Lindsay (1879 - 1969) was one of Australia’s most controversial
artists. Often accused of “perverting the young,” “diabolism” and
“pornography,” Lindsay was really just somewhat ahead of his time
in promoting an aesthetic of a Greco-Australian Neo-Paganism. Most
people know about Norman Lindsay these days from the film Sirens,
although pleasant to watch Sirens was more of an excuse for nude
shots of “supermodel” Elle McPherson who played the part of one
of Lindsay’s artist’s models, than a really informative look at
one of Australia's most talented Neo-Pagan artists and personalities.
Of the handful of well known early 20th century Neo-Pagans which
Australia has to offer, names such as Rosaleen Norton, the artist
and notorious ‘Witch of King’s Cross,’ Sydney Long, a painter famous
for his Art Nouveau Arcadian scenes set in the Australian bush and
Norman Lindsay spring to mind as probably the most talented, radical
and interesting. Lindsay was the most prolific of these artists
and to think of him is to conjure up images of satyrs, maenads and
wild-eyed, lustful supernaturals congregating in an Australian landscape.
Lindsay has some claim to be the most forceful personality in the
Arts that Australia had ever seen. His energy was immense and his
talents spanned painting, drawing, watercolour, etching, art criticism,
polemics, philosophy, illustration, political cartooning, novels,
poetry, and writing for children. He even made model ships and sculpted
concrete fauns. A small man, full of nervous energy, passionately
honest, bird-like in looks, Lindsay worked with enormous intensity
and had a gift for swaying others with his conversation whose brilliance
was, after the flat discourse of the Art schools, thought to be
mesmeric. His home and studio situated in Springwood in the Blue
Mountains near Sydney was awash with a constant stream of visitors.
During the 1890's, Australian artists were constantly speculating
on what made up the soul of the Australian landscape. What spiritual
quality made the Australian bush unlike any other landscape? To
say the difference was one of vegetation, animals and climate was
a little mundane for these aesthetes. Instead they supposed it lay
in some sort of immaterial spirit, an allegorised essence of place
which could take physical form. The origins of this idea are in
the dark forests of Europe, which have always been inhabited by
monsters and nymphs, and when Australian artists began to see wood-sprites
bounding among the Eucalypts they were only responding to a favourite
subject of late 19th century European art and poetry. Nature ceased
to be a collective term for natural phenomena; it was personified,
acquired a capital N, feminine gender and a personality to match.
The bohemian artists had no time for the Heidelberg School which
was the mainstream painting genre. Because of the antipodean phenomena
of ‘Cultural Cringe’ they distrusted the idea of Australian painting
as provincial and stupid. Many artists who were influenced by the
current European painting trends became convinced that an Australian
Renaissance was going to take place in the full sense of the word:
a return to the modes and forms of Greco-Roman antiquity. Magically,
their painting smocks and hats were going to be transformed into
togas and bay-wreaths. “This is the last country on Earth where
Paganism can flourish naturally” they proclaimed.
Thus a remarkable renaissance in the civilisation of Australia took
place in the first quarter of this century and may be described
as an attempt to acclimatise the mythology of ancient Greece to
the Australian landscape and to make this a source of a movement
in art and poetry imbued with the spirit of classical Paganism.
The goat-footed god Pan was an incongruous figure frolicking around
the edges of Sydney whose setting those days, the Australian bush,
demanded some starker, grimmer, more archaic Aboriginal numen. The
movement to settle Pan and the nymphs, the dryads, fauns and satyrs
of Arcadia in the bushland around Sydney was too self-conscious
and contrived; it took no roots in the inhospitable soil and soon
died of inanition. Norman Lindsay was at the center of this movement
and he alone made something of it by inventing an imaginary, although
still Australian landscape for his classical creatures. It seemed
that wherever the Australian renaissance was heading, Norman Lindsay
as an uomo universale was leading it there.
Lindsay was born in Creswick, near Ballarat in Victoria to Methodist
parents, his grandfather had been a Methodist missionary in Fiji.
Norman was the middle child of ten children, both he and his older
brother Lionel, became vehemently anti-Christian as they got older,
probably as a result of their parents stodgy Methodism. The Greek
and Roman influence seems to have appeared in Norman’s teenage years
and there are many old photographs of the Lindsay teenagers dressed
in togas, rabbit skins or practically naked performing made-up versions
of classically inspired plays, posing theatrically for the camera
decked in leafy wreaths and the household curtains.
In later years Lindsay was a man of varied interests, Olympian mythology,
Spiritualism, the lost continent of Atlantis, sexuality, women and
nature all combined to form a unique and personal type of Paganism.
While he could be dogmatic in asserting his own doctrines, he was
an irreconcilable individualist and despised any ready-made tenets.
Norman was the last person to embrace any creed except one he evolved
for himself, his friends said (behind his back) that his creed was
Norman had what he described as his personal "Daemon" which spurred
him on in his persuits. "I am not implying occultism in my use of
that word 'Daemonic” he said. “Every mind which has given itself
to self-expression in art is aware of a directing agency outside
its conscious control which it has agreed to label 'inspiration'.
The Greeks had no doubt about its being an Entity as distinct from
the Ego. Poets are most aware of it.” Norman Lindsay's "Daemon"
is perhaps akin to what Robert Graves, author of The White Goddess
describes as the inspirational Muse.
Many Australians lost loved ones in World War One and turned in
droves to the popular practice of Spiritualism. Norman had lost
a younger brother, Reg, in the war and his father had also died
awhile earlier. He could not stand the idea of never seeing deceased
loved ones again and so spoke to his father and Reg frequently via
the Ouija Board. Reg would be asked to report on what interesting
people such as the British painter Turner were doing "behind the
veil" and Norman spent many hours with the planchette talking to
the beloved dead. Spiritualism lost its fascination for him in the
early 1920's, he even became embarrassed about it and in later life
would deny that he had ever had an interest in contacting the dead.
Lindsay had long accepted Plato's version of the Atlantean legend
and its appeal to his romanticism increased as he grew older. He
read everything he could on it. For him it was not only a lost world,
but the model of a perfect world, warm and languid and as different
from the actual world around him as was his joyous and resplendent
Olympus from a Methodist Heaven. Atlantis, according to Lindsay,
was destroyed by a man-made nuclear cataclysm around 20,000 years
ago, and the physical evidence of it lay buried hundreds of feet
beneath the floor of the North Sea. He did not doubt that within
fifty years or so archaeologists would bring to light incontrovertible
evidence that Atlantis had been a highly developed civilisation,
with nothing to learn technologically, from the 20th century. Norman
was however, most comfortable being down to Earth. "I'm uneasy away
from gumtrees and the good Earth" he said. Observers noted that
he treated trees like sacred beings, he revered trees; the Pagan
in him disliked seeing even some scrawny bushland fall under the
axe. When he built a studio at his Springwood property in the Blue
Mountains he altered the plans of it rather than let one gaunt and
straggly Eucalypt be chopped down.
Norman believed, with the primitive Greeks, that the Gods had come
down from Olympus in ancient times and begotten children on the
people of Earth. The blood of the Gods ran in the veins of this
race of Olympians and revealed itself in those acts of creativity
which set the great painters, sculptors, poets, musicians and writers
apart from and above the unblest "Earthmen". The events of World
War Two served to affirm Norman’s faith in his Gods, they were wise,
powerful and benevolent whereas the Christian God was a mischievous
invention of latter-day myth-makers and responsible for endless
human misery. The Sydney printer and publisher, Charles Shepard,
once suggested to Norman that he illustrate the Bible. "Oh no, no,
no, could'nt think of it Charlie" Norman replied, "Its a very dangerous
book, had a very bad influence." Lindsay believed that ascetic Christianity
was the enemy of all the things he himself stood for. He made his
opinion evident in his painting Pollice Verso. Howled down by critics
and most of the public as "anti-Christian, anti-social and degenerate,"
Norman replied that the work did not represent Christianity but
asceticism which he saw as anti-life. The offending painting consists
of a crucified male figure on a cross, in front of a crowd of typically
buxom Lindsay figures who are giving the Roman ‘thumbs down’ sign.
Lindsay believed that the best representation of his philosophy
was “Woman as the Creatress,” an attitude that inevitably got him
in trouble with what he called the "wowsers" for the rest of his
life. He explained his idea of woman thus, "When the first World
War ended, my mind was in a turmoil of emotions generated by it
and these had to find an outlet. I found it in a concept of life
dramatised by antithetical forces: energy versus inertia, conflict
between love and hate, light and darkness, creation and destruction.
In this concept the one assurance of continuity was the re-creation
of life which drives it on into the future, over all obstacles and
through all infernos. For the central symbol of that conflict I
chose the image of femininity." Lindsay makes the essential connection
between this principle of continuity (sex) in life and the creative
impulse in art; one is the source of the other. “Sex is not only
the basis of life, it is the reason for life.”
When discussing the public's reaction to his work Norman had this
to say, "We know that the puritanic hatred of life has only one
taboo; the glorification of the sex-function. Degrade it, spit at
it, make a joke of it, brutalise it, falsify it, evade it and mob
morality will approve. But lyricise it, love it, bring to its creation
in art a passionate intensity and the mob will crucify you or try
to." He despised what he called the "Witch-burning furies of the
mass mind" and responded to this kind of hypocritical attitude with
his painting Crucified Venus which represented life and vitality
crucified on the cross of denial and "wowserism." The Crucified
Venus also featured in the film Sirens as the distasteful work Hugh
Grant as the Pastor was supposed to dissuade Norman from exhibiting.
Many of Lindsay’s artworks have a strong sense of propaganda and
satire in favour of, and as a celebration of sexual joy. They display
an attitude of defiance against the taboos and repressions of established
religion and custom of the period. Lindsay portrayed his nymphs
and satyrs with a grace and naturalness which was said by admirers
to rival the ancients. Although people made a fuss of it, his art
was actually very popular, it was an efficient and genteel mode
of libido-release. His technical excellence was much admired and
no Australian surpassed his technique as an etcher, he manipulated
watercolour well and his pen drawings were very skilful. There were
no signs of erect male penises in his works, yet he was still reviled
in some quarters as a pornographer, a pervert and a diabolist!
Commenting on ribaldry as being a fact of human life he said, “Among
the Romans, save only for the cold and academic Virgil, there is
not one poet or prose writer who does not use its freed imagery
wherever a theme calls for it. All of them, Catallus, Horace, Ovid,
Martial, Juvenal, Apuleius, Petronius would have regarded a ban
put on such a salient aspect of the spectacle of life as a rank
absurdity, which it is. That ban arrived with the blight of Christianity,
with its priestly hatred of the body and its obscene obsession with
sin which spread a dark miasma of joylessness over all experience
which makes life worth living. Life became a penalty inflicted on
man for being the thing he is, and which he was designed to be by
the construction of his being. A writer who presents men and women
as creatures truncated below the waist is exposed as one who goes
about without his trousers saying, ‘see, I have had my testicles
removed.’ I am fanatic enough to believe that my thought is something
the world needs.”
Lindsay believed that the dramatisation of creative energy was what
the female body was all about. Paying tribute to his wife and chief
artist’s model, Rose, he said, “As the feminine was the central
motif of my work, she dramatised it for me in the flesh under terms
which involved me in all its emotional complexities, lyrical and
demoniacal. A fairly severe ordeal for both of us at times but for
me a prime essential to a concept of life which accepts sex as its
principle of continuity in space and time, which has neither beginning
nor ending, but which is eternal.”
In the past, the myth of Norman Lindsay as the artistic hero who
saved Australia from “wowsers” was an important one. Australia needed
a deity to descend from Olympus to free it from suburban respectability.
But now that the pubs open on Sunday, sex is no longer linked exclusively
with marriage and art knows no rules Lindsay may seem a bit out
dated and his representations of women may appear less than politically
correct. Yet as an inspiration to the contemporary Neo-Pagan movement,
Norman Lindsay deserves to be revered as a champion of individuality,
freedom of religion and an enthusiastic Goddess worshipper. To let
him have the last word, “If anyone assumes that going one's own
way is the easy way, they are very much in error. There's no harder
way to go.”
Suggested Further Reading
Lindsay Etchings by Daniel Thomas. Angus @ Robertson.
Lindsay: the Embattled Olympian by John Hetherington. Oxford
Art of Australia by Robert Hughes. Pelican Books.
Mask by Norman Lindsay. Angus @ Robertson.
and Liars by Johanna Mendelssohn. Angus @ Robertson.
and Satyrs. Sun Academy Series, with intro by Daniel Thomas.
Lindsay on Art, Life @ Literature ed. by Keith Wingrove University
of Queensland Press.
(Editorial warning: This site is luridly colored)
Lindsay Gallery and Museum - official
site (much more the thing - Rhea - Aaaahhh lovely!)
Cringe is a recognised Australian phenomena which manifests in
Australians being embarrassed about our brief 200 year history,
apparent lack of worldly sophistication and “Ocker” image. Examples
in the Neo-Pagan community are the need to be validated by “correct”
or British Pagan traditions.
Universale means “Universal Man” or “man of many talents.”