Harry Clarke’s 1926 Illustrations of Goethe’s Faust: Art That Inspired the Psychedelic 60s


Evok­ing the play­ful grotesques of Shel Sil­ver­stein, the goth­ic gloom of Neil Gaiman’s Sand­man comics, the occult beau­ty of the Rid­er-Waite tarot deck, and the hid­den hor­rors of H.P. Love­craft, Har­ry Clarke’s illus­tra­tions for a 1926 edi­tion of Goethe’s Faust are said to have inspired the psy­che­del­ic imagery of the 60s. And one can eas­i­ly see why Clarke’s dis­turb­ing yet ele­gant images would appeal to peo­ple seek­ing altered states of con­scious­ness. Clarke, born in Dublin in 1889, came to promi­nence as an illus­tra­tor of imag­i­na­tive literature—by Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­sen, Edgar Allan Poe, and others—though he worked pri­mar­i­ly as a design­er, with his broth­er, of stained glass win­dows. Faust was the last book he illus­trat­ed, and the most fan­tas­tic.


Clarke (1889 — 1931) drew his inspi­ra­tion from the Art Nou­veau move­ment that began in the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry with artists like Aubrey Beard­s­ley and Gus­tav Klimt. We see the influ­ence of both in Clarke’s gaunt, elon­gat­ed fig­ures and his inter­est in unusu­al, organ­ic pat­terns and orna­men­ta­tion. We can also see—mentions an online Tulane Uni­ver­si­ty exhib­it of his work—the influ­ence of his own stained glass work, “through use of heavy lines in his black and white illus­tra­tions.” The blog Gar­den of Unearth­ly Delights notes that “ini­tial­ly Har­raps, the pub­lish­er, did not like the draw­ings (Clarke recalled that they thought the work was ‘full of steam­ing hor­rors’), and many of the illus­tra­tions were fin­ished under pres­sure.”


Despite the publisher’s reser­va­tions, reviews of the 2,000-copy lim­it­ed edi­tion were large­ly pos­i­tive. Review­ers praised the draw­ings for their “dis­tinc­tive charms” and “wealth of fan­tas­tic inven­tion.” One crit­ic for the Irish States­man wrote, “Clarke’s fer­til­i­ty of inven­tion is end­less. It is shown in the mul­ti­tude of designs less elab­o­rate than the page plates, but no less intense.” The “page plates” referred to eight full-col­or, full-page illus­tra­tions like the paint­ing of Faust and Mephistophe­les above. Addi­tion­al­ly, the book con­tains eight full-page ink wash illus­tra­tions, six full-page illus­tra­tions in black and white, and six­ty-four small­er black and white vignettes.


You can read the Clarke-illus­trat­ed poem online here, with the illus­tra­tions repro­duced, albeit bad­ly. (Also down­load the text in var­i­ous for­mats at Project Guten­berg.) To see many more high­er-qual­i­ty dig­i­tal scans like the ones fea­tured here, vis­it 50 Watts and The Gar­den of Unearth­ly Delights, which also brings us more quo­ta­tions from review­ers, includ­ing “a neg­a­tive review of the draw­ings” that sums up what we might—and what those 60s revival­ists sure­ly did—find most appeal­ing about Clarke’s illus­tra­tions. They present, wrote a crit­ic in the mag­a­zine Art­work,

A dream world of half-cre­at­ed fan­tasies; the pow­er­less fan­cies of senile visions; mis­shapen bod­ies with worm­like heads; star­ing eyes of octo­pus­es and rep­tiles gaze like pon­der­ous sauri­an of the lost world, while half-fin­ished homun­culi change like “plas­ma” in forms unbound by rea­son.

That last phrase, “unbound by rea­son,” could also apply to the weird, night­mar­ish pil­grim­age of Goethe’s hero, and to the shak­ing off of old stric­tures that artists like Clarke, his fin de siè­cle pre­de­ces­sors, and his psy­che­del­ic suc­ces­sors strove to achieve.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Eugène Delacroix Illus­trates Goethe’s Faust, “One of the Very Great­est of All Illus­trat­ed Books”

Oscar Wilde’s Play Salome Illus­trat­ed by Aubrey Beard­s­ley in a Strik­ing Mod­ern Aes­thet­ic (1894)

Gus­tave Doré’s Splen­did Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

Alber­to Martini’s Haunt­ing Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy (1901–1944)

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

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.