The art of Jindrich Styrsky, 1899–1942

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From a late Surrealist to an early one. Jindrich Styrsky is a Czech artist best remembered today for his collages but he was also a painter, a photographer and a publisher of erotic material. He illustrated and published a Czech edition of Lautréamont’s Maldoror, and helped found the Surrealismus review in Prague.

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The Bathe (1934).

Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve liked Styrsky’s collages for years, many of which subject sentimental Victorian illustration to processes of violent transmutation. Ever since seeing The Bathe I’ve found it impossible to look at one of Renoir’s fleshy nudes without wondering what happened to the exposed viscera. Weimar covered Styrsky’s career in some detail last year so that’s a good place to go for further information. There’s an extract from Styrsky’s dream diary here, and a substantial collection of the collage work and other material at this Flickr set.

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Cover for a Czech edition of Fantômas (1929).

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The fantastic art archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Initiations in the Abyss: A Surrealist Apocalypse
Vultures Await
Wilfried Sätty: Artist of the occult
Illustrating Poe #4: Wilfried Sätty
Metamorphosis Victorianus
Max (The Birdman) Ernst
Gandharva by Beaver & Krause
The art of Stephen Aldrich

Initiations in the Abyss: A Surrealist Apocalypse

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Among the many books inspired or influenced by the events of September 11th, 2001, Jim Harter’s Initiations in the Abyss: A Surrealist Apocalypse is one of the more obscure titles, and one you’re unlikely to hear about elsewhere. Harter is an American artist and archivist best known for his collections of wood engraving illustration published by Dover Publications, Harmony Books, Bonanza Books and others. I mentioned his work recently in a piece about steampunk illustration which will be appearing later this month at Tor.com. Harter’s books are invaluable source material for the style of collage popularised by Max Ernst and Wilfried Sätty. Harter was a friend of Sätty’s, with collages by the pair appearing in Harter’s Picture Archive for Collage and Illustration (1978).

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The first collection of Harter’s collages, Journeys in the Mythic Sea: An Innerspace Odyssey, appeared in 1985. Initiations in the Abyss is the follow-up featuring work which dates from 1986, some of which was exhibited in 1988 at the Nicholas Roerich museum in New York. The book wasn’t published until 2003, however, and in his introduction Harter acknowledges the influence the events of the past two years had on his conception of the work as a whole. The book is reminiscent of Sätty’s Time Zone (1973), a book with a similar intent in its use of Surrealist collage techniques to make satirical or polemical points as well as to create striking and fantastic images. With both artists it’s the latter works which I find most successful. There’s a limit, for example, to how effectively our world can be represented using pictures which are over a hundred years old, and without the single-minded focus and attack of a John Heartfield the polemic can risk seeming diffuse or glib.

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Harter’s book is divided into four parts—Mutant Faces of the Form Destroyer, The Holy Abattoir, The Archive of Dreams and Mystery Play—with 72 full-page plates printed on glossy paper. The quality of the printing is so good it makes me wish that Sätty and Ernst could receive the same treatment. In addition there’s a very long introductory essay by Harter which somewhat contradicts his Surrealist intent by explaining at great length some of the philosophy behind pictures whose interpretation he wants left to the reader. Near the end of his piece he says:

It could be said that the purpose of the collages in the present book’s first two sections is to ring an alarm bell. The canaries in the mine are dying and it is time to do something. At the same time, the images of the last two sections are intended as a kind of mystery play. They suggest a movement in another direction: a quest to seek a more universal vision, one where we can perhaps discard our religious fanaticism, ethnocentrism, and myths of apocalypse, and instead create a world of greater unity and harmony, eventually becoming one human family. On another level entirely, this work might be seen as a kind of shamanic soul journey, where all false attachments, beliefs, and illusions are destroyed through an ego death experience before the soil is allowed to proceed to dimensions of healing and revelation. Thus the first two sections might be seen as an encounter with what the Tibetans call the “wrathful deities,” spirits that mirror back one’s own unconscious darkness.

The last two sections of the book feature the best of his dream-like imagery, some of which are a match for Sätty’s superb creations. The examples here are mostly from the end sections. Further examples can be seen on this page where the plates have been coloured by the artist.

Initiations in the Abyss is available to buy direct from the publisher, Wings Press, while some of Harter’s psychedelic poster art can be seen here and here.

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Wilfried Sätty: Artist of the occult

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After last week’s post about Wilfried Sätty‘s illustrated Poe, I thought I’d follow it up with this 1970 interview from Man, Myth & Magic, a part-work publication which built weekly into a seven-volume “illustrated encyclopedia of the occult”. In the back of each issue there was a two-page feature, Frontiers of Belief, usually featuring more topical material, and issue 36 had Sätty as its subject. The interview captures him just after he’d been building his reputation as one of San Francisco’s psychedelic poster artists and just before the book collections of his collage work started to appear. The description of his working methods inevitably plays up the occult associations but helps to give a little insight into the artist. The first two pictures here are from the published article to which I added a couple of the album covers he produced in the 1970s. There’s also a poster for an exhibition with friend and fellow artist David Singer whose lettering adorned many of Sätty’s posters.

A note about Sätty’s name: he was known as Wilfried Podriech when he came to America but changed his name to Sätty thereafter. This surname is often reproduced without an umlaut over the “a” which I regard as an error. When Jay Babcock, Richard Pleuger and I visited David Singer to discuss Sätty’s work (and see some of Singer’s own) we were informed that Sätty’s adopted name was intended to be reminiscent of the Egyptian Pharaohonic name Seti. The umlaut over the “a” gives the pronunciation setty; without it would be satty.

*   *   *

ARTIST OF THE OCCULT by Robert W. Neubert

Alchemy can be a state of being according to Sätty, a German-born artist who now lives in San Francisco; and he believes that this concept can be extended to art. In his attempts to plumb the depths of the subconscious he makes use of his collection of occult works, including a 17th century alchemical text and a book of healing and magic published in 1648.

Blue and orange flames flicker from an ancient urn and throw dancing shadows about a dimly-lit subterranean chamber in San Francisco, California. Old, dark-hued tapestries hang from the walls and low ceiling, and occult art objects are crammed into every corner. Baroque harpsichord music filters through the incense-scented air.

Descending a wooden ladder into the nearly black chamber is a tall, lanky man with flowing brown hair, a dark blue Western-styled shirt, and grey flared slacks. He carries under his arm a mystical-looking montage he has recently created and run off on a lithograph press.

The montage is in poster form, and it is a haunting collection of Renaissance and medieval themes, incredible in its intensity, colour and creativity.

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Sätty photographed for Man, Myth & Magic (1970).

The artist is Sätty, a German-born montage-maker with a dream—a dream of plumbing the depths of the subconscious by utilizing alchemy and mysticism in his work.

Alchemy is essential to his creativity, he says. But the 31-year-old artist’s definition of alchemy has a broader meaning than the classic textbook definition of transmuting base metals into gold. He is one of the first non-commercial poster makers, and his work far transcends the psychedelic art used to advertise San Francisco rock and roll dances.

“Alchemy can be a state of being,” he says. “There is such a thing as visual or intellectual or artistic alchemy. The undeveloped mind may be considered akin to lead, the fully-realized mind as gold. And the same is true of art. Much of contemporary art is lead.”

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Illustrating Poe #4: Wilfried Sätty

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Here it is, the book that began my fascination with the collage art of Wilfried Sätty (1939–1982), a German artist and psychedelic poster designer resident in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s. Warner Books published his Poe collection in 1976 and for some reason omit the umlaut from his name even though it’s present in Thomas Albright’s introductory note. I bought my copy in 1979 at a time when I was writing a lot of unsuccessful “experimental” fiction, and the sight of these tremendous collages inspired a surge of writing activity which disregarded Poe’s stories altogether. I’d seen enough of Max Ernst’s engraving collages to know that Sätty was following Ernst’s example but something about Sätty’s work struck me in a manner I couldn’t articulate other than by trying to set down the thoughts they inspired. Personal obsessions aside, I’ve since come to regard this book as the only illustrated Poe which can approach Harry Clarke’s inimitable volume.

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I’m fortunate to own two copies of this edition otherwise I wouldn’t have attempted to scan any pages when doing so involves bending the spine rather badly. The book is profusely illustrated, with many full-page or double-spread illustrations most of which I haven’t tried to reproduce. What you have here are the title pages from nearly all the pieces and a couple of additional illustrations. Sätty’s Poe is still the easiest of his books to find secondhand if you browse the dealer pages at AbeBooks. For more of his incredible work there’s this page at Ephemera Assemblyman, and for details of the artist’s life and career there’s my 2005 essay in Strange Attractor Journal Two.

• Sätty’s illustrations for The Annotated Dracula (1975) at Flickr.

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The art of Hope Kroll

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left: Wilhemine (2009); right: Strange Gifts (2009).

Collage art by American artist Hope Kroll whose site has galleries of her work dating back to 2000. I forget where the tip came from for these but I suspect it was Monsieur Thom once again…

Previously on { feuilleton }
Metamorphosis Victorianus
Max (The Birdman) Ernst
The Robing of The Birds
Gandharva by Beaver & Krause
The art of Stephen Aldrich