The Occluded Life of an “Occult” Photographer

William Mortensen touching up a photo portrait of the actress Jean Harlow. Other photos NSFW.

If a phrase like “famous early twentieth century California photographer” makes you think of Edward Weston or Ansel Adams, then you probably have not heard of William Mortensen, known “as ‘the Antichrist’ by Ansel Adams, a tag that stuck after Anton LaVey dedicated The Satanic Bible to him. Primarily known as a Hollywood portrait artist, he developed a myriad of pre-Photoshop special effects to craft grotesque, erotic, and mystical images.”

Publicizing a new book of his photos, Vice offers “The Grotesque Eroticism of William Mortensen’s Lost Photography.”

His life remained a mystery. I had absorbed A. D. Coleman’s essay about Mortensen’s relegation to the backwater of photo history by the Newhalls, Adams and the rest, and, thus understood why there was little mention of him in photo history books. I’d even tracked down the booklet printed by Deborah Irmas and The Los Angeles Center for Creative Photography, who had put together the show that I’d seen. However, when I found any biographical information, the sources repeated the same story line, which came from the brief autobiographical section in Mortensen’s book The Command To Look. Beyond those slim facts there seemed to be nothing more. William Mortensen appeared to be more myth than man.

Would we say that Chicago photographer and occult historian Rik Garrett is somewhat in his lineage?

Marion Zimmer Bradley, Greenpeace, and the Donatists

Back in the 4th century CE, Western Christianity had a problem. During the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, which began in 303 and was severe in some areas, some Christian clergy in the Berber communities of North Africa had surrendered copies of Scripture and otherwise complied with the emperor’s edicts.

When Diocletian was replaced by the pro-Christian Constantine, the hold-outs who had resisted the persecution denounced the first group as impure. Led by a bishop named Donatus, they argued that clergy who had followed imperial orders were sinners who could no longer baptize or celebrate the Eucharist.

But the bishops in Rome, busy hitching the Christian church to the imperial chariot, said no, it’s all good. Or in Latin, ex opere operato, meaning that even if the priest is a sinner, the sacrament is still valid because it comes from God.

I heard this argument from an environmentalist friend yesterday in regard to the news stories about the European Greenpeace executive who commutes to work twice a week by airplane, even as Greenpeace itself campaigns against air travel.

“This kind of bad-example-setting undercuts the message,” I said.

“The organization’s work is still more important,” she said. Ex opere operato. Or as another Catholic once said, “The church may be a whore, but she is still our mother.”

I thought about the Donatists when the news broke last March about well-known Pagan musician Kenny Klein’s arrest on child-pornography charges.  Am I now supposed to smash my Fishbird CD and delete those tracks from my iPod? Or can I say, “Ex opere operato“?

Now it’s Marion Zimmer Bradley. That her husband Walter Breen was an aggressive pedophile is old news. But now the finger points at her: it’s all summed up here.

So who is throwing away their copies of The Mists of Avalon? Or is there an escape clause for artistic works? Is the creative act the equivalent of a religious sacrament? Must we judge the creation according to the morals of the creator or may we invoke the religion of Art: ex opere operato?

Oh yeah, Greenpeace executive Pascal Husting will now take the train, it is said. He made a “misjudgment.” But read the  comment st the Guardian website by “E McBain”: it sounds like one rule for the clergy and one for the rest of us.

Beavering Away at Home

beaver ponds10-13Once in a while, I like to note that Hardscrabble Creek is a real place. The beaver pair had kits this year, and they also expanded their dams from two to five. A couple of years ago, they left because they had eaten all the available deciduous forage, mostly narrowleaf cottonwood and willows. Will the rising water table encourage more beaver-edible trees to grow? (They don’t eat pines.) Can they keep expanding their string of dams upstream?

And here are some links:

¶ At Occult Chicago, Rik traces sites associated with Thee Church of Satan in the 1970s.

¶  Artforum notes the recent Occult Humanities Conference: Contemporary Art and Scholarship on the Esoteric Traditions.

¶ Anton Lavey’s daughter Zeena describes how her Halloween experience when she was a little girl living with her father, the founder of the Church of Satan.

For the first quarter century of my life, back when I was the devil’s defender, Halloween wasn’t the fun and merriment it was for many others.

¶ Oh no! I bought the Halloween candy, but I forgot to pray over it!

St. Georgia, Maker of Art, Pray for Us

St. Georgia (Wikipedia).

Here in the city whose patron is St. Francis (more about that later), I keep thinking that the new pope of the same name might as well go ahead and canonize — or at least beatify —  Georgia O’Keeffe.

Yes, there are some obstacles. For one, she was not Roman Catholic, not particularly Christian at all. But what a move to bring more of the bourgeois bohemians into the fold it would be!

Consider the devotion that she inspires.

Walking down Grant Street the other day, I could see little flocks of pilgrims (mostly female, mostly of a certain age) streaming off the streets around the plaza, headed for her shrine.

That shrine, meanwhile, is merely part of an entire O’Keeffe complex, where the pilgrim may enrich her life with programs and lectures on memoir-writing,  “art & leadership for adults,” plein-air pastel drawing, “O’Keefe’s language of forms,”  and many other sacred subjects.

Advanced initiates might seek a stipend in American modernism.

Many single women move to the little town of Aibquiu, a Santa Fe acquaintance tells me, where one may for a fee tour just part of O’Keeffe’s home there: the living room, kitchen, and pantry only, I am told. Have any of them experienced miracles? That would help the sainthood application clear a major hurdle.

Her other home, Ghost Ranch, has functioned as a spiritual retreat center for many years.  (It is owned by Protestants, which could be a problem. But no matter.)

Her followers look to her for lessons on the art of living and even study her rather plain menus for guidance on how an artist eats.

While her cultus already provides an economic lift to the old provincial capital, beatification or canonization would certainly increase that even more.

Just tell the bishops to keep their distance. Otherwise, it’s a win-win situation. Are you listening, Holy Father?

A Quick Encounter between Fire and Thunder

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Jekabs Bine (1895–1955) “Perkons (Thunder),” 1941. Oil on canvas, 53 x 65 cm.
The Janis Rozentals Saldus History and Art Museum, Latvia.

The next issue of The Pomegranate will include a special section on the revival of Paganism in Latvia, a revival that blossomed in that Baltic nation’s first period of independence, 1917–1940, or between the Russian Revolution, which released Latvia from the old empire, and the beginnings of World War II, when the small nation was scooped up first Soviet Union, then by the Third Reich and then by the Soviet Union again, a crushing embrace that lasted until 1991.

I was partway through layout on an article by the Latvian art historian Kristine Ogle on Pagan themes in Latvian art before World War II, when M. came in from the veranda, saying that she could hear the emergency siren from down the valley.

Drop editor persona, assume volunteer firefighter persona.  Over my clothes I put on my “wildland interface” jacket and pants, since the sheriff’s dispatcher was saying this was a report of smoke, not a structure fire. I grabbed pack, radio, helmet, and was off, soon to be driving one of our brush trucks (wildland engines) up a county road that might lead to the site. But nothing.

Eventually we ended up with another firefighter and me in the brush truck, two more following in personal vehicles, a sheriff’s deputy, and an engine from the Bureau of Land Management. We split up to investigate different muddy ranch roads — still nothing. So after an hour, we called it off.

It had already hailed briefly in the morning, and soon after I came home, another little thunderstorm went through. So it seemed reasonable not to worry too much, not this week. People are still jumpy after the fire last October that took out 15 houses near mine—a wisp of low-hanging cloud might have looked like smoke.

Back at my computer, I continued where I had left off on the article. I had been just about to place a graphic in the file, and you can see it up above — the god of thunder.

Thunder has been much in evidence today here in the Wet Mountains, but given the painting’s date, you have to wonder if the dark clouds over the peaceful Latvian farmstead were more than thunderheads.

Some Items of Interest

Some Pagan, occult, and academic news items of interest:

• I did not know that any of the “Group of Seven” were Theosophists — plus other influential Canadian Pagans and occultists in one list.

• “Unintended Consequences of the Affordable Health Care Act” for part-time college and university faculty. In other words, schools are reacting to Obamacare by cutting the hours of adjunct professors.

• I have been saying for ten years (!) that we need more Pagan biography and autobiography. So I was glad to read in The Wild Hunt that Deborah Lipp has written one.

• The Hopi tribal government is upset over an upcoming French auction selling some of their sacred masks. NAGPRA is no help internationally.

Historians say many Hopi artifacts were taken long ago by people who found them unattended in shrines and on altars along the mesas of the Southwest

Because if a shrine does not have a full-time caretaker, it must be “abandoned.” The “vanishing Indian” and all that.

This is interesting too; the American government will help foreign countries recover their artifacts here, but does not protect ours over there:

When a nation like Italy or Cambodia claims ownership of an object in the United States, it typically invokes international accords that require American officials to take up the cases. The Justice Department, for example, recently sent two lawyers to Cambodia as part of an effort to help that country seize an ancient statue that Sotheby’s planned to auction in New York.

The United States does not have similar accords that it could cite in support of the Hopi claim on the Paris auction items. Several experts and activists said the United States had never viewed its own cultural patrimony as a priority because the country is relatively young, has long embraced the concept of free trade and has not historically focused on the cultural heritage issues of American Indians.

Read the rest. Continue reading

The Young Woman Who Personified Everything

Back when it was a print zine and not an (all too irregular) blog, John Yohalem’s Enchanté had some articles on “gods of the city”—architectural and sculptural representations of the Olympian deities and other Neoclassical figures.

Somewhere in there, perhaps, were sculptures based on a young woman named Audrey Munson.

Dreamy and pale, slender and softly curved, Audrey played muse to a generation of New York City sculptors at the turn of the 20th century. Her undraped figure still graces Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum and the Municipal Building. Though she tried to translate her beauty to the new medium of film, her career ended suddenly as Modernism — and her 30s — arrived. . . .

Audrey Munson

Audrey Munson

She was asked to personify, among other notions, memory, peace, abundance, mourning, industry, beauty, and America. Her statues still dot her city, from the Firemen’s Memorial in Riverside Park to the Brooklyn Museum. Daniel Chester French, sculptor of “Memory” and later of Lincoln for the president’s Washington, D.C., memorial, called her ethereal. For fame’s sake, Audrey withstood sucking air through a tube while being cast in plaster, dousings with cold water for a piece called “Waterfall,” and endless hours of painful posing. But she seemed at ease unclothed. And despite spending so many hours naked in the company of men, she was often portrayed in news stories as a simple girl-next-door who lived with her mother, a beguiling naïf who said things like, “Why clothes anyhow?”

The rest of her life was not so good.

 

Abstract Expressionism, Cool Jazz, and the CIA

No. 5, 1948, by Jackson Pollock

No. 5, 1948, by Jackson Pollock (Wikipedia)

This is not a new topic, but many people still do not realize how much the Central Intelligence Agency, through various fronts (cooperative or fake foundations, for example), influenced the artistic movements during the peak of the Cold War years—the 1950s and 1960s.

For example, Abstract Expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock got huge boosts  through important exhibitions and other patronage.

Why? The Soviet Union, like Nazi Germany before it, officially disapproved of non-representational art. In that government’s view, non-representational art was morally degenerate—in other words, insufficiently propagandistic.

But we in the freedom-loving United States championed Abstract Expressionism and made it almost official in our towers of government and commerce, to the point where even people who did not like the style knew that it was High Art and above criticism.

Likewise jazz. There was no point in competing with the Soviet Union in the realm of classical music—their system identified talented musicians and ballet dancers young and trained them rigorously. They sent the best of the best on international tours, and the only problem was that sometimes the talent ran away (see, e.g., Mikhail Baryshnikov).

Soviet dissidents listened to jazz, so it was programmed on the Voice of America. And sending top American jazz musicians on world tours showed that we valued free artistic expression, etc. etc. and also, incidentally, that not all American Negroes were oppressed, an accusation frequently made by Soviet critics. We did also play up composers whom the Soviets did not like, such as Shostakovich.

It’s not exactly The Da Vinci Code, but sometimes there are indeed conspiracies behind world events.

It has always seemed to me that modern jazz began to lose its coolness cachet in the 1980s, and I cannot but think that such a loss was connected to the “winning” of the Cold War and the loss of secret funding. Abstract Expressionism has faded too, although whether the loss of secret support matters as much as the faddishness of the art world, I cannot say.

The City Dionysia in Colorado Springs.

“Just when you thought you knew what Colorado Springs was all about,” commented a poster on one of the Colorado Pagan email lists.

It was the City Dionysia festival, complete with a performance of Euripides’ The Bacchae.

There is, of course, a Facebook page, where you can see some photos.

I missed it by going camping, an homage to a different god. Maybe next year.

You have to admit that this event nicely counters the usual “Fort God” image that is commonly encountered.

Magical Women

A series of portraits by British Columbia artist Linda Macfarlane, some of individuals in the Western occult tradition (e.g. Maud Gonne), others of representative types. (The Wikipedia entry, however, skips over Gonne’s involvement with ceremonial magic.)

Via The Galloway Chronicles.

UPDATE: As discussed in the comments, Geocities is gone, and so is this site.