Thursday, October 29, 2009

Some Icons for All Hallow's Eve

Courtesy of feuilleton and A Journey Round My Skull, here are some All Hallow's-esque images from the short-lived Austrian magazine Die Orchideengarten, which published from 1919–1921.

This was perhaps the world's first fantasy magazine, predating the F/SF pulps in the US and Britain by a few years. A lot of the illustrations from the magazine are grotesque, macabre, occasionally bordering on German Expressionism. Some would do Poe and his followers proud; in fact, these illustrations are rather superior to the usual post-Poe thriller/chiller horror art.

In some ways, I feel like rediscovering this old graphic illustration, because of its freshness and power today, underlines the idea that, in the creative world, what is new and good is often a reprise of what's old and good. It's no secret that waves of fashion in graphic design, typography, and illustration occur like eaves of fashion in any other creative or commercial-creative work. Trends and styles come around again. Sometimes it's a matter of rediscovering old ideas in order to revitalize the current ones.

Yet imagery like this from Die Orchideengarten is so psychologically charged, it retains its power, its keynote of horror, when seen afresh today. There are icons and images in this material that are literally of The Day of the Dead, but beyond even that, there is something chthonic and archetypal here. There is psychological depth to the best of fantasy art, be it macabre or transcendent, that carries it past mere illustration into representing something powerful and innate in our secret selves. They bring out our sense of wonder; and they also can inspire a frisson of terror which evokes our deepest, reptile-brain selves.

The WIld Hunt

A great deal of the writing and artwork from Die Orchideengarten is decadent, in the sense of the word used to describe the arts at the fin de siecle and between the World Wars in Europe. An almost Dionysian chaos erupted in those periods, challenging the Apollonian cultural institutions, bringing fresh air in the stale rooms of the Academy; but also a whiff of rot and decay. There was intent to shock, of course; but the slap in the face was at that time, not the hollow mannerism it has become in contemporary art, but a vital attempt to wake up the dead. The subconscious mind had been discovered, and it was erupting everywhere, in Expressionist painting, in Futurism and Surrealism, in every attempt by artists, who are usually the prophets of change in culture, to shake things up and make them come back to life.

Die Angst

A century or so later, we need to remember that what we now perceive as familiar mannerisms did indeed have the power to shock and change, in its time. It was a genuine eruption of the liminal and numinous into everyday life which had become stagnant and overly-concerned with social acceptability. But humans are chaotic beings, as much as we're beings of order: to be fully alive, we must give ourselves the freedom to not know what we're doing, at least some of the time.

So the artwork from Die Orchideengarten has a contemporary charge of Otherness and numinous power to it, even now, that serves well to remind us that our own times have become too stifled with authoritarian rules and regulations: the ordinary person is hemmed in with totalitarian laws eroding basic civil rights, while the elements in authority have set themselves to normalize their self-centered rapaciousness and greed as just the way things are meant to be. If Die Orchideengarten reminds us of anything, it's perhaps that our own shadows contain a great power, which can be harnessed creatively to shake things up, and set ourselves free, again. The numinous charge to this artwork can be interpreted as self-empowering: what better night to light a fuse and blow up Parliament than All Hallow's Eve, which according to the old pagan calendars was in truth New Year's Eve?

I'm not really into the grotesque, the goth, or the macabre. My own life psychological health at the present time requires me to balance light and dark, and not plunge forever into either one. I've spent a great deal of time in the shadows, as well as the light; I've explored both. My path at present is more Taoism's awareness of their dynamic balance and eternal circulation. So, much of what I see in Die Orchideengarten does not really appeal to me purely as art—except that some of these charged images evoking the dead and the realms of dark fantasy are appropriate for Hallow's Eve. What appeals to me here is the power rising up from that black river of life, that well within the cave at the back of the mind, that deep layer of source and life, that moving shadow our of which the light of new life may emerge. If only we embrace the shadows, and let the light come out through us into the world. Which of course is what a renewed life, in the New Year, is all about.

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Anonymous Swanee said...

Am I the only one who looked at _The Wild Hunt_ and instantly thought of _Guernica_?

12:00 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Probably. ;) but it certainly does lend itself to that, now that you mention it.

2:29 AM  
Blogger mand said...

The first and last are my favourites, visually - but i love creepy, so these are all great. I have tweeted this post (as @mmSeason) as i seem to know a lot of people online who're into this theme.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, mand. My favorite is weeping raven skeleton, I think. Something very liminal about that one.

1:23 PM  
Blogger mand said...

Hm... looking at it again, and wondering about that rock...

2:06 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Ah yes. Is it a rock, or something else? Say, a crumpled up skull . . . ?


4:04 PM  

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