The man who wasn’t Tesla


Searching through old emails last week reminded me that a couple of years ago I’d supplied some art for use in a steampunk-themed bar in Gran Canaria. I would have mentioned this before now but, as is often the way with freelance commissions, once the negotiations were over I dispatched the art then heard nothing more about the project.


A search for the bar this week revealed a number of things: the place in question is the Tesla Steampunk Bar in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria; the artwork did indeed get used to prominent effect, with the main elements of my picture being positioned behind the bar itself; and it wasn’t immediately obvious whether the place was still open. Subsequent searching (and some Google translating of the bar’s Facebook page) further revealed that the bar has been closed but is in the process of relaunching itself.


As to the artwork, this was adapted from the second version of a design I produced for Jeff VanderMeer in 2008 to illustrate a semi-serious steampunk slogan of Jeff’s devising. Ten years ago steampunk was still a very minor subgenre, and one with few visual signifiers. I quickly hacked together a piece using imagery taken from the Dover Pictorial Archive series, a collection of books which are useful but whose engraved illustrations have since been plundered endlessly for this type of work.


When I’m collaging things today I try and avoid using too much from the Dover books so I’ve been pained that this particular design, especially the goggle-wearing head, has proved so popular. Even when people haven’t asked to use the head itself I’ve been asked to do something similar, as was the case with the Aether Cola can I designed in 2012. The Tesla people used a stripped-down version of the colour design which I scaled to very large size. They also have a picture of the flying man on their wall but I’ve not found any good photos of him.


The original head, meanwhile, was used again last year in a new design for yet another business. Dr Pieper is a steampunk-themed chip shop (yes, really) in Amsterdam, a place with very nice antique decor by the looks of their Instagram page. My variant designs may be seen in the window and in their advertising graphics.


The head itself was found in Men, one of several collections of engraved illustrations edited for Dover Publications by Jim Harter. Some of Harter’s other books identify the pictures but not this one, so the identity of the portrait was unknown until, in my attempts to avoid the Dover books, I found a picture of Joseph Edgar Boehm in Hill’s Album of Biography and Art (1882). Boehm was a sculptor of a rather staid and respectable kind, being commissioned for royal portraiture among other things. I can’t imagine he’d be thrilled to find his posthumous image looking down on a drinking house and a chip shop, but sculptors often seem to be more easily forgotten than painters so he’s doing better than many of his contemporaries.


And while on the subject of steampunk, I ought to note that there’s a steampunk convention taking place in Morecambe at the beginning of June. I won’t be in attendance (they did ask) but I said I’d mention the event here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The George Dower Trilogy by KW Jeter
Steampunk in the Tank
More vapour trails
Steampunk catalogued
Steampunk: The Art of Victorian Futurism
Steampunk Calendar
Words and pictures
Nathanial Krill at the Time Node
Fiendish Schemes
Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam
Steampunk Revolution
The Bookman Histories
Aether Cola
Crafting steampunk illustrations
SteamPunk Magazine
Morlocks, airships and curious cabinets
The Steampunk Bible
Steampunk Reloaded
Steampunk overloaded!
More Steampunk and the Crawling Chaos
Steampunk Redux
Steampunk framed
Steampunk Horror Shortcuts

Initiations in the Abyss: A Surrealist Apocalypse


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 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).


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.


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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