Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

salome1.jpgWe tend to think of cinema as a modern medium, quintessentially 20th century, but the modern medium was born in the 19th century, and the heyday of the Silent Age (the 1920s) was closer to the Decadence of the fin de siècle (mid-1880s to the late-1890s) than we are now to the 1970s. This is one reason why so much silent cinema seems infected with a Decadent or Symbolist spirit: that period wasn’t so remote and many of its more notorious products cast a long shadow. Even an early science fiction film like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis has scenes redolent of late Victorian fever dreams: the vision of Moloch, Maria’s parable of the tower of Babel, the coming to life of statues of the Seven Deadly Sins, and—most notably—the vision of the evil Maria as the Whore of Babylon. Woman as vamp or femme fatale was an idea that gripped the Decadent imagination and it found a living expression in the vamps of the silent era, beautiful women with exotic names such as Pola Negri, Musidora (Irma Vep in Feuillade’s Les Vampires) and the woman the studios and press named simply “the Vamp”, Theda Bara (real name Theodosia Burr Goodman).

Alla Nazimova was another of these exotic creatures, and rather more exotic than most since she was at least a genuine Russian, even if she also had to amend her given name (Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon) to exaggerate the effect. Like an opera diva or a great ballerina she dropped her forename as her career progressed, and is billed as Nazimova only in her 1923 screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé. Nazimova inaugurated the project, produced it and even part-financed it since the studios, increasingly worried by pressure from moral campaigners, regarded it as a dangerously decadent work. Nazimova had a rather colourful off-screen life and the stories of orgiastic revels at her mansion, the Garden of Allah, probably didn’t help matters.


Salomé lobby card (1923).

Continue reading “Alla Nazimova’s Salomé”

Czanara’s Hermaphrodite Angel


More obscure art, only now we’re talking really obscure. This remarkable picture, The Hermaphrodite-Angel of Peladan by Czanara, turned up in the archives of Russ Kick’s seemingly abandoned Rare Erotica blog. “Czanara” was one Raymond Carrance (1921–?), a gay artist who I haven’t come across before and who seems to be completely absent not only from my library, but from most of the web. A great shame, if there’s more of his work like this I want to see it.

The “Peladan” of the title might be a reference to Sâr Péladan, founder of the Catholic Order of the Rose and the Cross in fin de siècle Paris, and guru to a number of significant Symbolist painters, including the brilliant Jean Delville. Hermaphroditism and androgyny were important themes for Péladan who declared, in an outburst typical of the period, “the androgyne, is the plastic ideal!” Czanara’s picture is certainly Symbolist in its details—those multiplied wings and hippogriffs—even if its intent is most likely a result of mundane pornographic imperatives.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The gay artists archive
The fantastic art archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Angels 4: Fallen angels

Images of Nijinsky

nijinsky_faun.jpgI have an abiding fascination with the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev‘s company which electrified the art world from 1909 up to the impressario’s death in 1929. One of the reasons for this—aside from the obvious gay dimension and the extraordinary roster of talent involved—is probably Diaghilev’s success in carrying the Symbolist impulses of the fin de siècle into the age of Modernism without losing any richness or exoticism along the way. Diaghilev’s arts magazine, Mir Iskusstva (1899–1900), was as much a product of fashionable Decadence as The Savoy, and its principles were easily transported into the world of ballet.

A big subject, then, that’ll no doubt be returned to in later postings. Looking around for images of dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky in his celebrated (and notorious) role in L’Après-midi d’un Faune turned up not only Leon Bakst’s luscious drawing but some marvelous Beardsley-esque pictures by George Barbier (1882–1932). I’d seen some of Barbier’s work before but didn’t realise he’d created a whole book devoted to the dancer. Artists like Bakst, Erté and Barbier show how Aubrey Beardsley’s art might have developed had he not died prematurely in 1898. You can see the full set of book plates here.


Nijinsky as faun by Leon Bakst (1912).


Designs on the Dances of Vaslav Nijinsky (and below) by George Barbier (1913).


L’ Apres-midi d’un Faune.



Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The gay artists archive
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Nicholas Kalmakoff, 1873–1955

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

Austin Osman Spare


Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of one of my favourite artists, Austin Osman Spare.

Like many people in the 1970s, I was introduced to the work of Austin Spare by Man, Myth and Magic, a seven volume “illustrated encyclopedia of the supernatural” published weekly in 120 112 parts by Purnell. My mother was a Dennis Wheatley reader so we had a couple of occult paperbacks in the house, among them one of William Seabrook‘s accounts of voodoo in Haiti and a copy of Richard Cavendish’s wonderful magical primer, The Black Arts, (later retitled The Magical Arts). Cavendish had been chosen as editor of Man, Myth and Magic and included occultist and writer Kenneth Grant on his editorial staff, a decision that gave the book’s producers access to Grant’s collection of Spare pictures. In a rather bold move, they launched Man, Myth and Magic in 1970 with a detail of a Spare drawing on the cover, a work often referred to as The Elemental although the authoritative Spare collection, Zos Speaks has it titled as The Vampires are Coming. It’s a shame that AOS didn’t live for a few more years to see this; after labouring in poverty and obscurity for most of his life he would have found his work flooding Britain, with this first issue on sale all over the country and the cover picture being pasted on billboards and sold as posters. It’s possible there were even television adverts for the book (although I don’t recall any), since there usually were for expensive part works like this.

Continue reading “Austin Osman Spare”