Angels 6: Paradise stands in the shadow of swords


The Guardian of Paradise by Franz Stuck (1889).

We’ll let Coil have the final word on the angel theme, the post title being taken from their Cathedral In Flames. Those words recognise—as does the painting above—that the Christian concept of Heaven is of a gated community guarded by warriors to keep the undesirable at bay.

Symbolist painter Franz Stuck was (as far as we know) robustly heterosexual but his angel isn’t far removed from the work of contemporary photographers like Anthony Gayton who specialise in teasing out the erotic undercurrents in this kind of imagery. Which brings us full circle, seeing as we started with Caravaggio and his distinct brand of religious subversion. The irony is that some of the more vocal elements of Christianity can’t help subverting themselves or their own messages, as John Patterson notes in his Guardian piece today, alluding not only to the Ted Haggard debacle but also to Haggard’s favourite artist, Thomas Blackshear, both of whom were discussed here in November. Patterson writes that the recent brand of bigoted fervour that’s swept America seems to have abated, or at least retreated, after threatening to become a mainstream force. Europe often seems a haven of healthy heathen sanity by comparison, a part of the undesirable world being kept outside the American Paradise. St. Peter now demands retinal scans, fingerprints and a biometric passport. Continual rumbles from Pope Maledict and his closeted cardinals are an increasing irrelevance, the background static of a dying regime. Paradise may be guarded by attractive angels but we can only look and never touch. As Patterson says, the devil has all the best tunes. And the best books and movies and games. And sex and fun. I know which side of the fence I’d rather be on.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The gay artists archive
The men with swords archive

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Gay for God

Angels 4: Fallen angels


The Treasures of Satan by Jean Delville (1894).

Some more favourite paintings today. Jean Delville produced a splendidly strange portrayal of Satan as an undersea monarch lording it over a sprawl of intoxicated, naked figures. When Savoy Books decided to put together the definitive version of David Lindsay’s equally strange fantasy novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, I felt this was the only painting adequate to the task of filling out the cover. That was in 2002; a year later Gollancz used the same painting on the cover of their Fantasy Masterworks paperback edition of the book. Lindsay’s book has been plagued by bad cover art for years so we managed to raise the bar for future editions. Delville was one of the great painters of the Symbolist school, all his work is worth looking at.

There are numerous representations of Lucifer but Franz Stuck’s is especially striking and apparently caused viewers to cross themselves before it when it was first exhibited.

Gustave Doré’s tumbling figure is from his illustrated edition of Paradise Lost, a book full of armour-clad, spiky-winged angels. Some of those wings have even found their way into my work via the miracle of Photoshop.


Lucifer by Franz Stuck (1890).


Paradise Lost by Gustave Doré (1866).

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The etching and engraving archive

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The art of Thomas Häfner, 1928–1985

The art of Thomas Häfner, 1928–1985


Lucifer (no date).

…I find nothing fantastic in so-called fantastic art, it is an aspect of reality in search of sanity beyond the normal bounds. I believe that fantastic art is related to the protective dream, that it prolongs the healing dream and finds symbols that change dread into wonder, strangeness and beauty.

As in all figurative art, fantastic art must of course be judged not only by its intentions but by the quality of the execution, and by standards that have been almost totally lost in the turbulence of changing fashions, movements and politics on the art market. This has led to a noticeable helplessness among the critics, who seem to ignore a growing tendency toward the fantastic in the hope that it will fade away and die. I do not believe it will.

Thomas Häfner

Who was Thomas Häfner? Good question, because he’s virtually invisible on the web. The painting above is scanned from David Larkin’s excellent Fantastic Art (Pan/Ballantine, 1973) and was also used as a cover image for an edition of Blaise Cendrars‘ scurrilous masterpiece, Moravagine. The Demon Woman below is a watercolour original for sale on eBay. Häfner was a member of a group of German artists who called themselves the Young Realists, formed in Düsseldorf in the mid-Fifties. Significantly, another group of young imaginative painters was active at the same time in Vienna, the Fantastic Realists, who included the great Ernst Fuchs among their number. “Realism” here can be considered as referring to a style that favoured the hard-edged realistic approach of Surrealism; Häfner’s content certainly wasn’t realistic.

These people remain neglected or unknown because art critics like to pretend there’s only one story being told in the development of art at any given time when there are usually several, often with conflicting agendas. So we’re always being informed that the dominant movement in fin de siècle Paris was Impressionism and hear little of the Symbolists who were equally—if not more—popular, productive and influential during that period.

(This laziness carries over to other areas; Debussy is continually described as “an Impressionist composer” when one of his most famous works, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, was based on a Symbolist poem by Mallarmé. There are no fauns in Impressionist paintings.)

The prevailing trend in the mid-Fifties was the thin gruel of Abstract Expressionism, the complete antithesis of the kind of art being produced by Häfner, Fuchs and company. There’s a reason for the elevation of this type of work over others. Critics such as Clement Greenberg saw abstraction (which, ironically, grew out of Surrealism) as being a politically acceptable direction after the turmoil of the Second World War. The Nazis liked realism in their art, while the Soviets under Stalin and the Chinese under Mao had declared Socialist Realism to be the official art of the Communist Revolution, therefore realism of any variety was reactionary and bad. Further irony comes when the CIA agreed with this argument and secretly promoted Abstract Expressionism outside America. This has led us to the situation we have today where a Willem de Kooning painting, Woman III (1952–53), was recently sold for $137.5 million which means collecting this kind of work is now a game for billionaires. It really would be the final irony if the kind of realistic art that Clement Greenberg despised was elevated to a new popularity by over-priced Abstract Expressionism as collectors with fewer assets were forced to look elsewhere. Critics can protest all they like but these days it’s money that speaks with the loudest voice in the world of art.


Demon Woman (no date).

Update: added some additional works:


Marionetten (1964).


Szene mit Schädeln (1970).


Phantastische Waldszene (1971).


Masken in zerfallener Umgebung (1974).


Die Harpye (no date).

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The fantastic art archive

The art of Nicholas Kalmakoff, 1873–1955


Astarte (1926).

Kalmakoff’s beautiful paintings turn up most often (if at all) in collections of Symbolist art although most of his work comes after the Symbolist period which was pretty much killed off by the revelations of Cubism. Like Harry Clarke, Kalmakoff is one of those artists who evidently felt that the aesthetics of the 1890s required further exploration; like Clarke there’s also some interesting occult illustration going on. Unlike Clarke (whose work appeared in lavish illustrated books and stained glass window designs) he had to contend with an art world that had little time for imagination unless it was presented in a Surrealist package. Kalmakoff’s fascinating story is detailed here and there are three galleries of his paintings here.

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Austin Osman Spare

Arnold Böcklin and The Isle of the Dead


Another favourite painting for many years and Böcklin’s most well-known work.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) produced several different versions of the painting. All versions depict an oarsman and a standing white-clad figure in a small boat crossing an expanse of dark water towards a rocky island. In the boat is an object usually taken to be a coffin. The white-clad figure is often taken to be Charon, and the water analogous to the Acheron. Böcklin himself provided neither public explanation as to the meaning of the painting nor the title, which was conferred upon it by the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883. The first version of the painting, which is currently at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, was created in 1880 on a request by Marie Berna, whose husband had recently died.

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