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Part One of Dr. Nevill Drury’s long-awaited Dark Spirits: The Magical Art of Rosaleen Norton and Austin Osman Spare consists of three chapters elaborating upon the life, magical cosmology, trance magic, and occult visions the notorious (or, some might say, notoriously unknown) Australian visionary artist Rosaleen Norton (1917-1979).

Chapter One offers a thorough portrayal of the 62 years of life of Rosaleen Miriam Norton, known to her friends as ‘Roie’ – from her birth during a violent thunderstorm in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 02 October 1917, to her death at the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Hospice for the Dying at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, on 05 December 1979. Norton’s childhood and adolescence – including family life and school – are detailed and discussed, along with her love of animals (her many pets included “an assortment of cats, lizards, mice, guinea pigs, a possum, an echidna, a goat, tortoises, dogs, and various toads” – spiders too), her early creative urges, and eventual enrollment at East Sydney Technical College, where she studied art for two years under the tutelage of the noted sculptor and head of the art school, Rayner Hoff. In an article published in The Australasian Post during February 1957, Norton said of her mentor:

He [Hoff] freed me from routine and let me spend my time at figure drawing and composition … and since for the first time I was encouraged to work continuously at my own art form, I became an exemplary student.

Drury details Norton’s stint as a cadet journalist and art model; her marriage to Beresford Conroy and relationship with her frater philosophicus, the poet Gavin Greenlees; the controversial exhibition at the Rowden White Library at the University of Melbourne, and publication of Norton’s and Greenlees’ collaborative work, The Art of Rosaleen Norton; her run-ins with police and judiciary, including vagrancy charges, obscenity trials (one magistrate deemed Norton’s artworks “obscene and an offence to chastity and delicacy”) and censorship, and being falsely accused – on more than one occasion – of holding a ‘Black Mass’ at her flat in Sydney’s Kings Cross; her scandalous relationship with the English-born orchestral musician and conductor, Eugene Goossens, and flaunting of the popular image of herself as the ‘Witch of Kings Cross’ during the 1950s and 1960s; and her almost complete obscurity and physical decline during the 1970s.

Page spreads from Chapter One of Dark Spirits

Page spreads from Chapter One of Dark Spirits

Chapter Two delves into Norton’s magical cosmology, including how her assertion that she was born a witch – replete with a range of bodily peculiarities she equated with ‘witch marks’ – informed her personal and artistic development, magical practice, and her belief in Pan-as-All, the metaphysical being who, in her view, ruled the world. Of the development of her instinctual ritual desire, Norton once remarked:

If the Kingdom of Pan had always been with me, it had been mostly in the background, overlaid by what was called reality: Now it had begun to emerge and pervade the latter. Awareness grew stronger and stronger that the tedious world of childhood didn’t really matter, because this held the essence of all that called to my inmost being: Night and wild things and mystery; storms; being by myself, free of other people. The sense of some deep hidden knowledge stirring at the back of consciousness; and all about me the feeling of secret sentient life, that was in alliance with me, but that others were unaware, or afraid of, because it was unhuman. So my first act of ceremonial magic was in honour of the horned god, whose pipes are symbol of magic and mystery, and whose horns and hooves stand for natural energies and fleet-footed freedom: And this rite was also my oath of allegiance and my confirmation as a witch. I remember my feelings on that occasion well, and they are valid today: If Pan is the ‘Devil’ (and the joyous goat-god probably is from the orthodox viewpoint) then I am indeed a ‘Devil’ worshipper.

According to Drury:

Norton’s cosmology is based upon an understanding that Nature and the cosmos are innately sacred. Divinity is ‘divided’ into a number of gods and goddesses, and these ruling deities – headed by Pan – are able to exist and function in more than one dimension of reality. Norton’s concept of a hierarchy of spirits headed by Pan – ‘whose body … is the … Earth’ – is reminiscent of the ancient Gnostic archons who were thought to rule different regions of the heavens, while also maintaining governance of the Earth. Archons were celestial rulers – ‘gate-keepers’ guarding entry to the higher spheres – and their powers transcended and encompassed all aspects of human activity. In Norton’s conception, Pan equated with the totality of human experience and existence – although she expanded his reach to embrace the totality, or ‘ground’, of all being. In a sense Pan, for her, embodied and represented the furthest reaches of the sacred universe – extending to infinity in all directions. It is all the more remarkable that Norton began to develop this concept of Pan while she was still an adolescent …

Drury expounds upon the other ancient deities and supernatural entities that provided inspiration and guidance to Norton – prominent among them Hecate, Lilith and Lucifer, the latter in his role as ‘The Adversary’. The role that a number of other magical beings from different cultural traditions – such as Bucentauro, Eloi, Makalath, Fohat, Erzulie, the Dubouros, Val, Kephena, Borzorygmus, Mwystingel, and Trudgepig – played in Norton’s eclectic and idiosyncratic pantheon is discussed, as is her ‘Familiar Spirit-in-Chief’ Janicot (a being she knew by many different names, including the Monk, Frater Asmodeus and Brother Hilarian). Norton’s knowledge and experiences of the sephiroth and qliphoth – including her terrifying encounter with the Werplon entity – are considered alongside her experiments with self-hypnosis, trance states and magical techniques of invocation. Discussion of Norton’s concept of the magical universe also features prominently in the second chapter of Dark Spirits.

Page spreads from Chapter Two of Dark Spirits

Page spreads from Chapter Two of Dark Spirits

Chapter Three examines how Norton incorporated elements from her magical practice into her visionary art –from her early compositions which “drew more upon graphic styles associated with popular conceptions of ghouls, demons and disembodied spirits …” to her more artistically accomplished and ‘authentic’ (in the sense that her art drew increasingly upon her personal mystical and trance experiences) work of the late 1940s and early 1950s, to her “increasingly more lurid and garish” works “crudely executed in oils” during the 1960s and 1970s. This chapter alone features 15 of Norton’s artworks (including four in full colour) with extensive annotations, and Drury’s expertise as an author and publisher of books on contemporary art is apparent.

Page spreads from Chapter Three of Dark Spirits

Page spreads from Chapter Three of Dark Spirits

And where does Austin Osman Spare fit into all this? Part Two of Dark Spirits – consisting of three chapters devoted to Spare – will be described in a later post.

Some copies of Dark Spirits: The Magical Art of Rosaleen Norton and Austin Osman Spare remain available. Both the Deluxe Edition and the standard hardcover edition will be published on 05 December 2012 in order to coincide with the 33rd anniversary of Rosaleen Norton’s death.