The Neopagan art of Rosaleen Norton

Bacchanal

“Bacchanal”

A celebration of nature and sexuality from the Witch of King’s Cross

Something a little different from the usual fare one finds in my blogs.  I have been reading recently about New Zealander occultist and artist Rosaleen “Thorn” Norton.

Rosaleen Norton and "The Horned God"

Rosaleen Norton and “The Horned God”

Rosaleen Norton was born in October 1917 in New Zealand, although her family moved to Sydney, Australia, when she was seven years old.  From an early age Rosaleen was ‘different’.  Refusing to sleep indoors, she preferred her tent in the garden, where her sole companion, an orb spider, guaranteed a modicum of privacy most children are not privilege too (nothing wrong in that – I like spiders too).  Sleeping outdoors instilled a love of nature and the night which was to heavily influence Rosaleen’s life.  She spoke of visions of dragon, fairies, elementals and “daemonic” creatures.

Finding a talent for drawing, Rosaleen pursued classes in art, which due to the influences upon her life, soon got her into trouble.  A drawing inspired by the Danse Macabre of Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns so horrified her teachers at Chatswood Girl’s Grammar School that she was duly expelled as an immoral influence.  She won a place at East Sydney Technical College where two teachers, hearing of her expulsion from Chatswood, attempted to have her similarly expelled from the college.  The college head however stood behind Rosaleen and refused to expel her.

"Fohat"

“Fohat”

Rosaleen while at college moved out of home and into a hotel near Sydney’s Circular Quay, known locally as the “Buggary Barn”, which was a magnet for eccentrics, radicals and beatniks; or as Rosaleen would have it, “artists, writers, musicians and drunks”.  Soon afterwards however she moved to Darlinghurst, a run-down area near the city’s King’s Cross district, which was to be her home for years to come and where she was to produce some of her finest work.  Being a night person, an occultist, an artist, a freethinker, and already having discovered her sexuality as an out and open bisexual, Rosaleen immediately fitted into the King’s Cross atmosphere.

Rosaleen studied eastern religions and philosophies, and arcane and occult literature, including that of the founder of Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky, and the self-styled “Beast 666”, Aliester Crowley.  She dabbled in many things and claimed to have once achieved the Buddhist “trance of annihilation” – being in a trance for five days.  Other trances and occult rites were achieved with and without the use of hallucinogenic drugs.  These philosophies and occult beliefs resulted in some of the most wonderful pagan / witchcraft based sketches and watercolours ever seen.

"The Initiate"

“The Initiate”

Rosaleen’s art often brought her into conflict with the conservative Australian media, who dubbed her “The Witch of King’s Cross” and the authorities.  Her exhibitions were frequently raided and closed down and she was tried on a number of occasions for obscenity.  Indeed, so much were the establishment out to make an example of Norton, that when private photographs of her and her poet lover, Gavin Greenlees, having sex were stolen and the thieves attempted to sell them to the press, is was Norton and Greenlees who were tried and fined for producing obscene photographs.

Rosaleen Norton continued working unafraid of the authorities, giving interviews to the press, in which she tried to explain witchcraft and her devotion to Pan, while also allegedly supplementing her income by casting spells for some people.

Rosaleen Norton died of colonic cancer at the Sacred Heart Hospice in Darlinghurst, Sydney, in 1979.  A pagan and a witch to the end, her last words were reportedly “I came into the world bravely; I’ll go out bravely.”

"Goddess Lilith"

“Goddess Lilith”

Some may wonder why I, an atheist, should be at all interested in what amounts to religious art.  I sometimes wonder myself.  I would say however that just because one is an atheist, does not mean one cannot be impressed by some facets of religion.  I love the Beatitudes of Jesus Christ, but that does not make me a Christian, no more than admiring the strong stance against usury in the Qur’an makes me a Muslim.

Plus of course, one can appreciate art without necessarily believing the faith of the artist (or more frequently, who commissioned them).  I would love to see the Sistine Chapel to fully appreciate the beauty of Michelangelo’s frescoes, and I am deeply moved by the religious works of Leonardo da Vinci.  And of course, I just loved the way their minds worked, as I do that of Rosaleen Norton.

I must however admit to having a soft spot for pagan and wiccan beliefs, as they show reverence for nature, which they fully recognise can be kind and cruel in equal turn.  That facet of paganism has no need for religious fables – it works upon truths, even unsavoury ones.

Rosaleen Norton and 'familiar'

Rosaleen Norton and ‘familiar’

And of course, paganism never judges sexuality but rather celebrates and reveres it in all it’s forms.  You will never find a homophobic or transphobic pagan.  In fact, they are much more likely to actively bisexual.

These are the things which attract me to Rosaleen Norton’s work, where Pan, representing nature, and sexuality are often strongly prevalent.  What conservative Australia saw as obscene, I see it in the context Norton obviously intended; a celebration.

And in that celebration, we see that all sexuality in all forms is represented.  There are beautiful young men and women, as well as the elderly, hetero sex, gay, lesbian and bi sex, fantastic creatures with human bodies and animal heads.

Detail from "Bacchanal" - self portrait?

Detail from “Bacchanal” – self-portrait?

Indeed, it could even be claimed that trans people get a look in.  for at the top left of the watercolour Bacchanal, there is a beautiful woman with breasts – and sporting a penis and testicles.  Now look closer at this character, and you’ll see she has a striking resemblance to Rosaleen Norton herself.  This can only suggest that Norton saw herself as embracing both female and male sexual characteristics.  She may indeed have been a pansexual, capable of loving all sexualities and genders.

If such art can celebrate and never judge anyone for their sexuality, while at the same time recognising the truths of the light side and dark side of nature, then I for one say it deserves to be embraced, rather than shunned, no matter how uncomfortable that may make some people feel.

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