Art of A Master
Between the 7th and 18th April, 1998, the October Gallery, London, hosted an exhibition of art by Mega Therion 666, Aleister Crowley. Only two exhibitions of Crowley's work occurred in his lifetime and the last exhibition took place at the Bernze Gallery, Berlin, in 1931. So it's hardly surprising that Compulsion made sure they visited this rare exhibition of "An Old Master, the Art of Aleister Crowley".
The event was organised by the O.T.O from whom the majority of works on display belonged to. The remainder of the 40 or so exhibits were on loan from the Kenneth Anger Collection and from various private collections including a landscape that's usually in the possession of the owners of Threshold House.
The pictures on show ranged from pen and ink sketches, watercolours to oil paintings. Undoubtedly, Crowley pursued a highly disciplined approach to Magick following such bodies as the Golden Dawn. However, his art, stood in complete contrast, in that it remained undisciplined and necessarily so. "Well, I don't know what you'd call it. But please, whatever you do, don't call me a cubist or a futurist or anything queer like that. I guess you might call me a subconscious impressionist, or something of that order. My art is really subconscious and automatic." In particular Crowley's figurative portraits of Leah Hirsig, Ether and Alastrael, are, at times, almost caricatures. Sketched in crayon, Alastrael is a ghoulish portrait of Leah Hirsig naked from the waist up. Ether, meanwhile, is an even more grotesque portrait of Hirsig. Like many of Crowley's works, Ether benefits form its exaggerated colouring which on this occasion lends the picture a warmth making it appear almost jovial. One can only wonder what Hirsig thought of these representations. Another standout exhibit is the pen and ink self-portrait of Crowley as the diabolical looking Kwaw. Not all the exhibits, however, were Crowley originals also on display were famous Crowley portraits by Augustus John and Lionel Engers Kennedy and, of course, Lady Frieda Harris' Crowley designed Thoth tarot deck.
The highlight of the exhibition, for Compulsion anyway, occurred on Sunday 12th April when Kenneth Anger made a rare UK public appearance. Despite the crowd looking like remnants from Rosemary's Baby I can't think of a better way to spend Easter Sunday than to be in a room filled with Crowley paintings and to listen to this legendary underground filmmaker and Crowley devotee share his knowledge and passion for the "wickedest man in the world". Anger, resplendent in an astrological jumper, took the main stage and read aloud to the hushed gallery a rare letter by Crowley detailing his art, and further reminisced about his own expedition to Cefalu, Italy, in search of Crowley's abbey.
Crowley, Anger explained, had left England in 1919 to establish an Abbey of Thelema. It was here at this farmhouse that Crowley together with his two scarlet women set about forming a commune devoted to his religious philsophy of Thelema and to indulge in some serious sex-magick rituals. The walls and doors were daubed with murals both magickal and sexual, and on the floor was painted a magic circle.With poor sanitation and a general lack of regular sustenance life in Cefalu was anything but idyllic. So it was hardly surprising when one of Crowley's guests, Rauol Loveday, after a bout of illness died. On returning to England the deceased's wife blabbed to the press about the devilish antics occurring at Crowley's abbey. Mussolini responded by ordering Crowley to vacate the Abbey of Thelema (and Italy itself) which shortly afterwards slipped into disrepair.
Kenneth Anger visited Cefalu, Italy, in 1955 where he spent 3 months restoring the murals that had been whitewashed by the locals at the behest of Mussolini. What Anger found within what the locals termed the House of Ghosts was erotic frescoes, a painting of the Scarlet woman, a fifteen foot Aiwaz and around the bedroom walls he discovered numerous representations of incubi and succubi. Anger spoke enthusiastically of meeting the local peasants and of discovering Crowley's desk and a book that had originally belonged to Crowley - although it wasn't a bible that the peasants purported it to be. Whilst in Cefalu Anger filmed a silent documentary, Thelema Abbey, of his painstaking work to reveal the erotic frescoes. Unsurprisingly the film wasn't shown, only slides, since the print has long since been missing. The villa, as Anger explained, still survives but has since fallen into a state of disrepair. I don't recall if Anger said the murals had since been covered over again. Either way, if you do visit the Abbey of Thelema beware Crowley left in such haste he neglected to banish all demons from the Abbey!!
Crowley's art is not in public circulation and if there's no repeat of this exhibition there's scant chance to view these works again - unless, of course, you know a collector. However the O.T.O. did produce a catalogue to accompany the exhibition and those with enough spare cash to part with could even go home with a print of the Mega Therion himself.