An Introduction to Trance Art
By 'trance art' I mean here drawings and paintings that use imagery acquired from visionary trance states experienced by the artist. These states are usually brought about using occult methodology. The trance artists I wish to introduce here are: Austin Osman Spare, who was born in London in either 1886 (according to Wallace) or 1889 (according to Dwyer) and died in 1956; Rosaleen Norton (1917-79), who was born in New Zealand but lived in Australia; and Victor Angel (1922-64), an Australian.
Out of these three artists Austin Osman Spare was especially an occultist. As Nevill Drury (whose books are my main source for this essay) wrote "...Spare was probably the first modern occultist to evolve a self-contained working hypothesis about the nature of psychic energy which could be applied without all the paraphernalia of traditional rituals, grimoires and magical incantations.. Spare's system of magical sigils shows how an effort of will, when focused on the subconscious mind, can unleash the most amazing psychic material" (Echoes From The Void p86). There is no space here for the details of Spare's 'sigilisation' or his achievement of 'vacuity' with methods other than trance. So to describe only Spare's trances: He would go into a "self-induced trance in which the body became rigid, ceased to function, and underwent what Spare called 'the Death Posture.' Spare describes a preliminary exercise designed to bring the Death Posture about. Gazing at your reflection... 'till it is blurred and you know not the gazer, close your eyes and visualise. The light... that is seen should be held onto, never letting go, till the effort is forgotten...' (Echoes p96).
Rosaleen Norton gave a statement about her trance states to L.J. Murphy, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne, in 1949. "...I decided to apply psychic stimulus to the subconscious: stimulus that the conscious reasoning mind might reject, yet which would appeal to buried instincts as old as man, and would (I hoped) cause psychic 'automatic reflexes'... Consequently, I collected together a variety of things such as aromatic leaves, wine, a lighted fire, a mummified hoof, etc.... all potent stimuli to the part of the unconscious that I wished to invoke. I darkened the room, and focusing my eyes upon the hoof I crushed the pungent leaves, drank some wine, and tried to clear my mind of all conscious thought... Following a surge of curious excitement, my brain would become emptied of all conscious thought: my eyes would shut, and I was merely aware that I was drawing on the blank sheet of paper in front of me. The drawings were quite different in form from previous ones, and full of symbols, many of which were previously unknown to my conscious mind..." (Pan's Daughter p30).
Victor Angel (his real name) was, in the main, a photographic artist. When he did paint, however, it was using trance. Drury writes about how this began: "...one day, when he was about twenty-seven years old... a brightly coloured sigil appeared in his field of vision. Shaped like an elongated six-pointed star, it impressed itself upon him as a source of wisdom and power and would subsequently reappear in his imagination at will. Angel found he could focus the chakra energy centre [Angel was a believer in chakras] in his forehead and then extend it in a line to the centre of the sigil. When this occurred he found himself entering a state of trance... Angel's technique was to direct his attention to a blank sheet of art paper. He would then sense a type of 'smokiness' materialising on the paper... [A smoky picture would appear and] Angel would use water colours to actually materialise the compositions which appeared before him in the haze. The choice of colours and the gradations of tone and texture were all of a much higher calibre than any works he could have created using conscious control" (Pan's Daughter pp125-126).
Looking at one of Spare's drawings for Bertram & Russell's The Starlit Mire (1911), the one opposite page 46, we see a self-portrait of the artist. He has his eyes closed. Surrounding him in the darkness are the 'Seven Devils.' These are six different kind of horned or tusked animals and the seventh is a half-human beast. They represent 'atavisms' (remote evolutionary ancestors) appearing to him in visionary states.
What are these creatures that came to Spare, Norton and Angel in visions? Are they from another Plane, that only occultists and seers have access to? Carl Jung argued that "at a deep layer of the psyche lay a rich and varied source of archetypal images which were the very basis of religion and mystical expression, irrespective of the culture of the society involved" (Echoes p109) and that the archetypes were "deep, universal level's of one's own being but not as entities with their own separate existence beyond the psyche" (Pan's Daughter p37).
Not only snakes, either. There are indeed basic recurrent mythic forms in Norton's and Angel's work, shared also with Spare's, regardless of the entity types represented.
It is interesting that the artists came to very different beliefs based on their visions. Spare thought that during his state of trance "he could regress and rediscover all his previous personalities - which he presented in his work in the form of demi-human beasts" (Dwyer p13). In the words of Spare "Know the subconscious to be an epitome of experience and wisdom, past incarnations as men, animals, birds, vegetable life etc... Each being a stratum in the order of evolution. Naturally then, the lower we probe into these strata, the earlier will be the forms of life we arrive at: the last is the Almighty Simplicity." Drury adds "Spare's intention was to gain knowledge of his concealed states, through 'regression,' and eventually to lose his own self or individuality 'Zos' in the indescribably ecstatic union with Kia..." (Echoes p94) [Kia was Spare's word for the universal source of Being].
As for Victor Angel, Drury writes that Angel believed "the power he had apparently been tapping... came from God." As Angel said himself : "I am not the artist. Some power is working through me and I only fill in what is already there" (Pan's Daughter p125).
Bertram, James & Russell, F. with drawings by Austin Osman Spare. The Starlit Mire (1911), Temple Press Ltd., Brighton, 1989. Limited edition of 500 copies.
Written some time in the 1990s. © Barry Kavanagh 2003