And furthermore ...

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Sunday, 6 March 2011


 Paganism and photography in the 1900s
“Paganism is wholesome because it faces the facts of life.”
Aleister Crowley

Dancer Olga Desmond’s performances were simple in theory. She assumed poses as Aphrodite or Venus on stage – essentially she became a living statue – and like most representations of the gods in classical art she was nude. Between 1908 and 1910 she succeeded in offending not only the authorities in St Petersburg and Berlin, who had her shows banned, but also that echelon of artists who believed in a pretty and saccharine depiction of nature and did very well for themselves as a result. Because those artists were the ones governments turned to for opinions and advice she was never going to get a fair hearing. There was always a question too whether her devoted audience admired her performances for their beauty or her nudity. In Paris at the same time Isadora Duncan was experimenting with free expression in dance and spectators packed the Folies Bergére and the Casino de Paris to watch dancers who left nothing to the imagination. Paganism was fashionable again.

In London Aleister Crowley made at least one court appearance and was named in others. In March he won an appeal against a ruling that had prevented him from publishing details of Rosicrucian secret rituals in his magazine Equinox and in October George Jones, a chemist, sued Looking Glass for an article that associated him with Crowley, a man generally agreed to be ‘a person of disgraceful and criminal character’ (at least so far as the London Times was concerned). Crowley never appeared too upset by all this attention. It takes some vanity to believe you hold the key to divine mysteries.

The Theosophists were probably the only people who did not call their movement pagan, though they wouldn’t have thought the term derogatory.  By 1910 the society founded on the principle that all religions were evolving towards a single, universal faith was splintering. Charles Leadbeater had been accused of child abuse and a power struggle had developed between him and Annie Besant. Still, Theosophy held influence over intellectual life in Britain and the US. W B Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Edison, William Crookes, Kandinsky and Mahler were all sympathizers though for different motives. And if Theosophy was too intellectual or political or your interests in the occult were more fleshly, there was always the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its various splinter groups to get involved with.

Which brings us to photography and the pagan imagery that flourished between the turn of the century and the First World War. Leopold Reutlinger, the subject of a previous post, was one of the best known producers of postcards of women but there were hundreds of others, spread throughout Europe and America, who recognized that paganism provided the essential link between glamour and the erotic.  A photograph of a beautiful woman was guaranteed to have a market but enhanced with some of the accoutrements of popular culture from the ancient world and the message was amplified.

There are any numbers of reasons to explain the phenomenon. You could talk about the decline of religious authority, the influence of suffragism or take a more strictly Marxist approach and analyse the sudden wealth of the middle classes, but we are concerned with photography. While all of the above matter they only scrape the surface and they aren’t as interesting as the influence of that aesthetic curiosity the Art Nouveau movement. It’s called a movement though it had no manifesto to underpin its ideas and no coherent theory. It was mostly defined by surface detail and the common link between all the major practitioners was that beauty ought to exist for its own sake. Unlike neo-classicism, which in architecture linked classical imagery to power (hence so many Greek columns and domes on US Government buildings), when it came to the ancient world, Art Nouveau didn’t care for Aristotle or Cicero so much as its disrobed nymphs and the notion of lying about under the sun and drinking wine.

 These photographs are often dismissed as banal and ignored in histories of photography but if you want to know how important they were, consider any 19th century cabinet card of an actress and then one of an actress from the 1920s, when fashion photography was emerging on its own terms then ask at what point did stiff, formal portraiture became expressive and elegant. These photographs mark the transition. They still owe a debt to 19th century ideas about composition and they haven’t quite reached that moment when photography individualised the celebrity but the cool, studied atmosphere of 1920s fashion photography might not have existed were it not for these photographs. And these photographs would not have been taken without the fashion for paganism in all its forms.


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