Norman 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 called “Normitualism.”

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

  • Norman Lindsay Etchings by Daniel Thomas. Angus @ Robertson.
  • Norman Lindsay: the Embattled Olympian by John Hetherington. Oxford University Press.
  • The Art of Australia by Robert Hughes. Pelican Books.
  • My Mask by Norman Lindsay. Angus @ Robertson.
  • Letters and Liars by Johanna Mendelssohn. Angus @ Robertson.
  • Sirens and Satyrs. Sun Academy Series, with intro by Daniel Thomas.
  • Norman Lindsay on Art, Life @ Literature ed. by Keith Wingrove University of Queensland Press.
  • Norman Lindsay Website (Editorial warning: This site is luridly colored)
  • Norman Lindsay Gallery and Museum - official site (much more the thing - Rhea - Aaaahhh lovely!)


  • Cultural 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.
  • Uomo Universale means “Universal Man” or “man of many talents.”

Published in Australia  1984 - 1990
In Seattle & Sydney 1990-1994 - and Sydney/Seattle Webzine 1999
Copyright Shadoplay 2000. All rights reserved. 
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