Hidden Hands: A Different History of Modernism

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I thought I’d finished with the arts documentaries until I remembered this four-part series from 1995. Hidden Hands was based on researches by Frances Stonor Saunders who also co-produced. As the subtitle suggests, the programmes examined aspects of Modernist art and architecture that weren’t exactly unknown but were often downplayed (sometimes deliberately ignored) by the art establishment. The episodes were as follows:

1: Is Anybody There? The occult roots of abstract painting, especially the influence of Theosophy on Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. Kazimir Malevich and Frantisek Kupka are also mentioned at the beginning of the programme but we don’t hear anything more about them.

2: Art and the CIA. A history of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA front for channelling money to avant-garde exhibitions and literary magazines during the Cold War.

3: A Clean White World. Modernist architecture as a reaction to, and proposed solution for, the squalor of 19th-century city life. Also the similarity between the impulses that drove the Modernist architectural ideal, and the later health and purity obsessions of European fascist states.

4: Painting with the Enemy. The inadvertent way in which the animus towards “degenerate art” shared by the Nazis and the Vichy regime in occupied France helped sustain Modernism during the war years.

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This is a very good series on the whole, informative and with a roster of authoritative interviewees. The narration overstates the contrarian angle in places but that’s television for you. Much of the history under investigation wasn’t necessarily hidden, more sidestepped by general discussions of 20th-century art. Even so, fifteen years earlier in the architecture episode of The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes covered similar territory and with similar criticisms, following the development of what would become known as the International Style while noting Mussolini’s adoption of a Modernist idiom for the architecture of Fascist Italy.

Elsewhere, when Hughes reviewed a major Kandinsky retrospective he paid sufficient attention to Kandinsky’s Theosophical beliefs; this was in 1982 for TIME magazine, not exactly an obscure publication. Theosophy’s ectoplasmic tentacles are all over the art of the late 19th century so you’d expect some crossover into the art of the new century, as there was in the careers of the artists themselves. (Matisse was a pupil of Gustave Moreau, for example, an inconvenient detail that often irritated critics.) Given the amount of artists swayed by Madame Blavatsky’s writings, a more interesting argument might have been to propose Theosophy as the prime cause of early abstraction rather than another inconvenient factor in its development. Hilma af Klint’s pioneering abstract paintings were as much products of her Theosophical studies as were those of Kandinsky but in the 1990s nobody was paying her very much attention.

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Mondrian’s mysticism: Evolution (1910–1911).

As for the CIA, the agency’s clandestine cultural adventures were exposed by a leak in the late 1960s—Stephen Spender famously resigned in shame from his editorship of Encounter magazine—so this could almost be classed as old news. What you wouldn’t have had in the past, however, is the agents involved in the scheme openly discussing their activities.

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The Art of the Occult

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Cover art: Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece (1915) by Hilma af Klint. Design by Paileen Currie.

A surprise arrival in today’s post, the occult art compendium by S. Elizabeth which I would have wanted to read even if it didn’t contain one of my pictures:

From theosophy and kabbalah, to the zodiac and alchemy; spiritualism and ceremonial magic, to the elements and sacred geometry – The Art of the Occult introduces major occult themes and showcases the artists who have been influenced and led by them. Discover the symbolic and mythical images of the Pre-Raphaelites; the automatic drawing of Hilma af Klint and Madge Gill; Leonora Carrington’s surrealist interpretation of myth, alchemy and kabbalah; and much more.

Most of the books I’ve seen on this subject have either been very general and in need of an update (Thames and Hudson’s venerable Magic: The Western Tradition) or exhibition catalogues which are never comprehensive and become increasingly hard to find since they don’t get reprinted. The Art of the Occult is an ideal introduction to the subject for the curious reader, as well as being a useful overview for the aficionado (or initiate) which spans several hundred years of art and illustration, from the earliest occult manuscripts to contemporary works. Occult art is a house with many mansions, a form which can encompass photo-realism, Symbolism, Surrealism or total abstraction without the definition breaking down. The Art of the Occult contains a satisfyingly wide range of examples, 200 in all, and includes many artists whose work I hadn’t seen before. It also reinforces the origin of abstract art in occult concerns, a lineage that went unmentioned for many years by critics who couldn’t accept that their beloved “pure” idiom was tainted by mysticism.

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My piece is a portrait of the serpent-haired Abyzou, one of the Solomonic demons I depicted for The Demons of King Solomon in 2017. The picture was one of the better representations in a series I would have preferred to have more time to work on. I was pleased to see my contribution facing one of Elijah Burgher’s sigil drawings; I like Burgher’s art so he makes a good companion. This is the first and maybe the only book where my name is listed in an index between Pamela Colman Smith and Aleister Crowley.

The Art of the Occult will be published by White Lion Publishing on 13th of October, just in time for the annual spook-fest.

Update: Haute Macabre has a new post by S. Elizabeth showing more pages from the book’s interior plus the opportunity to win a copy.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Calendrier Magique
The Demons of King Solomon
Typefaces of the occult revival
The art of Frieda Harris, 1877–1962
The art of Fay Pomerance, 1912–2001
Songs for the Witch Woman
Wilfried Sätty: Artist of the occult
The art of Scott Treleaven

Weekend links 457

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Imagination of Letters by Ikko Tanaka.

Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980–1990 is the latest compilation from Light In The Attic, and another excellent package both musically, physically and design-wise. The album was compiled by Spencer Doran of Visible Cloaks who talked to The Quietus a couple of years ago about his favourite Japanese (and other) music. Simon Reynolds reviewed Kankyo Ongaku last month, and drew attention to Spencer Doran’s Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo mixes which may be heard here and here.

Michael O’Shea playing his home-made musical instrument (an old door, paintbrushes, etc) on RTÉ in 1980. Shea’s one-and-only album has been deleted for years but was reissued in January. The story of O’Shea’s surprising involvement with Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis of Wire (which led to the recording of his album) is recounted here.

Lou Thomas suggests five reasons to watch Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man on its 30th anniversary.

…Topor generates a world in which the great unsaid realities of human life are painfully laid bare, amplified through a series of confrontations with “le sang, la merde et le sexe” (“blood, shit, and sex”). While few of his texts have been made available in English, they are nevertheless representative of his wider body of work, in which the reader constantly trips over these same themes as if stumbling upon a naked corpse in a darkened room. They predicate an oeuvre of carnivalesque and necrophilic eroticism, and draw out the pungent, animalistic core hidden within the norms of our everyday existence. Topor’s narratives are shot through with macabre irony, orgiastic scatology, and physical and psychological cruelty, which constitutes a fundamental reframing of the characteristics of human interaction with others.

Andrew Hodgson on Roland Topor’s neglected writings

An anciente mappe of Fairyland: newly discovered and set forth (1920) by Bernard Sleigh.

Maggot Brain: an impromptu Funkadelic cover by Albatross Project.

Anne Billson on purr evil: cinematic cats with hidden agendas.

Sayonara: one of the most Japanese words in the dictionary.

• Painting the Beyond: Susan Tallman on Hilma af Klint.

• RB Russell on bookseller’s labels: part one & part two.

Christopher G. Moore on The Immortals and Time.

• Fuck the Vessel,” says Kate Wagner.

• Japanese Farewell Song (Sayonara) (1957) by Martin Denny | Sayonara: The Japanese Farewell Song (1976) by Haruomi Hosono | Sayonara (1991) by Ryuichi Sakamoto

Weekend links 434

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Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece (1915) by Hilma af Klint.

“Like Kandinsky, and other pioneers of abstract art, af Klint was deeply immersed in theosophy and anthroposophy. But she seems to have taken that interest much further than her male counterparts, participating in (and later leading) séances with a group of women friends. Whatever the spirits said, af Klint did.” Nana Asfour on pioneering abstract painter, Hilma af Klint.

• Four electronic artists reflect on the influence of composer Laurie Spiegel. Spiegel’s The Expanding Universe (1980) is reissued by Unseen Worlds next month. Related: Laurie Spiegel in 1977 playing the Bell Labs Digital Synthesizer.

• At Expanding Mind: Gurdjieffean writer and DuVersity director Anthony Blake talks with Erik Davis about dialogue, synergy, mind between brains, the trouble with teachers, and the gymnasium of beliefs in higher intelligence.

• Mixes of the week: Flashing Noise Mix by Tim Gane, Secret Thirteen Mix 268 by Bérangère Maximin, and Samhain Séance Seven: A Very Dark Place – Prologue by The Ephemeral Man.

Geeta Dayal on Broken Music (1989), a book about sound art edited by Ursula Block and Michael Glasmeier which is now available in a new edition from Primary Information.

• The Sainsbury Archive showcases the graphic design of several decades of the supermarket chain’s products.

• More of the usual suspects: Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore in 2006 discussing Moorcock’s career.

• “Karloff the Uncanny”: Joe Dante talks to Stephanie Sporn about the attraction of old film posters.

Mexico City, another preview (and a psychedelic one) of Randall Dunn’s forthcoming solo album.

• At Haute Macabre: Timeless Phantom Interludes: The Photography of Jason Blake.

Mark Valentine on the current state of Britain’s secondhand book shops.

• At I Love Typography: Unicorns, Frogs and the Sausage Supper Affair.

• “I never wanted to be a cult film-maker,” says John Waters.

• Artist Arik Roper chooses some favourite album covers.

Broken Head (1978) by Eno, Moebius, Roedelius | Broken Horse (1984) by Rain Parade | Broken Aura (2000) by Coil

Weekend links 301

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The Music from the Balconies (1984) by Edward Ruscha.

• At The Quietus: High-Rise director Ben Wheatley runs through his favourite films. Kudos for mentioning Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) among the more familiar fare, a nightmarish masterwork that everyone should watch at least once. On the same site, author Joe R. Lansdale also lists some favourite films while discussing the new TV series of his Hap and Leonard books.

Electric Hintermass (Sound Apart) by Hintermass, a track from The Apple Tree, their debut album on the Ghost Box label.

Michael Mann’s Heat: “A complex, stylistically supreme candidate for one of the most impressive films of the Nineties”.

• Despair Fatigue: David Graeber on how [political] hopelessness grew boring, and what happens next.

• Mix of the week: FACT Mix 541 by Tortoise, and Blowing Up The Workshop 56 by Eric Lanham.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: “Some books (1961–1975) that either faked ingesting LSD or did”.

• David Litvinoff again: “Was he only an opportunistic hustler?” asks David Collard.

John Carpenter’s The Thing rescored with one of the director’s Lost Themes.

Overlooked: a book by Marina Willer about the manhole covers of London.

• Pam Grossman (words) and Tin Can Forest (art) ask What is a Witch?

• A long way down: Oliver Wainwright on JG Ballard and High-Rise.

• A conversation with designer and typographer Erik Spiekermann.

• The BFI compiles a list of “The 30 Best LGBT Films of All Time“.

• Decoding the spiritual symbolism of artist Hilma af Klint.

Sabat Magazine

Heat (1983) by Soft Cell | The Heat (1985) by Peter Gabriel | Heat Miser (1994) by Massive Attack