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 Gau­guin.” 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:

Aleis­ter Crow­ley & William But­ler Yeats Get into an Occult Bat­tle, Pit­ting White Mag­ic Against Black Mag­ic (1900)

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

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Comments (4)
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  • freqazoidiac says:

    Sur­re­al? Try crap­py fan­tas­tic.
    Not a painter.. but he does relay his idea ade­quate­ly onto can­vas
    but all I see as well is him rip­ping off both Egypt­ian and
    British sym­bol­ism of dom­i­na­tion. (That’s all he’s doing) This is not Sur­re­al. That’s an insult to those abstract artists. And they don’t get insult­ed eas­i­ly. LOL

  • Adauto Mattos says:

    Frate um abraço frater­no.

  • Billy Weinar says:

    I want to make crap­py fan­tas­tic art! Crow­ley was a good place to start.

  • Brandi Landis says:

    Yay, let’s all point and laugh togeth­er at the same time. NOT!…it’s so fun­ny talk­ing shit about a per­son who can’t defend them­selves, “ain’t it”.

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