Friday, January 25, 2013

The Pagan Lindsay

Norman Lindsay (1879 - 1969) was one of Australia’s most controversial artists. Often accused of perverting the young, diabolism and pornography, Lindsay was really just somewhat ahead of his time in promoting a Greco-Australian Neo-Pagan aesthetic.

Lindsay was born in Creswick near Ballarat in Victoria to Methodist parents, and his grandfather had been a Methodist missionary in Fiji. The middle child of ten children, both Norman and his older brother Lionel became vehemently anti-Christian as they got older. A Graeco-Roman influence appears evident in Norman’s teenage years and can be discerned in the old photographs of the Lindsay teenagers dressed in flimsy togas or rabbit skins performing made-up versions of classically inspired plays or posing theatrically for the camera decked in leafy wreaths and the household curtains.

Lindsay was a man of varied interests: Olympian mythology, Spiritualism, the lost continent of Atlantis, sexuality, women and nature all combined to form a unique and personal type of worldview which many would term ‘Pagan’. Norman believed, like the Greeks, that the gods had come down from Olympus in ancient times and begotten children on the people of Earth. The blood of the Gods ran in the veins of this race of Olympians and revealed itself in those acts of creativity which set great painters, sculptors, poets, musicians and writers apart from and above the “unblest Earthmen”.

Norman’s Classical gods were wise, powerful and benevolent whereas he felt that the Christian god was a mischievous invention of latter-day myth-makers and responsible for endless human misery. When the Sydney printer and publisher Charles Shepard once suggested that Lindsay illustrate the Bible he replied “Oh no, no, no, couldn’t think of it Charlie. It’s a very dangerous book, had a very bad influence.”

Lindsay believed that ascetic Christianity was the enemy of all the things he himself stood for and made his opinion evident in his painting Pollice Verso, which depicted a crucified male figure on a cross in front of a crowd of his typically buxom figures who are giving the Roman “thumbs down” sign. Criticised as “anti-Christian, anti-social and degenerate”, Lindsay explained that the work did not represent Christianity, but asceticism, which he saw as anti-life.

The best representation of his philosophy, he felt, was “Woman as Creatress”, explaining this idea thus: “When the first World War ended, my mind was in a turmoil of emotions generated by it and these had to find an outlet. I found it in a concept of life dramatised by antithetical forces: energy versus inertia, conflict between love and hate, light and darkness, creation and destruction. In this concept the one assurance of continuity was the re-creation of life which drives it on into the future, over all obstacles and through all infernos. For the central symbol of that conflict I chose the image of femininity.”

When discussing the public's reaction to his work he explained “We know that the puritanical hatred of life has only one taboo: the glorification of the sex-function. Degrade it, spit at it, make a joke of it, brutalise it, falsify it, evade it and mob morality will approve. But lyricise it, love it, bring to its creation in art a passionate intensity and the mob will crucify you, or try to.” Lindsay despised what he called the “witch-burning furies of the mass mind” and responded to this kind of hypocritical attitude with his painting Crucified Venus which represents life and vitality crucified on the cross of denial and “wowserism”.

Lindsay felt that ribaldry was a fact of life: “Among the Romans, save only for the cold and academic Virgil, there is not one poet or prose writer who does not use its freed imagery wherever a theme calls for it. All of them, Catullus, Horace, Ovid, Martial, Juvenal, Apuleius, Petronius, would have regarded a ban put on such a salient aspect of the spectacle of life as a rank absurdity, which it is. That ban arrived with the blight of Christianity, with its priestly hatred of the body and its obscene obsession with sin which spread a dark miasma of joylessness over all experience which makes life worth living. Life became a penalty inflicted on man for being the thing he is, and which he was designed to be by the construction of his being. A writer who presents men and women as creatures truncated below the waist is exposed as one who goes about without his trousers saying, ‘see, I have had my testicles removed’… I am fanatic enough to believe that my thought is something the world needs.”

Lindsay was spurred on in his pursuits by his personal ‘daemon’. “I am not implying occultism in my use of that word ‘daemonic’. Every mind which has given itself to self-expression in art is aware of a directing agency outside its conscious control which it has agreed to label ‘inspiration’. The Greeks had no doubt about its being an Entity as distinct from the Ego. Poets are most aware of it.” Art critic, Robert Hughes, feels that the prolific Norman Lindsay has some claim to be the most forceful personality in the arts that Australia had ever seen. Immensely energetic, his talents spanned painting, drawing, watercolour, etching, art criticism, polemics, philosophy, illustration, political cartooning, novels, poetry, and writing for children. He even made model ships and sculpted concrete fauns.

Norman Lindsay’s name is synonymous with images of satyrs, maenads and wild-eyed, lustful supernaturals congregating in an Australian landscape. An important inspirational figure for Australian Pagans, Lindsay is a ‘spiritual forefather’ who was at the vanguard of the endeavor to acclimatise European Pagan deities to the Australian landscape – an ongoing project amongst many Australian Pagans today. A brave and opinionated fellow, Lindsay deserves to be revered as a champion of individuality and freedom of religion, as well as an enthusiastic Goddess worshipper. Pilgrimage to his shrine at Springwood in the Blue Mountains may result in fruitful possession by the Muse for the earnest seeker.

‘The Pagan Lindsay.’ Originally published in Green Egg Omelette. Ed. Oberon Zell. 44–46. Franklin Lakes NJ: New Page Books, 2008.

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