The Major Arcana by Jak Flash

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The Fool.

I’d like this photo series by young British photographer Jak Flash even if it didn’t feature attractive men; the eye candy is icing on a thaumaturgic cake. The Major Arcana takes the Trumps of the Tarot as its inspiration and manages to reinterpret the symbolism whilst retaining the hieratic nature of the traditional images. Of his reworking, the photographer says:

I developed my own themes based around things like geometric shapes so that I could encode my images with meaning. The images link to each other and can be read to some extent almost as a progressive story, or commentary. Various signifiers are used throughout the images such as cubes, triangles and spheres to help communicate my ideas. Cubes for example are a representation of the material world and triangles show transition. In an image such as The Hanged Man we see two men firmly seated on a large cube, whilst above their heads another cube breaks apart around them. … The Lovers image is an interpretation of the fall of man from Eden. The man represents mankind in his fall after taking the fruit of Knowledge, whilst being denied eternal life. (More.)

The Major Arcana is available in book form at Blurb. Via Homotography, doing all the leg work once again.

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top left: The Lovers; top right: Justice.
bottom left: The Wheel of Fortune; bottom right: The Sun.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Sapphire Museum of Magic and Occultism
Strange Attractor Salon
The art of Pamela Colman Smith, 1878–1951
Layered Orders: Crowley’s Thoth Deck and the Tarot
In the Shadow of the Sun by Derek Jarman
The Major Arcana

Through the Wonderwall

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It’s taken me years but the recent obsession with UK psychedelia led me to finally watch Joe Massot’s piece of cinematic fluff from 1968, Wonderwall, a film distinguished primarily for its score by George Harrison (with Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton playing pseudonymously), and its title which was swiped years later by a bunch of Rutles-imitators from Manchester. The story is so slight it would have barely sustained an hour-long TV film: absent-minded scientist (Jack MacGowran) becomes intrigued by his glamorous neighbour (Jane Birkin playing “Penny Lane”; yeah, right…) and knocks holes in the walls of his flat in order to scrutinise her modelling, partying and frequent undressing. Unlike Blow Up (1966, and also featuring Jane Birkin) and the later Performance (1970), both of which attempted to accurately pin down some of the modish aspects of the period, this is a very kitsch piece. That wouldn’t be so bad if it was entertaining kitsch like, say, Smashing Time (1967), but Massott has to resort to scenes of limp comedy and some rather dull dream sequences in order to pad the thing out. Between the handful of actual dialogue scenes there’s a lot of gloating over Ms Birkin’s flesh which no doubt satisfied one half of the audience but by today’s standards is hardly thrilling. Iain Quarrier plays Penny’s duplicitous boyfriend (with a fake Liverpool accent) in his last screen role before he quit acting. Quarrier and MacGowran had appeared together in two of Roman Polanski’s British films, Cul-de-sac (1966) and Dance of the Vampires (1967). In the latter, MacGowran again plays an absent-minded scientist while Quarrier is cinema’s first (?) gay vampire.

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An interjection from The Fool.

Of chief interest for me in Wonderwall was the decor and title card decorations by Dutch psychedelic collective, The Fool (who also appear in the party scene), famous for their earlier Beatles associations including the inner sleeve for Sgt Pepper and designs for the short-lived Apple Boutique in London’s Baker Street. I was also curious about the distinctive decor of MacGowran’s flat which contrasts with the psychedelia next door, all dark green walls embellished with Victorian murals and a Tennyson poem—very fittingly a piece called The Daydream—which circles the room.

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The professor prepares to attack the wall.

This was particularly interesting in that it made another connection between the psychedelic era and Victorian arts movements, especially from the Aesthetic/Arts & Crafts end of things, but it wasn’t at all obvious whether the connection was an intentional part of the film’s production design or an accident of location and budgetary convenience. Aside from the old-fashioned appearance of MacGowran’s rooms there seemed no reason why his otherwise cultureless character would have any interest in decorating his living space in this way.

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The street corner then…

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…and now.

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The building itself is equally distinctive and an exterior shot conveniently shows a street sign placing the location in Lansdowne House, a Victorian apartment block on the corner of Lansdowne Road and Ladbroke Road in the Notting Hill/Holland Park area of London.

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Lansdowne House.

What did the building look like today, I wondered? Google Earth proves indispensable at times like this and it was easy to find, in a street which looks more cramped than it does in the film. The presence of a blue plaque on the wall proved intriguing, a sign that the place once had famous residents. Googling for that revealed this photo which was a real surprise: Lansdowne House at one time contained studios for artists who included Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, a gay couple and leading lights of London’s fin de siècle art scene (also friends of Oscar Wilde), and another artist, James Pryde, who with William Nicholson worked as The Beggarstaffs. So my suspicion about the Arts & Crafts decor was correct, which means that MacGowran’s flat may have been decorated that way originally and remained untouched since the 1890s. I haven’t seen Rhino’s special edition of Wonderwall which contained additional information about the making of the film, so have no idea whether the history of the building is mentioned there. If anyone does know, please leave a comment. For now I’m quite happy to have stumbled upon another minor link between two of my favourite art decades.

For more visuals, this page has a host of screen grabs from the film as well as some gif animations, all of which manage to make Wonderwall seem more interesting than it is when you’re watching it.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Charles Ricketts’ Hero and Leander
Images by Robert Altman

The art of Pamela Colman Smith, 1878–1951

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Following yesterday’s post about Frieda Harris’s Tarot designs, it only seems right to acknowledge the other major Tarot artist of the 20th century. Pamela Colman Smith has been overshadowed by her male mentor, Golden Dawn scholar AE Waite, even more than Frieda Harris whose name at least gets mentioned as much as Crowley’s in discussion of her paintings. US Games lists Smith and Waite’s so-called Rider-Waite Tarot of 1909 as “the world’s most popular tarot deck” and uses a silhouette of Smith’s design for The Fool as the company logo, yet it was years before I saw a credit for Smith as artist of this deck, her personal presence being reduced to a tiny monogram in the corner of each picture.

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The Absurd ABC by Walter Crane (1874).

I’ve often thought of Smith’s deck as “the Art Nouveau Tarot” which it isn’t really—it’s more late Victorian in style, if anything—but it was created when Art Nouveau was at its height and has some of the character of the poster art of the period. Smith’s designs are incredibly striking in places, with the clarity of drawn archetypes, and her style possibly owes something to the books Walter Crane created for children in the 1870s and 1880s; the clean lines and bright colouring are very similar. In that respect, Smith’s deck might be more fittingly labelled “the Arts and Crafts Tarot.”

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left: Pamela Colman Smith’s Hermit; right: Barrington Colby’s inner sleeve for Led Zeppelin IV.

Pamela Colman Smith also worked as a book illustrator but her other work is overshadowed completely by the popularity of the Rider-Waite cards. Her design for The Hermit was famously borrowed by Crowley obsessive Jimmy Page in 1971 for an inner sleeve illustration, View in Half or Varying Light by Barrington Colby, for Led Zeppelin IV. That use alone makes it possibly the most famous Tarot card in history (there was even a statue made of it for the now defunct Hard Rock Park Led Zeppelin roller coaster) but I doubt many people familiar with the image could name the original artist.

Happily, Ms Smith’s obscurity is gradually diminishing. US Games recently produced the Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative set for the 100th anniversary of the Rider-Waite deck, a package featuring a book of her artwork (including non-Tarot drawings), prints, postcards and a reprinted set of cards. A long overdue reappraisal but, as is always the case, it’s better late than never.

Mary K Greer’s Tarot blog has some excellent postings devoted to Pamela Colman Smith including this page which gathers links to sites containing further information about the artist’s life and work.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Layered Orders: Crowley’s Thoth Deck and the Tarot
William Rimmer’s Evening Swan Song
The art of Cameron, 1922–1995

Psychedelic vehicles

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Further: the second version of Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster bus.

The word psychedelic, like surreal before it, slipped from its original meaning through appropriation. Humphrey Osmond’s neologism was first coined in drug-related correspondence with Aldous Huxley in 1957 and was specifically intended to describe the “mind-manifesting” quality of the hallucinogenic drug experience. The drug-inspired art and music which came after the experiments of the Fifties quickly assumed a gaudy and chaotic aspect derived from the intense visual abstractions of LSD trips. Huxley in The Doors of Perception (1954) rejected these fractal visions as trivial and distracting—he was more concerned with the deeper spiritual revelations—but a new way of seeing in a new era required a new label. Art and design which is vivid, florid, multi-hued and quite often incoherent is where the term psychedelic is most commonly applied today.

Of the three vehicles here, only Ken Kesey’s bus can be regarded as psychedelic in Osmond’s sense, this being the renovated school bus which travelled the United States in the mid-Sixties dispensing free LSD to those it met along the way. These events were recounted in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and the creators of last year’s Milk, Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black, have a film in preparation based on Wolfe’s book. Milk was a film about gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk, and Ang Lee (director of Brokeback Mountain) has a new film of his own due shortly, Taking Woodstock, which concerns Elliot Tiber, the gay organizer of the Woodstock Festival of 1969. Both stories bracket the psychedelic era. Is this coincidence or do I detect something in the air? But I digress….

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For the chaotic and decorative nature of the psychedelic style, look no further (so to speak) than Janis Joplin’s 1965 Porsche. I saw this in 2005 at Tate Liverpool when it was touring with the Summer of Love exhibition of psychedelic art. One of  Joplin’s very last recordings before her death in 1970 was a birthday song for John Lennon so it’s perhaps fitting that the third vehicle here is Lennon’s lavish Rolls-Royce. His 1965 limousine came originally in black livery but two years later he decided he wanted it painted like a gypsy caravan. There’s a great page about the car here including details of its decoration, created in consultation with Marijke Koger of Dutch design group The Fool.

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In a small way these three vehicles encapsulate the psychedelic period, from optimistic, proselytising origins following the revelations of hallucinogenic drugs to decline into a mannered, highly-commercialised graphic style. Ken Kesey died in 2001 but his second bus is still active while the cars are now museum pieces. Perhaps the real psychedelic spirit prevails after all.

See also: George Harrison’s Mini Cooper

Previously on { feuilleton }
Dutch psychedelia
The art of LSD

Dutch psychedelia

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left: Absolutely Free by Theo van den Boogaard (1967).
right: Blowin’ Your Mind by Willem de Ridder (1967).

A couple of samples from similar work scattered around a Dutch auction site, along with more familiar designs from the San Francisco and London artists. All the Dutch examples are new to me; the dominance of the American and British designers of the period tends to marginalise the work of artists from Continental Europe even though Dutch design group The Fool was very prominent for a while due to The Beatles’ patronage.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Family Dog postcards