crowley—whom the British press once called “the wickedest man in the world”—was an overrated magician (or “Magick-ian”). His banishment from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, by none other than William Butler Yeats, may not speak well of him. But this is an area of debate best left to experts in the mystic arts.

Nor do I feel qualified to venture an opinion on Crowley’s mountaineering. It’s true, he did not reach the summit of K2, but he gets more than partial credit as part of the first expedition to make the attempt in 1902.

As for Crowley the poet… well, he was a lesser literary talent than his rival Yeats, whom he supposedly envied. One writer remarks of the conflict between them that Crowley “was never able to speak the language of poetic symbol with the confidence of a native speaker in the way Yeats definitely could.”

Still, many of his poems have an undeniably enchanting quality. Their obscure mythic depths show the prominent influence of William Blake. Others, like the obscenely puerile “Leah Sublime” derive from the libertine tradition of John Wilmot.

What of Crowley the painter? I must say, until recently, I knew little of this side of him, though I’ve had many encounters with this weird character’s life and work. While longtime fans and followers surely know his visual art well, the casually curious rarely get a glimpse.

Crowley, writes Robert Buratti at Raw Vision, “has never been as well known for his artistic pursuits as for his more esoteric interests,” and that especially goes for his painting. His art apparently did not pique the prurient interest of the tabloids, the primary source of his popular fame, but maybe it deserves at least as much attention as his spellwork and sex magic.

Buratti, a Crowley disciple of Thelema and member of the Art Guild of Ordo Templi Orientis Australia, curated a 2013 exhibition called Windows to the Sacred that featured several of Crowley’s paintings. He argues that Crowley’s “significance as an artist lies in his reconsideration of art as a central component in his magical theory of the universe and, in particular, its ability to awaken, as he put it, ‘our Secret Self—our Subconscious Ego, whose magical Image is our individuality expressed in mental and bodily form.”

As for the formal properties of the paintings themselves, Buratti references the Surrealists, and notes in an interview that Crowley “was quite inspired by Paul Gaugin.” The paintings’ rough, childlike primitivism also resembles the technique of artists like Georges Rouault and the early, pre-abstraction Wassily Kandinsky.

Who knows whether “The Great Beast 666,” as Crowley liked to call himself, would take these comparisons as a compliment. But I expect it takes a true adept to unravel the mysteries of enigmatic works from 1920-21 like The Sun (Auto Portrait), at the top, The Moon (Study for Tarot), further down, or The Hierophant, below. Avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger is such an adept, a convert to Crowley’s religion, which exerted much influence on his work.

Above, see Anger’s “Brush of Baphoment,” a short film in which his camera zooms and pans over Crowley’s paintings, picking up mystical symbols and intriguingly indecipherable symbolism. And learn more about Crowley's visual art in this radio interview with Buratti and his edited collection of Crowley's work, The Nightmare Paintings.

Related Content:

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Aleister Crowley: The Wickedest Man in the World Documents the Life of the Bizarre Occultist, Poet & Mountaineer

Aleister Crowley Reads Occult Poetry in the Only Known Recordings of His Voice (1920)

The Thoth Tarot Deck Designed by Famed Occultist Aleister Crowley

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch 13 Comedians Take “The Bob Ross Challenge” & Help Raise Money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

The late Bob Ross, the almost laughably calm host of PBS’ popular how-to series, the Joy of Painting, was a boss of many things—business, branding, the 16th-century wet-on-wet ”Alla Prima” technique...

Also speed, as thirteen New York City comedians recently discovered firsthand.

Invited to participate in The Bob Ross Challenge, a web series-cum-fundraiser hatched by comedians Micah Sherman and Mark Stetson, they gamely plunged ahead, regardless of artistic talent or familiarity with the master.

Some like, Julia Duffy, are simply too young to have encountered Ross in his public television heyday.

(For the record, all 403 episodes of Ross' painting show are now viewable online for free.)

Others, like Aparna Nancherla, above, chanced upon reruns screened for ironic effect in dive bars...

Or, like Keisha Zollar, they’re in a romantic relationship with someone who uses The Joy of Painting to combat insomnia.

The majority seem to share a latch key kid’s fondness for the gentle Ross, whose show proved a chill pairing with afterschool snacks.

“We spent about $1000 on official Bob Ross supplies,” Sheman reports. From easel to the fan brush, everything was set up for the participating comedians’ success. Like Ross, who typically shot a season's worth of episodes over a single weekend, the first season's shoot transpired over a few days.

The ground rules were simple. Armed with an arsenal of officially sanctioned supplies, each comedian entered a studio where a Joy of Painting episode was screening, charged with recreating that canvas in real time. At the end of the episode, it was “brushes down” whether or not the canvas bore passing resemblance to Bob’s.

“Our original title was Bob Ross Fails, but people were actually succeeding,” Sherman confesses.

That said, there’s a definite edge. The participants may be trained in improv, but as performers, there's an imperative to get over, and, as stated, Ross moves fast. In the time it takes an average mortal to apply a sky wash, he’s likely fan brushed in a couple of happy little trees.

Tough nuts.

The rules of the game decree that the stopwatch abides.

As Ralf Jean-Pierre observes, it’s a race against time.

Though not everyone plays by the rules…

David Carl, above, creator of Trump Lear, declares (in character) that he not only defeated Bob Ross, but that “no one’s ever had a better tree than that” and that his clouds are “beautifully tremendous.”

Sherman and his co-creator Mark Stetson have conceived of The Bob Ross Challenge as a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Like Ross, Stetson’s father was prematurely claimed by lymphoma. Make a donation in their honor here.

Watch the first season of The Bob Ross Challenge here.


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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her recent trip to Mexico City is the inspiration for her latest short play at The Tank in New York City on August 23, Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Visionary 115-Year-Old Color Theory Manual Returns to Print: Emily Noyes Vanderpoel’s Color Problems

Nobody can doubt that we can live in an age of screen-reading, nor that it has brought a few problems along with its considerable conveniences. To name just one of those problems, each of us reads on our own screen, and each screen reproduces the information fed into it to display differently. A color, for instance, might well not look quite the same to any given reader of an e-book as it did to the designer who originally chose it. This imbues with a new relevance the old dorm-room philosophical question of whether what I call "blue" really looks the same as what you call "blue," and at least the more controllable nature of old-fashioned print books takes the issue of screen variation out of the equation.

Hence the value in bringing back to print certain visually-oriented books, even when we can already read them on our screens. This goes especially for volumes like Emily Noyes Vanderpoel's Color Problems: a Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color, which deals directly with issues of color in the physical world and its representation. Vanderpoel, an artist and historian, first published the book "under the guise of flower painting and decorative arts, subjects that were appropriate for a woman of her time," writes Colossal's Kate Sierzputowski. But "the study provided an extensive look at color theory ideas of the early 20th century," and one whose techniques proved silently influential over time. "Many of the included studies predict design and art trends that wouldn’t occur for several decades, such as a concentric square format that predates Joseph Albers’s Homage to the Square by fifty years."

You can read a digitized version of Color Problems at the Internet Archive (or embedded right above), but know that publisher The Circadian Press and Sacred Bones Records recently raised well over $200,000 on Kickstarter to republish the book in its full paper glory. "With this new edition we have taken meticulous measures to reproduce the original artifact at an affordable price," says the project's about page. "Working with the Historical Society that Emily Noyes Vanderpoel helped establish, we are the first to invest the time, money, and love it takes to replicate this brilliant collection of color studies accurately. Using the most current digital methods and archival printing production, we aim to finally do justice to Vanderpoel’s forgotten legacy as visionary and pioneer."

This new edition will also feature an introduction by design scholar Alan P. Bruton meant to "reflect on her incredible body of work from the vantage point of 21st century art history and women's movements, helping to illustrate that Vanderpoel remains one of the most important, underrated, and contemporarily relevant artists of her time and of the last century." Had Vanderpoel published Color Problems thirty years later, writes John F. Ptak in his examination of the book, "we’d call it some sort of constructivist/constructionist art form. But since the artwork in the book comes a decade before the first non-representational artwork in human history (or so), I don’t know exactly what to call it." Its republication will allow generations of new readers, seeing it in the way Vanderpoel intended it to be seen, to come to conclusions like Ptak's: "I still do not know what this book is trying to tell me, but I do know that it is remarkable."

via Colossal

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The Vibrant Color Wheels Designed by Goethe, Newton & Other Theorists of Color (1665-1810)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Meet Ellen Rubin (aka The Popuplady) and Her Collection of 9,000 Pop-Up Books

It’s unusual to encounter a pop-up book for sale in a thrift store.

Their enthusiastic child owners tend to work them so hard, that eventually even sentimental value is trashed.

Stuck slider bars and torn flaps scotch the element of surprise.

Scenes that once sprang to crisp attention can barely manage a flaccid 45° angle.

One good yank and Cinderella’s coach gives way forever, leaving an unsightly crust of dried glue.

Their natural tendency toward obsolescence only serves to make author Ellen G. K. Rubin’s international collection of more than 9000 pop-up and moveable books all the more astonishing.

The Popuplady—an honorific she sports with pride—would like to correct three commonly held beliefs about the objects of her highly specialized expertise:

  1. They are not a recent phenomenon. One item in her collection dates back to 1547.
  2. They were not originally designed for use by children (as a 1933 flip book with photo illustrations on how women can become better sexual partners would seem to indicate.)
  3. They were once conceived of as excellent educational tools in such weighty subjects as mathematics, astronomy, medicine... and, as mentioned above, the boudoir.

A Yale trained physician’s assistant, she found that her hobby generated much warmer interest at social events than her daily toil in the area of bone marrow transplants.

And while paper engineering may not be not brain surgery, it does require high levels of artistry and technical prowess. It galls Rubin that until recently, paper engineers went uncredited on the books they had animated:

Paper engineers are the artists who take the illustrations and make them move. They are puppetmasters, but they hand the strings to us, the reader.

As seen in Atlas Obscura’s video, above, Rubin’s collection includes a moving postage stamp, a number of wheel-shaped volvelles, and a one-of-a-kind elephant-themed mini-book her friend, paper engineer, Edward H. Hutchins, created from elephant dung paper she found on safari.

She has curated or served as consultant for a number of pop-up exhibitions at venues including the Brooklyn Public Library, the Biennes Center of the Literary Arts and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. See a few more examples from her collection, which were displayed as part of the latter’s Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop & Turn exhibition here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Van Gogh’s Art Now Adorns Vans Shoes

While museums remain free for the most part in Europe and still so popular that they are loved better than luxury brands (according to this one article), funding is not what it used to be. As you might have seen with our posts on Hieronymus Bosch on (Dr. Marten’s) Boots, wearable classic art is kind of a thing now.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam announced a series of limited-edition Vans (Van Gogh, Vans shoes, get it?!) featuring patterns based on his paintings: "Skull" (1887), "Almond Blossom" (1890), "Sunflowers" (1889) and van Gogh's "Self-Portrait as a Painter" (1887-1888). There’s even a shoe that uses writing from one of his letters, including stamp and address, as a pattern.

Would ol’ Vincent been happy with this, seeing the public want to wear his work? He was certainly happy in that Doctor Who episode where he traveled forward in time to know he hadn’t suffered in vain. But would he have liked to see his art wrapped around fans’ bodies?

Because the Vans line doesn’t stop at shoes, it features baseball hats, t-shirts, hoodies, and backpacks. There is undoubtedly a lot of detail put into them. These aren’t quick knock offs made for a tourist stall. The shoe interiors contain addition designs, and each product comes with information about the work.

And it’s all for a good cause: a portion of each sale goes back to the Van Gogh Museum to help with funding and preservation.

That’s a sight better than 2017’s Van Gogh bags designed by artist/cultural appropriator Jeff Koons for Louis Vuitton, for which he slapped some masterpieces on a $5,000 handbag and hung “VAN GOGH” in blocky fake-gold letters on the front. (If it makes you feel better, Louis Vuitton burns all its leftover product lest it fall into the hands of the poors.)

The Vans Van Gogh collection store opens August 3, so we can’t even tell you how much these shoes might be. But if the Doc Marten’s are anything to go by, they will sell out quick.

Cool way to help fund a museum, or just pure commodification? Let us know below.

via This is Colossal

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Discover Hilma af Klint: Pioneering Mystical Painter and Perhaps the First Abstract Artist

In a post last year, Colin Marshall wrote of the Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klint, who “developed abstract imagery,” notes Sweden’s Moderna Museet, “several years before” contemporaries like Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Kazimir Malevich. Much like Kandinsky, who articulated his theories in the treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, af Klint “assumed that there was a spiritual dimension to life and aimed at visualizing context beyond what the eye can see.” Influenced by spiritualism and theosophy, she “sought to understand and communicate the various dimensions of human existence.”

Born in 1862 and raised in the Swedish countryside, af Klint began her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm after her family relocated to the city. “After graduating and until 1908,” Moderna Museet writes, “she had a studio at Kungsträdgården in central Stockholm.

She painted and exhibited portraits and landscapes in a naturalist style.” But as a result of her experiences in séances in the late 1870s, af Klint became interested in “invisible phenomena.”

In 1896, Hilma af Klint and four other women formed the group “De Fem” [The Five]. They made contact with “high masters” from another dimension, and made meticulous notes on their séances. This led to a definite change in Hilma af Klint’s art. She began practising automatic writing, which involves writing without consciously guiding the movement of the pen on the paper. She developed a form of automatic drawing, predating the surrealists by decades. Gradually, she eschewed her naturalist imagery, in an effort to free herself from her academic training. She embarked on an inward journey, into a world that is hidden from most people.

During one such séance, in 1904, af Klint reported that she had “received a ‘commission,’” Kate Kellaway writes at The Guardian, “from an entity named Amaliel who told her to paint on ‘an astral plane’ and represent the ‘immortal aspects of man.’” From 1906 to 1915, she produced 193 paintings, “an astonishing outpouring,” which she called “Paintings for the Temple.”

Hers is a strange story. Even in a time when many famous contemporaries, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, professed similar beliefs and spiritual practices, not many claimed to be taking dictation directly from spirits in their work. The question af Klint raises for art historians is whether she was “a quirky outsider” or “Europe’s first abstract painter, central to the history of abstract art.” Her mystical eccentricities constitute a large part of the reason she has remained obscure for so long. Rather than seek fame and acclaim for her originality, af Klint stipulated when she died in 1944 at age 81 that “her work—1,200 paintings, 100 texts and 26,000 pages of notes—should not be shown until 20 years after her death.”

Still, it took a further 22 years before her work was seen in public, at a 1986 Los Angeles show called “The Spiritual in Art.” While her peers developed large followings in their lifetimes and took part in influential movements, af Klint cultivated a private, insular world all her own, not unlike that of William Blake, who also remained mostly obscure during his life, though not necessarily by choice. Her choice to hide her work came out of an early encounter, Dangerous Minds notes, with Rudolf Steiner, “who was similarly following a path towards creating a synthesis between the scientific and the spiritual” and who told her “these paintings must not be seen for fifty years as no one would understand them.”

Now that af Klint’s work has been exhibited in full, most recently by the Moderna Museet, curators like Iris Müller-Westermann believe, as Kellawy notes, “that art-historical wrangles should not get in the way of work that needs to be seen.” Although af Klint may not have played an integral historical role in the development of abstract painting, her expansive body of work will likely inspire artists, scholars, and esoteric seekers for centuries to come.

Learn more about af Klint’s work at Moderna Museet, the Hilma af Klint Foundation website, The Art Story and Dangerous Minds.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Leonardo Da Vinci’s To Do List (Circa 1490)

da vinci todo list

Most people’s to-do lists are, almost by definition, pretty dull, filled with those quotidian little tasks that tend to slip out of our minds. Pick up the laundry. Get that thing for the kid. Buy milk, canned yams and kumquats at the local market.

Leonardo Da Vinci was, however, no ordinary person. And his to-do lists were anything but dull.

Da Vinci would carry around a notebook, where he would write and draw anything that moved him. "It is useful," Leonardo once wrote, to “constantly observe, note, and consider." Buried in one of these books, dating back to around the 1490s, is a to-do list. And what a to-do list.

NPR’s Robert Krulwich had it directly translated. And while all of the list might not be immediately clear, remember that Da Vinci never intended for it to be read by web surfers 500  years in the future.

[Calculate] the measurement of Milan and Suburbs

[Find] a book that treats of Milan and its churches, which is to be had at the stationer’s on the way to Cordusio

[Discover] the measurement of Corte Vecchio (the courtyard in the duke’s palace).

[Discover] the measurement of the castello (the duke’s palace itself)

Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.

Get Messer Fazio (a professor of medicine and law in Pavia) to show you about proportion.

Get the Brera Friar (at the Benedictine Monastery to Milan) to show you De Ponderibus (a medieval text on mechanics)

[Talk to] Giannino, the Bombardier, re. the means by which the tower of Ferrara is walled without loopholes (no one really knows what Da Vinci meant by this)

Ask Benedetto Potinari (A Florentine Merchant) by what means they go on ice in Flanders

Draw Milan

Ask Maestro Antonio how mortars are positioned on bastions by day or night.

[Examine] the Crossbow of Mastro Giannetto

Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner

[Ask about] the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese

Try to get Vitolone (the medieval author of a text on optics), which is in the Library at Pavia, which deals with the mathematic.

You can just feel Da Vinci’s voracious curiosity and intellectual restlessness. Note how many of the entries are about getting an expert to teach him something, be it mathematics, physics or astronomy. Also who casually lists “draw Milan” as an ambition?

Later to-do lists, dating around 1510, seemed to focus on Da Vinci’s growing fascination with anatomy. In a notebook filled with beautifully rendered drawings of bones and viscera, he rattles off more tasks that need to get done. Things like get a skull, describe the jaw of a crocodile and tongue of a woodpecker, assess a corpse using his finger as a unit of measurement.

On that same page, he lists what he considers to be important qualities of an anatomical draughtsman. A firm command of perspective and a knowledge of the inner workings of the body are key. So is having a strong stomach.

You can see a page of Da Vinci’s notebook above but be warned. Even if you are conversant in 16th century Italian, Da Vinci wrote everything in mirror script.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in December, 2014.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

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