Stockham, Alice B. Karezza: Ethics of Marriage. Mokelumne Hill, CA: Health Research, n.d.
Stoehr, Taylor. Free Love in America: A Documentary History. New York:
AMS Press, 1979.
Rosaleen Norton with her pet cat
Rosaleen Norton (1917-1979) has been described as Australia’s best-known witch although by now her fame has extended well beyond her native shores. Avant-garde American film-maker Kenneth Anger, who has had an ongoing fascination with occult mythology and visited Aleister Crowley’s Abbey in Cefalu, proposed to make a film about her, and she has also inspired contemporary novels and a play. Rosaleen Norton is certainly one of the most impressive painters of supernatural themes to have emerged in modern times.
Prior to her death in 1979, Rosaleen lived in a shadowy basement apartment in an ageing block of flats close to the El Alamein fountain in Sydney’s Kings Cross district. In one of her rooms she had erected a sacred altar in honor of the horned god Pan, the ancient Greek patron of pastoral life and Lord of Nature. However she kept her deepest beliefs and ideas very much to herself, living like a recluse from the exuberant nightlife which surrounded her.
There was a time when Rosaleen Norton’s murals and decorative motifs spanned the walls of several popular coffee bars in Kings Cross, but these are now long gone; the well known Apollyon yielded to the bypass which now takes the main flow of traffic out to Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Her heyday was in fact in the 1940s and 1950s. She was known to the public as an eccentric, bohemian witch-lady who wore flamboyant, billowing blouses and vivid bandanas, puffed on an exotic engraved cigarette holder, and plucked her eyebrows so that they arched in a somewhat sinister curve. Slight in build with long curly black hair, she always had something of a magnetic presence that made her stand out in the crowd.
Rosaleen Norton became known in the public mind as the artist whose provocative paintings of half-human, half-animal forms were even more controversial than Norman Lindsay’s risque nude figures. She depicted naked women wrestling with reptilian elementals or flying on the backs of winged griffins, and gods who were both male and female and whose arms were like wings with claws at the extremities. These days, at a time when fantasy art has brought a vivid array of supernatural and surreal styles to CD covers, posters and t-shirts, Rosaleen Norton’s paintings appear more mainstream, but in the decade after World War II they seemed to be an affront to human decency and ran counter to orthodox religious sensibilities.
In one of her rooms she had erected a sacred altar in honor of
the horned god Pan, the ancient Greek patron of pastoral life and Lord of Nature.
Fishers of Men
Rosaleen Norton was born in Dunedin in 1917 during a violent thunderstorm which she later claimed was a portent for her love of the night side of life. Even when she was just three years of age she was fond of drawing “nothing beasts”—animal-headed ghosts with tentacle arms—and at the age of five she observed an apparition of a shining dragon beside her bed. These events convinced her of the presence of the spirit world and she found herself developing religious beliefs contrary to those of her more orthodox parents. Rosaleen’s father was a captain in the merchant navy and a cousin of composer Vaughan Williams, her mother a “conventional, highly emotional woman, far too absorbed in her family.”
The Nortons migrated from New Zealand in 1925 and settled in the Sydney suburb of Lindfield. Young Rosaleen lived there for the next ten years with her parents but found it increasingly difficult to relate to her mother, preferring the company of her elder sister and a favorite aunt. By the age of fourteen she had decided upon the direction her life should take and was preparing to experience everything she could, “good, bad and indifferent,” engaging both her life and art in the only way that came naturally. A numerologist had earlier worked out her name chart and had arrived at the conclusion that Rosaleen’s life and work would lie well off the beaten track— a prediction which certainly came true.
Rosaleen was soon expelled from school under a cloud, her headmistress writing to her mother indicating that she had “a depraved nature which would corrupt the innocence of the other girls.” She then studied for two years at East Sydney Technical College under the sculptor Rayner Hoff. During this time she became interested in witchcraft and magic and was soon well versed in the occult writings of Dion Fortune, Aleister Crowley and Eliphas Levi even though such specialist publications were difficult to obtain in Sydney at the time. After leaving the college she became one of Australia’s first women pavement artists, displaying her work at the bottom of Rowe Street, near the Sydney GPO. Her subsequent jobs included working as a newspaper cadet, designing for a toy manufacturer, assisting in a bohemian nightclub, waitressing and modeling. But her work pursuits were becoming increasingly secondary to her occult interests and in 1940 she began to experiment with self-hypnosis as a means of inducing automatic drawings.
She was known to the public as an eccentric, bohemian witch- lady who wore flamboyant, billowing blouses and vivid bandanas, puffed on an exotic engraved cigarette holder, and plucked her eyebrows so that they arched in a somewhat sinister curve.
Rosaleen was already familiar with the trance methods of the surrealists and especially admired the work of Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy who, like the other artists in their movement, had explored techniques of encouraging the subconscious mind to manifest its visionary contents. Sometimes the surrealists drew rapidly so that forms came through unimpeded by the intellect. Others experimented with drugs or documented their dream experiences with great detail in order to develop a greater knowledge of the
“alternative reality” of the subconscious mind.
Rosaleen Norton found that she could shut off her normal consciousness by means of self-hypnosis and could transfer her attention to an inner plane of awareness. As she noted in her personal records: “These experiments produced a number of peculiar and unexpected results… and culminated in a period of extra-sensory perception, together with a prolonged series of symbolic visions.” She spent several years after this studying various systems of occult thought, including Buddhist and other examples of eastern literature as well as standard works on western magic and mysticism.
During this period she also began to focus more specifically on the magical forces associated with the Great God Pan, whose spirit she felt pervaded the entire earth. Her studies had taught her that the ancient Greeks regarded Pan as lord of all things—symbolizing the totality of the elements and all forms of manifest being. He was therefore, in a very real sense, the true god of the world. Pan was a maintainer of the balance of Nature and also had at his command an invisible hierarchy of lesser spirits who could help him in his work of ruling and sustaining the earth.
Rosaleen painted a large-scale interpretation of Pan, complete with horns, pointed ears, cloven hooves and musical pipes, and mounted it on the wall of her flat. She also conducted magical ceremonies dressed in a tiger-skin robe to honor his presence, and would often experience him as a living reality when she entered a tance state.
Meanwhile, her art continued to reflect the entities she encountered in her visions, including a variety of devilish creatures, half animal-half human pagan deities, and various supernatural motifs. Several psychiatrists were fascinated by her style and one of her paintings was bought in the early 1950s by an Adelaide bishop, curious about the source of her inspiration. When the English art critic John Sackville-West arrived in Australia in 1970 he claimed that far too many abstract painters were claiming to be artists when in fact they were really designers; he identified Norman Lindsay and Rosaleen Norton as two of Australia’s finest artists, gifted in depicting the detailed human form. Rosaleen was very pleased by this particular praise; she liked to be compared with Norman Lindsay, whom she very much admired and regarded, with Sir William Dobell, as one of “Australia’s only great artists.” She also admitted to being influenced by Aubrey Beardsley, Leonardo, Van
Gogh and the etcher Gustav Dore.
Many occultists have drawn on Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious” to explain their relationship with the archetypal forces of the mind. Dion Fortune was an early enthusiast of Jungian thought. Jung believed that at a deep, collective level of the psyche lay a rich and potent source of sacred archetypal imagery, and that these numinous forms provided the very basis of religious and mystical experience, irrespective of the cultural context involved. In other words, gods and sacred mystical images were really an extension of the universal human experience.
A number of occultists, though, have rejected this view, claiming instead that the gods live apart from the collective minds of humanity and are not merely projected “thought-forms.” Rosaleen Norton agreed with this latter perspective. In an interview given the year before her death in 1979, she explained to me that she found it egotistical and self-centered for humanity to accord itself a special position in the spectrum of creation. For her, the gods existed in their own right. She knew Hecate, Lucifer and Pan, not as extensions of her own consciousness, but as beings who would grace her with their presence if it pleased them, and not subject to her will. She believed she had discovered some of the qualities of these gods within her own temperament, and that this provided a sense of natural affinity. This made their invocation much easier and more effective than would have been the case had there not been some sort of innate bond. Rosaleen maintained that she went to the realm of the gods on the astral planes—an inner world of spirit accessed through magical trance—and that on different occasions the gods would reveal different dimensions of their own magical potency.
Rosaleen Norton regarded Lucifer, for example, not so much as an embodiment of “evil” as humanity’s natural adversary. He bound and limited man when it appeared that he was growing too big for his boots.
He tried to trick man, not out of malice but with the positive intent of exposing the limitations of the ego and revealing the essential falseness of man’s pride in his own existence. Rosaleen also regarded Pan as a very significant deity for the present day, a force in the universe which protected and conserved the natural beauty and resources of the environment. For her, Pan was alive and well in the anti-pollution lobbies and among the Friends of the Earth!
Hecate, on the other hand, she felt to be more imposing—an often frightening, shadowy goddess flanked by cohorts of ghouls and night-forms, a dealer in death and a purveyor of curses. But there was a magical bond to
be found there too. Rosaleen regarded magic and witchcraft as her protection and an inspiration in a hostile, ungenerous world. However, her own brand of witchcraft hardly brought her abundance. She lived simply, with few possessions, and certainly without any measure of wealth. If ever she cursed people with “witch current,” she said, it was a means of redressing the balance of events—a legitimate use of the magical art.
Not surprisingly, Rosaleen’s paintings show a certain similarity of style to those of Norman Lindsay. But white for Lindsay the world of supernature could only offer decadent and exotic themes for his artmaking, for Rosaleen Norton this realm was a perceptual reality—and this is very much reflected in her work. There are fire elementals, ablaze with light; devils with dual banks of eyes, indicative of their different planes of perception; cats with magical awareness; horned beings with sensual cheeks and a strange eerie light playing on their brow. Her art was the result of the direct magical encounter. Energies filtered through her, she said, as if she were a funnel. She transmitted the current during a state of selfinduced hypnotic trance.1 If the gods were alive in her, her artistic skills would then allow these gods to manifest, in varying degrees, upon her canvases.
Rosaleen always denied that she portrayed the totality of the god. She could depict only those qualities the god chose to shown. The gods existed in their own right, on a plane far removed from the everyday world of human consciousness.
In certain of Rosaleen’s paintings and drawings we find creatures which are half human and half animal and these, in many ways, are her most impressive magical images. Several illustrations of this type were reproduced in a volume of the artist’s drawings titled The Art of Rosaleen Norton, published in 1952 in a limited edition of a thousand copies. The drawings were in black and white, and accompanied a series of poems by Rosaleen’s lover, Gavin Greenlees.2
Greenlees, who died in 1983, was a modest and quietly spoken man for whom the magical view of the world was simultaneously a visionary and poetic expression. In the 1952 edition, Rosaleen Norton’s magical images blended superbly with Greenlees’ mystical poetry and also provided a type of homage to the major supernatural forces in her magical pantheon.
Pan was a maintainer of the balance of Nature and also had at his command an invisible hierarchy of lesser spirits who could help him in his work of ruling and sustaining the earth.
In his introduction to the book, publisher Walter Glover noted the parallels
between Rosaleen Norton’s art and certain of the surrealists, and also pointed out that her paintings embodied what he called “a vision of the night.” Rosaleen Norton would always regard her art as a medium for tapping into a wondrous “alternative reality.” In an early journal entry she wrote:
“There are senses, art forms, activities and states of consciousness that have no parallel in human experience… an overwhelming deluge of both Universal and Self Knowledge (often in an allegorical form) from every conceivable aspect—metaphysical, mathematical, scientific, symbolic. These comprise a bewildering and significant relationship to every other facet. One such experience could be compared with simultaneously watching and taking part in a play in which all art forms, such as music, drama, ceremonial ritual, shape, sound and pattern, blended into one…”
Rosaleen Norton and her altar to Pan
Rosaleen’s artistic output was quite varied and the limited edition remains a hallmark of her stylistic breadth. Her drawings ranged from satirical, but essentially whimsical, parodies of church figures through to semi-abstract vorticist whirlpools of energy and figurative depictions of the great
supernatural deities. Her representation of Mars—an obviously warlike entity
—shows a powerful human male torso with the winged head of a hawk. The god has a scorpion’s tail and clawed feet, and embodies a very tangible feeling of power and aggression. In his right hand he holds a sphere—the puny globe of Earth—asserting his command.