Women Artists, Surrealism, & The Occult

Nadia's Book

Published by Mandrake of Oxford, the ideas in Nadia Choucha’s thought-provoking book, Surrealism & the Occult, are many and rich and strange, not least the proposal that Surrealism and the Occult are bedfellows, inextricably linked.

“It is necessary to admit,” said the surrealist poet Benjamin Peret, “that a common denominator unites the sorcerer, the artist and the madman, which is none other than Magic.”

Practitioners noted the analogy between surrealist art and philosophy, and alchemy: after centuries of “domestication and insane resignation”  the imagination was being liberated by a “long, immense, reasoned derangement of the senses” (André Breton, quoting poetic prodigy Arthur Rimbaud.)

Max Ernst notes his first contact with the occult, magic and witchcraft and writes in his diary after WWI, how he died at the start of the war and “resuscitated” when the war ends “a young man aspiring to become a magician and to find the myth of his time.”

The author also introduces women surrealists, usually overlooked or ignored in other books on the subject, quoting Whitney Chadwick:

“The male definition of woman as a muse or intermediary is not an appropriate image for the creative woman.”

As Leonora Carrington remarked in 1983, looking back over her long life:

“I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse . . . I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”

Leonora & Max

The territory Nadia Choucha explores is almost too large for its 126 pages. Nevertheless it’s a must-read for all those interested in the subject and the often hidden connection between Surrealism and the Occult. Despite its apparent accessibility and popularity (or perhaps because of . . . ?), historically the book – and, by extension, the author herself – have come in for a lot of pretty full-on criticism, from academics and self-appointed experts in both the territories of Occultism and Surrealism . . .

Of course, the way we see it the problem is one of what exactly is meant when we attempt to talk about “surrealism?”

According to that fount of all online wisdom, Wikipedia:

Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for its visual artworks and writings. The aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”


That prime-mover and self-appointed Pope of Surrealism, André Breton, had been inspired  initially after the coining of the term ‘surrealist’ by his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Breton made an attempt to define what he meant in the first Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924:

Dictionary: Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.

Encyclopedia: Surrealism. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.

Valentine Hugo

It could be argued that Surrealist with a capital ‘S’ refers specifically to members of a formal group, or its acknowledged descendants and offshoots, most of which are limited to or bound by an historical, chronological, context. It is to be remembered that from this point of view, numerous exemplars, such as those arch-Surrealists Antonin Artaud, Salvador Dali (and, to a lesser extent, figures like the very young Brion Gysin) ceased to be Surrealists the minute they were expelled – one is tempted to say excommunicated – by Breton.

The Other possibility is that we think of surrealists – with a small ‘s’ – as those artists and writers who are attempting to apply such principles as were being set forth in the Surrealist Manifestos all those years ago . . .

Sleeping Women Surrealists

As well as the many-and-varied selection of books about individual artist-practitioners – such as Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Ithell Colquhoun, Leonora Carrington, and even Eileen Agar – without doubt one of the definitive texts has got to be Professor Whitney Chadwick’s Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (Thames & Hudson.) It was originally published in 1985 as a large-format hardback, just right for coffee table adornment, with one of Kay Sage’s brooding images on the cover; then there was a second edition in 1991, both in hardback and paperback, only this time with one of Frida Kahlo’s distinctive self-portraits on the cover.

WC, Women Surrealists

Also worth mentioning is The Esoteric Secrets of Surrealism: Origins, Magic, and Secret Societies, by Patrick Lepetit (new out from Inner Traditions/Bear & Co), and we are reliably informed that Dr. Leon Marvell has an excellent piece on Alchemy and Surrealism in the anthology Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (edited by Aaron Cheak, and published by our friends at Numen Books, whose other titles include the anthology Occult Traditions.)


The Occult Conference 2014: A New Beginning

TOC2014 banner

With Organs of the Body of God, it felt like The Occult Conference had both come of age and come home.

In a spirit of Renewal befitting the Vernal Equinox, this last weekend’s Occult Conference 2014 – held in the Assembly Rooms in the heart of Glastonbury, clearly a setting it was always meant to find its way to – was a new beginning, and showed the promise of taking things to the next level.

Effectively ‘under new management’ after passing on from previous organisers, The Occult Consultancy, TOC2014 was put together by Sef Salem, described on the website as a “local occultist and leader of the OTO group in Glastonbury.” Although it is certainly true that he was ably assisted by Brothers and Sisters from Calix Sanctus OTO Camp, this was by no means an ‘official OTO show’ or restricted to any one group or tradition. With the range of stalls (including Scarlet Imprint, Midian Books, and The Atlantis Bookshop) and volunteers, and the line-up of presentations, speakers, and workshops, a number of different currents were represented. The coming together of such a wide range of seekers, students & practitioners – whether calling themselves esotericists, hermeticists, magicians, mystics, occultists, pagans, shamans, or witches – gave a real sense of both the rich diversity and yet at the same time the common ground to be found in the broader Occult Community. Hats off to All for a sterling effort!

The Assembly Rooms, Glastonbury

Proceedings were opened by our genial host, OTO Body Master and Gentleman of Jupiter, Sef Salem, welcoming everybody, clarifying some necessary points for the day concerning running order, lunch-break, and fire-safety, before saying a few words about the general vision behind the Conference: that despite belonging to different groups, coming from different traditions, or following different paths, in effect we are all cells that can come together to form Organs of the Body of God.

The first Talk was by Damh the Bard, an accomplished singer, storyteller and magician, who clearly draws on his experience as an entertainer and performer. Lively and engaging, he was a good choice to get things underway. A longstanding initiate of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, Damh spoke with obvious passion and conviction, mixing history, humour, mythology, and poetry, as he told us of his journey from teenage Black Sabbath fan encountering Pan via Hammer Horror, to a study of Hermetic and Ceremonial magic – plus a chance encounter with a harpist along the way – to eventually exploring and embracing what he sees as the native religious heritage of Albion, “the Island of the Mighty.”

For more information on OBOD, see: http://www.druidry.org/

Next up was Andy Cooper, speaking as the founder of Helios School of Esoteric Science. He also began with a personal account of how he “came to the Mysteries” – firstly learning about Shamanism in Hawaii, later studying with and being initiated by Dolores Ashcroft Nowicki. Andy describes Helios as “a school and order in the Dion Fortune British Magical Tradition … combining Qabalah, the wisdom of Egypt and the ancient Arthurian Traditions” – but it has to be said, we got little sense of what that might actually entail from his presentation.

For more information on Helios School, see: http://www.helios-school.com/


After lunch, proceedings resumed with Nikki Wyrd, speaking on behalf of the Illuminates Of Thanateros, of which she is currently British Isles Section Head. Being able to renew yourself has always been a secret of longevity, and as the foremost representatives of Chaos Magic the IOT perhaps know this better than most. A sample observation of Nikki’s that certainly seemed resonant with the notion of ‘Organs of the Body of God’ (if only virtually-speaking) was her remark to the effect that “the IOT only really exists physically when we come together for our meetings and to perform rituals.” Of the five currents displaying their wares on the day, theirs seems the most adaptable, flexible [but more on this later.]

For more information on IOT, see: http://www.iotbritishisles.org/

Next up was Adrian Dobbie, who was keen to stress that although he is a member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (indeed, the promotional material informs us that he is “President of the Electoral College within OTO, which governs all affairs of its local bodies”), this was by no means an “official” presentation, and that he was very much speaking as a private individual – a seeker and student like the rest of us. While going into a little of the OTO’s history, the possible meanings of Thelema, and taking the time to dispel one-or-two misconceptions that perhaps linger from its association with Aleister Crowley in the popular imagination – the Ghost of “Uncle Al” as he was affectionately termed by more than one Speaker certainly loomed large at times throughout the day! – we were most struck by Adrian’s emphasis on OTO not as a “magickal order” but more as a community of men and women dedicated to a path of self-improvement and spiritual development in a mutually supportive fellowship.

For more information on OTO, see: http://oto-uk.org/

Regrettably, we were unable to attend the final Talk of the day – Nigel Bourne, speaking as a longstanding practitioner of Alexandrian Wicca (which we heard later only lasted 20 minutes!) – because we had chosen instead to attend the final Workshop, on at the same time.

Arriving at the Assembly Rooms in the morning to check in we quickly discovered that most of the various Workshops throughout the day had already Sold Out, but that there were just two spaces still left for the IOT Workshop at the end of the afternoon, so we took that as a sign and put our money down…

Nikki Wyrd was joined by partner Julian Vayne to give a demonstration on behalf of the IOT, the Chaos Magic group in which they are both active and longstanding members (originally co-founded by Ray Sherwin and the Conference’s “Special Guest” Peter J. Carroll.) As the name suggests, Chaos Magic can be eclectic and sometimes unpredictable, and it is probably better to see it in action or try it out than grapple with too many definitions. Nikki and Julian’s Workshop was well attended, and managed to be both serious and playful at the same time. Possibly the most inventive aspect was showing how certain fundamentals, respectfully borrowed or adapted from other traditions, can be brought to bear on giving a wish, a prayer, maximum efficacy and chance of success in the wider world. Going round the room, an ad hoc Group Working was created by combining elements from the varying practices of those present: Sef and a group of OTO members were asked to perform a Thelemic Banishing, Wiccans followed with a recital of the Witches Rune, and then we all joined in with a Druidic chant to “raise the power” – along with Shamanic techniques of circling, dancing, drumming, over-breathing and shaking – all combined in dedication to a common end, the projection of belief out into the culture-at-large. “Magick is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.” Or at least it made the participants believe so at the time. After we’d metaphorically thrown our sigils (AOS lives on!) into the “sacred waters of Glastonbury” we banished any spectres of doubt or self-importance with laughter, the Chaos Magic way, and then handed round the blessed daffodils to share a keepsake. (Also the apples, after all “eating is good earthing!”)

Nikki Wyrd & Julian Vayne can be found online here: http://theblogofbaphomet.com/

At the end of the afternoon there should have been a Launch Event for EPOCH: The Esotericon and Portals of Chaos – the eagerly awaited new work from Peter J. Carroll, in collaboration with digital artist Matt Kaybryn. Unfortunately, actual copies of the book had not arrived from the printers in time for this to be a proper launch, but the co-creators had attended nonetheless. The former Grandmaster of the IOT sat to one side in full “Born to be Wild” disguise, obviously nursing a dreadful cold, along with his collaborator – there were a couple of sample copies of the finished book, and portfolios of Matt’s truly spectacular artwork, that could be perused throughout the day. We only managed a cursory glance and a quick chat, but the text looks as intriguing as ever and the images are breathtaking. Matt explained how he works in all manner of different media, but the final images are built up through digital sculpting. Among other exciting things, we caught a glimpse of an invocation of none other than Nyarlathotep (H. P. Lovecraft and his eerie imagination continuing to have such a fruitful Afterlife, now more than ever it seems!) We even recognised one-or-two of the models, including Julian Vayne as a Mr.Punch-meets-The Joker Trickster figure!


To round things off, Sef introduced Professor Ronald Hutton – who had collaborated and advised on the book – who then introduced Peter J. Carroll as “the most significant magical and occult theorist since Aleister Crowley” – high praise indeed! Pete then apologised that he was “sorry for coming to a book-launch with a stinking cold and no book” and explained a little of the idea behind the project – creating images of the gods and goddesses from all the world’s religions and mythic past in an attempt to recapture something about ourselves, and at the same time perhaps remind us of our future potential? – before then in turn introducing Matt, who spoke briefly about his part in the creation of the book, and played a short clip of some of the images.

For more information, see: http://www.esotericon.org/

And then, after the Talks and Workshops, the Special Guest spot, and before the Jupiter Ball, a special celebration of The Gnostic Mass, by Ordained Officers of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, under the auspices of OTO. “All will be welcome to celebrate the Divine in Humanity, and the Generative and Creative forces of Nature.” Considering the large number attending, constraints of space, and that the Mass is a fairly active performance on the part of those officiating, all went fairly smoothly. There was a sense of a window on the Past, of looking through back to the time of Crowley and the Golden Dawn, and perhaps beyond, but also a sense of how new models of genuinely spiritual communion are developing. The invocations and hymns were moving, the incense evocative, but at the same time the drums helped sustain a suitable earthly tone – like the base-note in a subtly mixed perfume. “There is no part of me that is not of the gods” we all pronounced, after partaking in the communion of a small cake of light and a draught of wine (with vegan, gluten-intolerant, and non-alcoholic options for a few, where necessary.)

A great way to celebrate a sense of community in diversity, and round off what will hopefully be a new beginning…

P1090697 - Copy - Copy

Catwoman – Leonor Fini and her cats

Leonor Fini

(August 30, 1907 – January 18, 1996)

Image 11

There are now many cat-lovers in the world – even more so perhaps since YouTube has released their so-called ‘funny’ and ‘cute’ side – but it doesn’t take away from the cat’s dark, mysterious legacy. And there are still people with an aversion to cats, in spite of their beauty, prowess and elegance. Unlike dogs, who slavishly want to please their owners, cats are solitary and independent. They love to prowl at night, and for them cruelty and play are one. They get off on fear and love to spook themselves. They have a unique connection with the occult, the hidden. Most of us have been at the receiving end of the cat’s uncanny stare. Their eye-intensity – whether they are weighing up their prey, or doing that thing of staring into a seemingly blank corner, ‘seeing’ something only they can see – can be unsettling.

curious cat

The cat we know today is a descendant of Felis lybica, a North African wildcat. The remains of thousands of their ritually mummified bodies have been found in Egypt.

Fini cats

Leonor Fini acquired seventeen Persian cats, and even though she loved companionship, she was also fiercely independent and didn’t shy away from depicting certain ‘perverse’ sexual themes. Female sexuality for her was always located within the adult realm.

Fini cats 4

She declined invitations to join the group of Surrealists and even denied being a ‘surrealist.’ The group, headed by Andre Breton, was obsessed with treatises and theories (a precursor of word-obsessed Post-Structuralism soon to come), which they thought of as radical, though it may have been a disguise for a bigoted and ‘bourgeois’ attitude.

Fini cats 1

Aubrey Beardsley and Lysistrata

It was a subject that could have been made for the pen and draughtsmanship of Aubrey Beardsley:

His drawings illustrate the comedy by Aristophenes, Lysistrata, which is about one woman’s attempt to end the Peloponnesian War by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from husbands and lovers, in order to convince them to negotiate peace. All it does is inflame the battle between the sexes, however.

After he’s converted to Roman Catholicism, Beardsley suggested to his publisher Leonard Smithers that he destroy all the copies of the drawing cycle. Luckily Smithers did not oblige.

Here’s a sample:

AB - Lysistrata, entreating

Lysistrata: Entreating

AB - Lysistrata, examination

Lysistrata: Examination

AB - Lysistrata, powdering

Lysistrata: Powdering

AB - Lysistrata, trio

Lysistrata: Trio

Lysistrata 1


From Decadent Aesthete to Magus…

A Note of Comparison between 

Aubrey Beardsley (1872 – 1898) 

and the Early Work of 

Austin Osman Spare (1886 – 1956)


Aubrey Beardsley was a definite influence in the Early Work of Austin Osman Spare. Like the former, Spare had a great gift for communicating his creative ideas through line, and, like Beardsley, he was developing into a superb draughtsman. (In a similar fashion, after an initial phase of working with themes borrowed from the Pre-Raphaelites, Beardsley had found his own individual stride.)

As well as the influence of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the style and idiom of Japanese woodcuts, seen in Paris - flowing line and flat colour – suited Beardsley, even though he worked almost exclusively in black and white. And some of the mood of alienation and strangeness which Japanese art undoubtedly conveyed to the Western eye suited the temperament of both artists, who both felt, to varying degrees, outsiders in their culture.

Here are a pair of self-portraits by the artists when young:

young Spare


And here a pair of photographs of the young artists:


Spare looks a picture of vigour and rude health. In the words of Herbert Budd, a teacher at Martin’s School of Art, he was: “a god-like figure of whom the other students stood in awe, a fair creature like a Greek God, curly headed, proud, self-willed…”

Beardsley in contrast, is gaunt, painfully thin and sickly, more ‘eccentrically’ interesting-looking (in an angular and very English way) – and in his self portrait more than his photograph, already marked by the tuberculosis that would kill him, age just 25.

AB - Salome, Head

Aubrey Beardsley: Salome with the head of John the Baptist

AB - The Peacock Skirt

Aubrey Beardsley: The Peacock Skirt



Austin Osman Spare: Witches 


AOS-Sacred and Profane

Austin Osman Spare: Sacred and Profane

Decadence is very evident in the Aesthete Beardsley’s world and in his art he explored and pursued its pictorial language and grotesque, often erotic imagery drawn from mythology and his own often perverse imagination to the utmost.  And this is where you approach the dividing line between Aubrey Beardsley and Austin Spare.

A year before his death Beardsley, Aesthete, Decadent Symbolist, converted to Roman Catholicism and asked his publisher Leonard Smithers to “destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings… by all that is holy all obscene drawings.”

Smithers ignored his wishes, a stroke of luck you might say. Beardsley, partly tormented by ill-health and in spite of the great daring of his creative imagination, also the aesthetic-decadent milieu in which he lived and even thrived as an artist, still worked within a Christian mindset – however much subverted by then. Did he fear for his own soul? Did that still mean something? Or did the notion of ‘Mother Church’ in the shape of Mary, provide some kind of apotropaion against a distinctly darkening world and the horror of approaching death? He might (and probably did) hear of the Golden Dawn and other pagan revivals – he was certainly aware of a breakdown in morality (in himself, among others) – and caught the sound of ‘diabolical’ whispers around him… but he was unarmed by the energy and health the young Austin Spare had at his disposal, at least for a while, as well as magical knowledge, perhaps, and other qualities and resources.

An example of his increasing awareness, visually, can be seen here – even though the tone is somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

Of a Neophyte...

Aubrey Beardsley: Of a Neophyte and how the Black Art was revealed to him by the fiend Asomuel (illustration for the Pall Mall Magazine, June 1993)

Austin Spare suffered from no such restrictions, fears or limitations. In Herbert Budd’s description of the young Spare, he also says that he “practised the black arts”, took drugs and kept himself “disdainfully apart from the crowd.” A portrayal of a young sorcerer in the making?!

In Spare’s Figure in Japanese Robes, clearly a self portrait, he borrows – as the title indicates – a feature from the Japanese woodcut idiom. But another part of the title reads: River Styx. Styx was the boundary between Earth and the Underworld – hence “stygian”, meaning dismal, murky.

Spare understood that against the dark, raging torrent that flows for all Eternity, leaving nothing unaltered, and which ceaselessly creates a past that can never be retrieved, a powerful Art and Magic was needed, if he did not want to be swallowed up. He also realized it was an incredibly rich vein to tap into. He was doing his spells, his own sex-magic, and plucking up courage. And he would cross…


Austin Osman Spare: Figure in Japanese Robes

A Way With Words :

Available Now!

Only from WhollyBooks:


Selected Essays


Matthew Levi Stevens


C J Bradbury Robinson

AWWW, banner

A Way With Words is the previously untold story of the friendship between William S. Burroughs and C J Bradbury Robinson, focussing on the former’s facilitation of the sale to Olympia Press of the latter’s Williams Mix, for which novel WSB wrote a masterly Introduction. Also included are Bradbury Robinson’s essays on Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, plus Bill Andriette’s 2005 review of CJBR’s trilogy and Matthew Levi Stevens’ reflections on times present and times past . . .

AWWW, contents

A beautiful, stitched hardback edition, with black end-papers and off-white dust-jacket; approx. 140 pages, with 16 pages of plates, including a complete facsimile of the original typescript of WSB’s Introduction to Williams Mix, with his handwritten annotations. Also includes portraits of WSB by Baron Wolman and Samuel Beckett by John Minihan, with their kind permission.


Strictly Limited. 

Price : £20 + postage & packing.

Buy Now Button

All WhollyBooks Orders are sent First Class Recorded Delivery within the United Kingdom, packed carefully with an extra layer of bubble-wrap.

For Overseas Orders, and All Other Enquiries, please Contact via :


Thank You.

Early Work & Forthcoming



searching - Copy



P1020186 - Copy

Soul-to-Soul: BLACK SUN Contemplation . . .

Black Sun, The Sending Forth...

Smouldering Building

img073 - Copy

She Travels The Curvature of Time

Due to a variety of circumstances – some unforeseen and beyond our control – a number of WhollyBooks and related projects were held up and / or put back over the last few months – but as we begin the Seasonal turn towards the End of the Year, a number of these are at last either being finalised, or re-scheduled as we look toward 2014 . . .

After the recent completion of A Way With Words and our contributions for the forthcoming journal The Thirteenth Path, next in line is the long-intended Grimoire, A K E P H A L O S . Inspired by the world of the Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papryi, this will be produced in collaboration with Aeon Sophia Press. In the meantime, while the finishing touches are being put to the material for this, I have also begun to look over a wider range of my visual material, with a view to preparing a showcase for release early in 2014.

Reclining, Shadow 2


073 - Copy - Copy (3)

Flying Forth...

I have decided to share this Gallery of artwork here, and over the coming weeks will be adding to it gradually, including representations of early work, and on-going developments in a range of different media.

This is only a first selection. Further images, and occasional relevant details, will be added as I go along.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 49 other followers