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Blondie's Chris Stein Shares His Favorite Artist/Magicians

Blondie founding member and guitarist Chris Stein offers a primer on his favorite occult artists, including Vali Myers, H. R. Giger, Rosaleen Norton, Aleister Crowley, and more.

by Chris Stein
Jul 15 2015, 9:30pm

Vali Myers. 'Moby Dick' (1972–74)

Back in May, I did an interview with Nick Gazin for VICE about my associations with the late Swiss artist and Alien visionary H. R. Giger. This brought up something I had been thinking about in relation to Giger, which was the theme of the artist/magician. That is, people who identified to varying degrees with the world of magic or magick, or otherwise identified themselves as magicians and used some aspect of traditional art to help link their inner visions to an external reality.

Since my days of dealing with transcendent chemicals, I have always had a fascination with internal patterns and archetypes. A lot of these forms are the province of both psychology and ceremonial magic. In voodoo or voudon, the aspects of the human personality are represented by the different spirits or "Loa." The Loa are each associated with a specific glyph (graphic design, sigil) or "Veve." If you're curious, please see the best book on voodoo, Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. In fact, Deren herself could be on the list here, I'm now realizing.

As far as the relation between magic and rock music, my old colleague Gary (Valentine) Lachman covers some of this ground in his recent book Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World.

The following list of my favorite artist/magicians is just a simple primer, since magic is a large and nebulous topic. Please, people who know about this stuff, don't face-palm yourselves to death for my lack of detail. This is just a scratch on the surface made for those who aren't yet familiar. I generally say I am an optimistic person, and optimism and "visualizing" one's goals and desires are closely linked. So maybe, in that small extent, I have always been a practitioner, too.

Anyway, here we go:

H. R. Giger in the early 80s. Photo by the author

H. R. Giger (19402014)

Giger's graphics emanated from his dreams and visionary states, and from what I got to see of him, he lived the life of a magician—a combination of asceticism and sensuality. He was meticulous, and his work was subject to a rigid self-imposed perfectionism. The elements of a drawing were so specific for him, it was as if they were parts of a formula. I'm sure he dipped into universal archetypal symbols, which is one reason why Alien resonates with everyone, and why his images are so oddly familiar and foreign at the same time.

'Promethea' #9 by Alan Moore

Alan Moore (b. 1953)

Moore is a writer and self-proclaimed magician. He is well-known for his various comic and graphic story lines: Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and so on. Moore was also inspired by early-life psychedelic experiences. His great series Promethea, drawn by our buddy J. H. Williams III, is the story of a female superhero who exists on several dimensions and whose task is to deliver the apocalypse. In it, Moore and J. H. reference Austin Spare and the history of Western magic. Moore's new novel, Jerusalem, is supposed to arrive at around a million words and be published next spring.

Austin Osman Spare. Portrait of Aleister Crowley

Austin Osman Spare (18861956)

Spare is a fascinating character. I used to frequent an occult bookshop on West 19th Street in New York City called the Magickal Childe. The bookstore, which closed in 1999, and its owner Herman Slater are worthy of note—the store is described on Herman's Wikipedia page as "a major focal point of the neopagan community in the 1970s and well into the 1990s." Pretty cute.

Anyway it was there, in I guess the late 70s, that I first started seeing cheaply done pamphlet versions of Spare's works. The first I saw was Earth Inferno (1905). Initially I was knocked out by his calligraphy, which works with sigils and "automatic" drawings. Spare remained pretty obscure for years. It was the internet that brought him a wider appreciation. (In spite of his obscurity, I understand that Jimmy Page assembled over the years a fantastic collection of major Spare pieces.) Spare was something of a child prodigy but soon enough developed an interest in theosophy, the writings of Madame Blavatsky, and so on. He also claimed to have been involved in his youth with an older woman, a Mrs. Patterson, who was descended from the Salem witches. She seduced him and taught him some magic. (It's debatable whether or not she actually existed.)

Austin Osman Spare. Portrait of Aleister Crowley

Spare was also briefly involved with Crowley but came to disdain the ceremonial magicians of his time as phonies. He developed his own personal magical philosophy referred to by some as Zos Kia Cultus, an early form of chaos magic. (One of my favorite books on chaos magic is Peter J. Carroll's Liber Null & Psychonaut, which heavily references and explains Spare's Zos Kia ethos.) Spare lived in London and was bombed out of his home during the war. I've seen Spare's graphic ability compared to Dürer's. His work was fantastic, but he is still relatively unknown. He was busy with spirits and materializations until his death.

If you're interested, there is a really epic biography by Phil Baker called

Austin Osman Spare: The Life & Legend of London's Lost Artist. I can't recommend it enough. It's a real labor of love.

Aleister Crowley. 'The Sun (Auto Portrait)' (1920)

Aleister Crowley (1875–1947)

In spite of his major stamp on the history of magick, and with apologies to the Thelemites, his graphic work is pretty weak compared with the others mentioned here.

His work borders on trends in "outsider" art, and that makes me digress here into the case of:

Henry Darger. Detail from 'Untitled (Idyllic Landscape with Children).' At the American Folk Art Museum

Henry Darger (18921973)

Darger only fits in here in as a fringe player since in all probability he didn't identify himself as a magician. But he created a vast pantheon dedicated to a personal internal world wherein he obviously dwelt while shunning society. In addition to his drawings of an endless war that involved children fighting evil authoritarian overlords, he wrote about weather conditions, storms that must have mirrored his tumultuous internal states.

Rosaleen Norton. 'Lucifer and the Goat of Mendes'

Rosaleen Norton (1917–1979)

Norton, one of my favorites, was an Australian artist and occultist. I recall going to Australia in the mid 70s for the first time and feeling I was in a sort of time warp back to perhaps the late 50s or early 60s. So I can only imagine the controversy over Norton's images of demons and sexuality that arose there in the actual 40s and 50s. She was dubbed the "Witch of Kings Cross" by the media. In 1949–50, a gallery that she was showing in was raided by police who confiscated several of her paintings as being obscene. Norton was actually tried but won the case and was awarded four pounds as compensation by the police. I think I actually ran into her work on one of our early Australian jaunts. We used to stay at the old Sebel Townhouse in Sydney, which was very close to Kings Cross. The hotel had a great vibe (it's gone now), and I heard the story of a man staying in an upper room for several months accompanied by a goat. There was a super funky little shop on the corner of the block that sold big reproductions of her paintings. I still have some of them.

Vali Myers. Photo by Eva Collins. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Vali Myers (1930–2003)

I was really really lucky to have known Vali for a time in the 80s and 90s. Vali was an visionary Australian artist and dancer. She left Australia early on and moved to Paris where she lived on the Left Bank in the intense 1950s. Her associations are numerous. One of my favorites is with Tennessee Williams, who based characters in his play Orpheus Descending (later filmed as The Fugitive Kind with Brando) on Vali. One of the play's leads, Val Xavier (Brando in the film) is, I'm sure, based on her as well as the character of Carol, played by Joanne Woodward, in the film.

Here is a description of Carol from an old 50s playbill production of

Orpheus:

When I was a kid in the 60s, I saw flyers around the village for a film called Vali, the Witch of Positano, and I was fascinated by her image. At that time I was just starting to be a fan of Kenneth Anger's films (Anger should also be on the list), and Vali reminded me of characters seen in his Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Eventually, she began staying at the Chelsea Hotel in the city. Since she knew everyone, it was only a matter of time until I ran into her in the street and said hello. She invited me over to her hotel room without any hesitation, and we remained friends until her death.

Vali's artwork was, like Giger's, very precise, and she would spend sometimes years on a single, detailed drawing. I know she was drawing from dream and trance states as well as creating a visual universe that she inhabited. Vali told me she had known Rosaleen Norton. Vali stayed away from Australia for many years, but when she finally returned, she was embraced there. I hadn't seen her for several years since her return to Australia, but finally I spoke to her while she was in a Melbourne hospital, near the end. When I asked how she was doing, she said, "I'm fine, love—except for dying." She had heard I was about to become a dad and was very pleased with that. Our younger daughter is named Vali.

So this was a short list of some of my favorite artist/magicians. Great art is both an external object and internal dialogue. These people have all helped to forge paths into dimensions that are not what humanity deals with on a daily basis. For me, these realities surround us. We just sometimes need a bit of guidance in seeing or getting to them. On here could also be Bill Burroughs, Bosch, Goya, maybe Francis Bacon, etc. I'd urge you to make your own lists and keep searching for magic.

Chris Stein was a founding member and guitarist in Blondie. For more of his art, check out his Instagram.