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  • Neshan Tung

The Enduring Relevance of Pioneering Occult Artist Rosaleen Norton

By: Neshan Tung


"I came into this world bravely, I'll go out bravely." - Rosaleen Norton, artist, occult practitioner, daughter of Pan, before her death in 1979 Rosaleen Norton has only recently begun to get the cultural recognition she deserves. Despite being a tremendously influential and defining artist of the mid 20th century, Rosaleen’s unapologetic artistic legacy remains relatively obscure compared to her counterparts. Perhaps this has to do with how she was outcasted, crudely mocked and relentlessly hounded by the media. She was branded by most as a depraved, satanic witch. In the 1940s and 1950s, she became a national fascination and was perceived as a major threat to the social norms and moral orthodoxy of a predominantly Christian Australia. Her artwork, tragically misunderstood, was torched by the government, confiscated by police and censored by major museums and galleries in Melbourne. She remains the only Australian artist whose work was physically destroyed by order of the courts. Rosaleen also faced charges of obscenity for her provocative paintings depicting Greek gods and goddesses, female sexuality and ritual magic. In a recently made film about the artist, director Sonia Bible proclaims that Rosaleen was once “the most persecuted artist in Australia.”

Rosaleen Norton with one of her paintings, c. 1945-1950. Source. Born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1917 and plagued with spiritual visions as a child, Rosaleen had always been fascinated by the otherworldly. What seems now to be an instance of cosmic foreshadowing, at 14 she was expelled from school for supposedly corrupting fellow schoolgirls with her “deviant” drawings. By her twenties, Rosaleen was mastering her occult and artistic skills, practicing Aleister Crowley trance magic and creating paintings that fused her search for transcendence with her spiritual beliefs. Being openly bisexual – in addition to her unconventional appearance, love for animals, bohemian lifestyle and penchant for worshipping and painting figures like Pan (a Greek god who resembles and is often mistaken for Lucifer) – made her a true outsider amidst the hyper conservative landscape of mid-century Australia. A 1949 exhibition of her work held at the Rowen-White Library in the University of Melbourne ended with a police raid and charges of obscenity. Later, her book The Art of Rosaleen Norton with poems by Gavin Greenlees (published by Walter Glover in 1952) was heavily censored in Australia and banned in America, and resulted in Glover also facing charges.

Rosaleen Norton with her cat, c. 1950. Source. Even though she was admired by visionaries like Carl Jung and Kenneth Anger, the scope of Rosaleen’s far-reaching cultural impact has yet to be fully realized and appreciated. She was a subversive, fearless artist who spearheaded a path forward for generations of eccentric and bold female artists to be themselves. Her unprecedented body of work has endured despite decades of backlash and unlawful attempts at suppression. Over half a century later, her art has begun to slowly resurface in various Australian exhibitions— such as one held in 2000 that was solely dedicated to the display of her paintings in Kings Cross, Sydney (where she lived most of her life) by enthusiasts of her work. Others include the S.H. Ervin Gallery’s Windows to the Sacred: An Exploration of the Esoteric in 2013, and the City Gallery Wellington’s Occulture: The Dark Arts in 2017.

Rosaleen Norton sketching, c. 1945-1950. Source. Despite renewed interest in Rosaleen, her work is not easy to access. Other than a handful of articles and images on Google, there is no widely accessible digital archive documenting her work, nor is it featured in any permanent exhibitions. Most of it resides in archives, private collections and rare books that are hard to come by. Rosaleen’s legacy and life’s work could have easily been lost to history. That begs the question: how many brilliant female artists have we lost due to museum censorship and government persecution? How can we ensure that the bodies of work produced by visionary artists who challenge the status quo are not lost due to museum practices that support nationalistic agendas? How can we reconcile with the fact that exclusion and censorship remain prevalent issues in museum spaces, and what can we do about it? All of us have the responsibility to continuously challenge and unsettle cultural institutions by questioning what gets to be remembered and who is included.

Rosaleen Norton in Kings Cross, Sydney, c. 1943. Source.



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