Thursday, 2 June 2016

Three Painters: Evola, Crowley, Schuon

There are serious painters – artists – and then there are dabblers, those who paint as an aside to their major occupation, and it is often the dabblers who are more interesting than the bona fide artists. A previous posting to these pages (see here) concerned the watercolours of three notable amateurs, Prince Charles, Winston Churchill and Chancellor Herr Hitler. The present posting follows much the same format, but we will be contrasting the paintings of three purported spiritual luminaries: Baron Julius Evola, hero of Right-wing perennialism, Frithjof Schuon, touted by his followers as the ‘Messenger of the Religio Perennis’, and the English occultist Aleister Crowley, the self-declared ‘Master Therion’, Prophet of the Aeon of Horus. All three of these characters - men of spiritual pretensions - took to the canvas at certain junctures in their lives, and as well as the writings for which they are better known left behind a legacy of visual art. Largely, such works are of concern only to devotees, but all three conducted official exhibitions during their lifetime and in all three cases their work continues to be exhibited and can command healthy prices whenever they go to market. They are assuredly very different thinkers, and accordingly very different artists, as we shall see:

* * *


In his misspent youth, before he had discovered the writings of Rene Guenon and realized his vocation as a spokesman for political perennialism, Baron Evola dabbled in Dada. In fact, he was a major force in bringing the Dada avante guard to Italy in the 1920s. He exhibited in Rome and caused a stir with his brash radicalism. His paintings, however, now appear to be quite ordinary examples of Dadist abstraction, though here and there we find hints of symbols and motifs that foreshadow the esoteric interests to which the Baron later devoted himself with distinction. 

In truth, though, many of his paintings are beneath ordinary and fall into the category of horrible. It is only die-hard Evola enthusiasts who find much in them that is redeeming. The present author, in any case, only likes one or two – indicated below – even though he is a reader of Evola’s writings and has a high regard for them. Indeed, Baron Evola’s books and essays become more prescient and relevant every day; they are worthy of every attention. But the paintings? No. And the Baron recognized this himself and, to his credit, later dismissed Dada as decadence. His paintings, unfortunately, are ill-matched to his written ouevre. He dabbled in poetry as well - equally undistinguished. 

Senza titolo 1921

Composition No. 3.

Paesaggio interiore

For whatever reason, this is the Evola painting that takes the present author's fancy. Colour, composition, intensity. It is not entirely successful, but it is, all the same, almost musical. 

Nudo di donna (afroditica) - a painting with no redeeming qualities at all!

La libra s’infiamma e le piramidi

In this work we see the appearance of the alchemical symbol for sulphur. The painting itself has no great qualities. It is a completely undistinguished attempt at Dada abstraction. But it was in this period that Baron Evola began delving into esoteric symbolism. Thankfully, he turned away from painting and embraced esotericism instead. 

A Bunch of Flowers, 1918. There is, perhaps, something to be said for this composition. Lyricism, like Kandinsky. 

Paesaggio interire, aperture del diaframma 
(“Interior landscape, the opening of the diaphragm”

“Piccola tavola (vista superiore)” (“Small table (upper surface)”) 1920

Dadist composition (1920s)

There is perhaps something to be said for this composition as well. 

Portrait cubiste de femme, 1919-20

This is a genuinely horrid painting. Many of Evola's paintings are bland or contrived but some, such as this, are manifestly ugly. 


The Generator of the Universe. (What can one say about this? It is hard to believe that any follower of Rene Guenon could ever have painted such a thing!)

* * * 


Numerous posts to these pages feature or make mention of Mr Crowley, often in unflattering terms. The present author is clearly not a Thelemite (follower of Crowley’s ‘Law of Thelema’) and in fact has a suitable disdain for every effort Mr Crowley made to concoct a religion around himself. His so-called ‘Book of the Law’ is bunk and his creed of ‘Do what thou wilt’ is libertarian nonsense dressed up as ancient Egyptian profundity. Moreover, Crowley – diametrically contrary to his own inflated regard for himself - must rate as one of the worst poets in the English language. W. B. Yeats – one of the best – once quipped that Crowley had managed to write maybe three or four lines of decent verse. This is to be generous. Although, he was a very fine – and always entertaining – prose writer and his edifice of occultism can be seen as a remarkable creative endeavour in toto. He also turned his hand to painting, adopting a sort of expressionist style. Examples can be seen below. And, in fact, they are rather good. Of recent times they have attracted the attention of the art cognoscenti, and rightly so for they are quirky, mysterious, potent, raw, amongst other qualities. They illustrate the strength and power of Mr Crowley’s personality and his unique, though always dark, vision. 

Landscape with Coral & Jade Pagodas. One of Crowley's better paintings. 

May Morning. A typically macabre theme. Crowley wrote: "The painting represents the dawning of the day following a witches' celebration as described in Faust. The witch is hanged, as she deserves, and the satyr looks out from behind a tree."

The moon, study for the tarot. It is a great pity that Crowley did not complete a set of images for tarot designs. He later employed the services of Lady Freda Harris and instructed her to design his tarot cards, subsequently published as the 'Thoth' deck. Although Lady Harris' designs are widely admired, the present author finds them typical of a type of turgid modernism that is not to his taste. Crowley's own tarot paintings are somewhat more interesting and would have revealed much more of his magickal personality. 

Van Gogh-like expressionism. Despite being derivative, it is nonetheless a potent painting, a vision driven by the overtly phallic-solar cultus that Mr Crowley constructed around himself.

Self-Portrait. Like most self-depictions, this flatters him. He was actually a flabby Englishman wiuth beady eyes and a whiney high-pitched voice - here depicted as a phallic-headed hero from another dimension. 

Ladies of the Liberal Club

Crowley's vicious satires of middle-class respectability are always entertaining and incisive. (Read, for example, his short work entitled 'How to Fake Horoscopes'). He shows a piercing ability to stare into the empty pit of blank souls. In that respect, there is something to be said for this portrait of 'Ladies of the Liberal Club'. Such ladies populate liberal clubs to this day! 

The BABALON door. Many of Crowley's paintings remain on the doors and walls at his so-called 'Abbey of Thelema' in Cefalu, Sicily, which is today dilapidated and ramshackle. It is a pity - and quite remarkable - that no great effort has been made to preserve these works. 

* * * 


The Swiss-French Soofi religionist Monsieur Schuon was a trained fabric designer by profession, and so he brought a degree of artistic expertise to his painting lacking in the case of the two other completely amateur artists considered above. His work is more polished and technically competent, but also far less revealing for all of that. It is steady and controlled, iconographic rather than expressive. Schuon relocated to Bloomington Indiana in the 1980s to take up residence as pontificating guru to a community of well-to-do Americans. But he had always felt a strong affinity for the American native traditions, and the relocation brought him into contact with representatives of the Plains Indians. This becomes the central preoccupation of his paintings, with a particular emphasis on naked Indian girls rationalized as a metaphysical concern for the ‘Divine Feminine’. 

Schuon penchant for nudism led him into morally dangerous terrain, however, and he was, late in the piece, investigated for inappropriate dealings with minors. All charges were dismissed, but critics maintain that his well-to-do clientele used their wealth to rescue him from legal proceedings. There are, even so, photographs circulating privately on the Internet – always subject to legal threats by the same wealthy followers – of Monsieur Schuon and his various wives (vertical and horizontal) involved in some odd naked antics which suggest at very least that things became quite strange down there in Bloomington towards the end of his life. There is a stolid dignity in his paintings – a quality the present author admires – although it must be admitted that it is, all up, just a passable imitation of Gaugin (who also had a thing for the exotic flesh of native girls.) Some of the more explicit paintings of Schuon, which the present author has seen, and which betray a somewhat lurid eye are not easily found on the Internet (again because his followers keep a very tight control upon his legacy.) He is, finally, a painter of quasi-Amer-Indian icons with New Age appeal. 

It is surprising that there is so little Mohammadan content in his work, but it underlines the fact that, once in Bloomington, the interests of the self-initiated ‘Sheihk Jesus’ shifted increasingly to a neo-paganism of his own invention, complete with quasi-Indian rituals and pow-wows, and drifted further and further from any mainstream version of Soofism. The present author has been a reader of Schuon's works, and values them in many respects, and admires many of his paintings too. Like Evola and Crowley as well, Schuon fancied himself as a poet. Like them, his poems are terrible. 

The flatness and above all the silence of these works - well-rendered, it must be said - is strongly reminiscent of the works of Gaugin (with both artists showing a strong philosophical debt to Rousseau's "noble savage" ideology.)

Although not obvious in this work, Schuon's depictions of the horned elk are conceived as types of self-portraits. He took the elk as a "totem" in the Indian manner and the proud male elk guarding the females and young of the herd was Schuon's fantasy of his role as leader of his followers in Bloomington. There is a series of such works with this sub-text. 

Laylat al-Qadr. The Night of Power. One of the few overtly Mohammadan paintings in the oeuvre of Monsieur Schuon. He spent time in the company of Soofis in North Africa and through those associations later promoted himself as "Shayk Isa (Jesus)", although his credentials and claims to a genuine Soofi lineage are widely disputed. 

The Virgin Mary meets Pocahontas - a quintessentially Schuonian conflation. 

Schuon was a lover of the feminine, and should not be faulted for that. His depictions of the female form show great insight into feminine archetypes and the contemplative nature of female beauty. This, more than the "noble savage" theme, is one of the strongest recommendations for Schuon's paintings in the opinion of the present writer. 

* * * 


Harper McAlpine Black

No comments:

Post a Comment