Magical adversary: Rosaleen Norton’s art of resistance
Rosaleen Miriam Norton (1917-1979) was an Australian artist, poet and Neopagan occultist. In esoteric circles, she was sometimes known as Thorn. Her friends knew her as “Roie”. Today, Norton is largely remembered by her dramatic epithet, “The Witch of King’s Cross,” a phrase which developed in the tabloid media in the mid-1950s and has preceded her since. Her work emphasized supernatural themes, graphic sexuality and pagan decadence, attracting public outrage and international bans at the time of its dissemination. In addition, Norton’s own occult practices and bohemian lifestyle secured her reputation as one of King Cross’ most notorious figures, an uncompromising, singular artist. The construction of her image played out through a discursive engagement with the media; Norton alternately refuted and encouraged her public representation as an antisocial figure, a threat to the status quo. This culminated in Norton’s construction as a Witch, which for a time blighted her life and career. Eventually Norton would emphatically reclaim this construction, choosing to embody the trope of the witch through the media, and thus orient herself in radical opposition to dominant social paradigms.
On an unknown date in the 1940s, Rosaleen Norton wrote a poem-essay called “A Vision.” Here, she describes serpent-like, radiant forms emerging from the cosmos and infiltrating the foundations of the world. These forms are said to represent progressive knowledge – recalling the serpent in Genesis’ tree of knowledge, and indeed, Norton equates them with Lucifer, the “Light Bringer.”  They act in opposition to close-mindedness, stale tradition and repressive conservatism. The forms announce themselves in the text: “We are the ranks of Adversary.”
It is revealing that Norton chose to call this work “A Vision”: the double entendre is powerful, presenting the imagery as both a supernatural apparition (as seen in a trance or dream) and as a mental construction of one’s goals and ideals. The force Norton calls “Adversary” takes on a portentous, emblematic quality – registering as a kind of mission statement. Norton may not have been a political idealist in the sense of advocating a utopian state or system. But if Norton had a vision, it was surely this: a politics of sustained adversary, a resistance to the stagnation of ideas and society. It is significant that Norton called herself “Thorn,” and at once point resolved to write an autobiography entitled Thorn in the Flesh.  This, she surely was – a sharply troubling intrusion in the flesh of society. For Norton, this was more than impertinence. It was a political imperative.
Contemporary accounts of Norton’s career invariably allude to the controversy that her work attracted; many go on to note that it overshadowed a nuanced practice, rooted in eclectic mythology, psychoanalytic theory, trance ritual and occult metaphysics. Within this context, several writers have contended that Norton’s provocative tendencies may have been more than mere shock tactics, instead bearing political weight. Dr. Nevill Drury, Norton’s most ardent chronicler, has written that “Rosaleen believed that magic had a political consequence.”  Filmmaker Sonia Bible described Norton as being “at the vanguard of feminism and the counter-culture revolution,” observing that “there are comments about society in some of her major works, about censorship … She was certainly provocative and communicating through her art. She held a mirror up to society and they didn’t like it.”  These statements evince a general acknowledgement of Norton’s political potency, but little academic attention has been paid to the manifest politics of Rosaleen Norton’s practice. Certainly to date there has been no sustained attempt to systematically examine and analyse the content of Norton’s work with a view to tracing the political stances articulated. This, however, is precisely the project I propose to undertake over the coming pages.
I wish to consider the extent to which Norton’s practice – long since acknowledged as “controversial” – can also be understood as a politically charged art of resistance; not merely shocking or unorthodox, but underpinned by a coherent dissenting philosophy regarding Norton’s local and global milieu. To do this is I will discuss the close details, and overarching gestures, of Norton’s works. Attention must be paid to the context of their production, as well as the lineages (aesthetic, spiritual and historical) from which they descend. Meanwhile, there is value in considering Norton’s output from a range of theoretical perspectives – including those proposed by Norton in her non-fiction writing, and others expounded in the arena of critical discourse.
One can look to Jacques Rancière’s notion of dissensus as a means of thinking through Norton’s work. For Rancière, politics and art share an investment in the distribution of sensible materials.  Within the modernist regime of aesthetics, a radical equality is established because any political subject can have a stake in making or appreciating art. Aesthetics creates opportunities to challenge dominant ‘distributions of the sensible’ by producing work that defies acceptable modes of representation; this, in turn constitutes a political act. The distribution of the sensible in Norton’s time was established according to Christian and patriarchal priorities, whereby images of explicit sexuality, the supernatural, altered consciousness and aberrant representations of gender were actively excluded from the sensible landscape of the mainstream.
One point may be made at the outset: if Rosaleen Norton was radical, she was not formalistically radical. Unlike certain upheavals within modernism – for example free verse, Dada and pure abstraction – Norton’s work does not mark a fundamental departure from the formal approaches that preceded it. Rather, Norton engages elements of once-radical traditions (such as gothic horror and surrealism) and innovates beyond their established tendencies. In doing so, Norton performs a kind of metaphorical political gesture (renouncing total conformity, even to avant-garde traditions), meanwhile investing existing conventions with fresh political import. This will form the focus of my first chapter. My second chapter will concentrate on ideas of power in society, and resistance through art. Here, I will closely examine a range of Norton’s exemplary works, tracing details through which Norton articulates certain political postures of resistance. These postures are many and varied, but can nevertheless be constellated under several broad headings. First I will discuss Rosaleen Norton’s work in relation to the Christian hegemony within which it was produced; secondly, in relation to the gender politics of its time; thirdly, I will consider Norton’s work in relation to post-Enlightenment scientific thought.
My final chapter will tackle a key observation: that Norton’s personal lifestyle, spiritual beliefs and manifest art practice were fundamentally merged. While in some general sense this is true of all artists, I will contend that for Norton the conventional partitions between these domains were especially dissolved. This situation invites a reading of a ‘life as performance’ – not in the sense of being uncommonly artificial, but rather in the sense of being defined by art, aesthetically unified. Hereby one can consider the overarching political gestures constituted in Norton many-faceted practice. Crucially this incorporates Norton’s self-construction through the media, through art and non-fiction writing. This section will explore how – through public and private constructions – Norton reclaimed the identity of ‘Witch,’ in order to resist the oppressive tendencies she saw around her.
There is more at stake in discussing Rosaleen Norton’s politics than merely augmenting an understanding of one relatively obscure Australian artist. In exploring the political resistance at play in Norton’s work, one can appreciate more vividly the intersections of power structures and alternative modes of artistic response in mid-century Australia. More than a curious footnote in Sydney’s cultural history, Rosaleen Norton offers a window onto the political import of occultism, and the radical power of art.
Chapter One: Rosaleen Norton and Creative Traditions
Rosaleen Norton’s body of work represents a dynamic relationship with tradition. On one hand, the artist was drawn to the potency of long-standing folklore, esoteric iconography and established modernist styles. On the other, she was an outspoken critic of tradition, which she likened to a “jealous god” begetting “the bliss of ignorance,” and suppressing the “infinite promise” of new possibilities. To argue for Norton’s work as a political art of resistance by situating it within traditions may seem counterintuitive. Yet, as Simon J. Bronner contends, “interaction with tradition [is] integral to the development of new artistic expression,”  and Norton’s mode of resistance relies on the synthesis of existing forms and a non-conformist approach producing new, bold articulations. Norton’s relationship to tradition engenders “resistance” in two capacities: firstly, in resisting the confines of aesthetic traditions, pushing beyond their conventional bounds; secondly, by investing traditions with fresh import, orienting them towards her own politics of dissent.
This chapter examines Norton’s relationship to tradition in terms of literary and graphic exploits. The first section will focus on three stories published in Smith’s Weekly in 1934 when Norton was sixteen. The second section will address Norton’s visual works featured in the 1952 publication The Art of Rosaleen Norton. This separation of media provides an opportunity to investigate the distinct lineages of two modes of expression; furthermore, it suggests the progression of Norton’s relationship to tradition, by comparing three very early works to a collection produced at the peak of her powers.
Three Macabre Stories within Literary tradition
The 1996 publication Three Macabre Stories compiles Norton’s early short fiction published in Smith’s Weekly: “The Story of The Waxworks,” “The Painted Horror” and “Moon Madness.” These stories introduce a vocabulary of imagery, themes, preoccupations and influences that come to characterise Norton’s broader practice. At the heart of each is a central artist-cum-occultist figure that descends into obsession and insanity; this narrative conceit, I will argue, is in keeping with the gothic horror tradition. However, the narrative resolutions in Norton’s stories mark a deviation from her literary inheritance, suggesting that they are not merely studies in genre but also statements on occultism, creativity and morality at large.
“The Story of The Waxworks” chronicles composer Carl Feldman and his two great obsessions: writing a musical masterpiece, and admiring waxworks (he finds them grotesque and compelling). Trapped in a phantasmic suburban museum one night, he is ensnared in a “hellish saturnalia” of waxworks come to life; driven to insanity, he finally picks up a violin and plays his wild, discordant masterpiece, before falling dead on his face. Upon reading the story, Smith’s editor Frank Marien reportedly “congratulated himself upon having ‘discovered’ the next Edgar Allen Poe,”  and indeed on the surface it appears to be classic gothic horror. The mysterious, decrepit waxworks museum neatly substitutes the isolated haunted mansion or dark chamber of gothic convention, transplanting its mood and character to Norton’s own suburban Sydney context. There is a claustrophobic quality, and a sense of impending doom, recalling Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” But more memorable is Norton’s excited treatment of Feldman’s character, the celebration of his yearning for creative innovation, and his unconscious recourse to the occult as a means of realizing his creative potential. This quality constitutes a two-fold resistance to tradition. Firstly, it elevates the significance of creating groundbreaking art by presenting Feldman as a martyr of creative innovation. Secondly, this narrative emphasis itself marks an innovation: Norton foregrounds a theme that, while compatible with the gothic mode, had never been central to its character.
“The Painted Horror” further emphasizes this theme. Here, a young but suddenly wizened painter named Peter Raynham asks his acquaintance Dr Stowell to assess whether he is “mad.” Raynham explains how in recent months he had resolved to create a remarkable exhibition that would be “entirely new” and “arouse interest.” He describes his strange, all-consuming compulsion to paint a “life-sized ghoul or demon” and tells Stowell how that night he will finish the painting, and fears for what might happen. Just as the doctor dismisses Raynham’s concerns, we skip to a scene in which a friend of Stowell’s gossips about the recently reported murder of the artist (he had been “torn to pieces, and chewed.”) Stowell shrieks out guiltily – “I’ll never forgive myself for letting him go that night! I know what killed him!” Norton’s story patently recalls Oscar Wilde’s gothic classic The Picture of Dorian Gray with its animistic and portentous portrait. But while Wilde attributes the painting’s growing threat to Gray’s vanity and moral indiscretions, Norton frames Raynham’s demise as a tragic consequence of a noble esoteric pursuit. Raynham’s creative potency, manifested in the titular demon, overwhelms and destroys him. Yet it is the sceptical doctor, the voice of science and reason, who is ultimately held to account for Raynham’s death – not the intrepid esoteric artist himself.
“Moon Madness,” finally, tells of two sisters in their early twenties, Vivien and Corrine Hagon, holidaying in an overgrown mansion. There is a lifelike marble sculpture of a satyr-like flutist  in its orchard, which frightens Corrine, but Vivien is transfixed. After several nights of suspicious activity, Corinne dreams that Vivien is naked in the orchard with the statue, a “great green stone” flaming in her hair. Awaking, she bolts down to the clearing and indeed finds her sister there. Vivien beckons Corrine, then unexpectedly grabs her wrists and pulls her close. She announces that it is “the night of the full moon – the night of sacrifice” and bites into Corrine’s jugular. Corrine’s brief shriek is stifled, and her warm blood flows over the statue’s feet.
Though Norton does not describe Vivien as a practitioner of the plastic arts, we see the familiar image of the artist-occultist emerging through the character: Vivien fixates upon an art object (the sculpture), with which she conducts an occult ritual – itself a vivid, theatrical performance. While the text does not condone Vivien’s sororicide, nor does it condemn her occult fixation. Vivien’s culpability is problematized by the suggestion she may have lost all agency, with the pagan effigy instead possessing her: “for a moment it seemed that the statue lived, and the living girl was a statue.” In any case the young woman receives no diegetic retribution, and a mood of ambivalence prevails.
Here we might contrast Norton with Poe who, “in his female protagonist stories, such as “Berenice,” “Morella,” and “Ligeia,” […] attributes brilliant minds to female characters and then kills them, as if to emphasize the superior position of the narrator.” Vivien, whose mind is “brilliant” by being so attuned to supernatural forces, conversely becomes powerful – as the instrument of death.
Perhaps “Moon Madness” compares more readily to H.P. Lovecraft’s style of gothic horror, wherein “human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large,” and in which “forbidden knowledge” and the inner horrors of the self, become key themes. Keith Richmond (who oversaw the publication of Three Macabre Stories) has noted the Lovecraftian flavour of Norton’s fiction, while Kirsti Sarmiala-Berger pins Lovecraft as a key influence on Norton, claiming “The Painted Horror” was adapted from Lovecraft’s “The Picture” (1907) and that Norton’s illustration Down There is a “visual interpretation of one of Lovecraft’s most popular stories, ‘The Outsider’ (1921).” Peter Levenda writes, “the dimensions explored by Lovecraft’s fevered imagination continue to haunt and resonate in popular culture […] the brilliant Australian artist Rosaleen Norton […] was another adept of the Darkly Splendid Worlds.” They may all be right, yet “Moon Madness” also eschews many of Lovecraft’s favourite preoccupations: oozing viscerate substances, protagonists haunted by guilt, extra-terrestrial forces. There are no traces of Lovecraft’s “antiquarian writing style,” or his central interests in “unwholesome survival” and “oneiric objectivism.”  If the influence is discernible, Norton is hardly embracing the Lovecraftian tradition wholesale.
Throughout Three Macabre Stories one can trace an important deviation from the works of Poe and other antecedents: Norton’s treatment of doomed protagonists, whom she portrays as innocent esoteric explorers turned victims of circumstance. Through this deviation Norton begins to redeem the figure of the occultist and to question the presumed immorality of occult and demonic forces. This early creative trend marks an embryonic nonconformist stance, which resists the anti-occultist moralizing of Christianity and western society at a large. It signals a posture of resistance that would re-emerge with audacious clarity in Norton’s later work.
The Art of Rosaleen Norton within Visual
Traditions In her anonymous introduction to The Art of Rosaleen Norton, the artist thoughtfully discusses reference points for her own graphic work. Norton considers her style against specific artists to whom she had been publicly compared, and continues by considering whether her approach might be representative of Cubism, Vorticism and Surrealism. The passage both obfuscates and reveals parallels between Norton’s work and existing, influential forms; ultimately it offers an entry point for considering Norton’s engagement with the art that preceded her, and how she may have mobilised certain influences towards her own art of resistance.
Norton notes that “critics and commentators” had likened her work to that of William Blake, Aubrey Beardsley and Norman Lindsay. Immediately she derides these comparisons as “laziness,” saying “technically they are totally dissimilar.” Norton denies she is “any artist’s ‘disciple,’” which may be fair – nevertheless, the comparisons are not unfounded. In Norton’s work one recognizes Blake’s tendency to visualize an eclectic personal mythology, and both artists favour certain imagery: airborne human figures radiating divine light; supernatural beasts and ancient deities; warping, lyrical compositions. Norton complains that Blake’s work contains “too many of the Christian forms” which are “not valuable to her on an emotional level,” but concedes that she shares Blake’s approach in depicting a “cosmic totality” whereby “everything that lives is holy.” Similarly Norton acknowledges a Pantheistic worldview that she shares with Norman Lindsay. While she dismisses any artistic likeness (“there is no similarity of style”), certain Norton works do resemble Lindsay’s depictions of pagan revelry and supernatural forces. Norton’s Bacchanal almost appears as a direct response to Lindsay’s Revel (they roughly share a subject matter and composition) though Bacchanal outdoes Revel’s graphic sexuality. Similarly, SarmialaBerger suggests that Norton’s The Rites of Baron Samedi “is a darker version of the Bacchanalian revelries Norton had appropriated from the example of Norman Lindsay.”
The influence of Beardsley manifests less clearly in Norton’s compositions – however, the artists do share a tendency towards dark, emphatic line work, overt erotic imagery and socalled grotesque preoccupations. An early Norton drawing entitled The Borgias, published in the magazine Pertinent, betrays a distinct similarity with its negative space and lavish black arcs.
In attempting to dismiss the stylistic influences of Blake, Lindsay and Beardsley, Norton incidentally reveals her affinities with them, praising the conceptual underpinnings of their work. These foundational shared interests – including pantheism, neo-paganism, liberal sexual expression and depictions of the grotesque – all sit in opposition to the mainstream values of Norton’s milieu, and will be seen to form the substance of her politics.
Norton’s 1952 introduction also considers the ways in which her work might align with several modernist traditions. She begins by proposing:
Technically, [my] formula is often that of abstract composition with a superimposed content of classic form, together with the combined variation of two contrary styles – cubism and vorticism, the first tending to stylistic integration (by imposing an outward formula on a diversity of inward contents), the second to the impression of a dance or process involving the time dimension.
Thus Norton explains her adoption of the styles’ syntheses of abstraction and figuration, as well as their respective capacities for depicting form, space and time. Certainly one can observe the Cubist approach of fragmenting and reassembling form and perspective in works like The Initiate; as for Vorticism, Norton borrows what she sees as the movement’s central motif – “the spiral” – and applies it to evoke the dynamism of esoteric scenes rather than the burgeoning intensity of the modern world.
However, these comparisons are not wholly convincing. The jagged block colour compositions typical of vorticism, for example, are nowhere to be seen. It is almost as if Norton intends to distract the reader from a more revealing prospect: her relationship to Surrealism. Butler and Donaldson cite Norton as one of a group of artists who “would constitute a possible Australian […] contribution to a show of world Surrealism,”  while Drury has noted that “there is no doubting […] the influence of Surrealism on her painting and drawing.” Norton herself professed an interest in the Surrealist artists Yves Tanguy and Roberto Matta Echaurron, but “downplayed the influence of Surrealism” in the catalogue text to her 1949 Melbourne exhibition and “consistently denied that she should be labelled [a Surrealist].” Norton’s reluctance to embrace the label, however, need not be the final word on a possible confluence of approaches. Visually, there are parallels to Matta: emphatic linear forms jut and intersect into irregular lattices, within which figurative elements emerge. There is less direct likeness to Tanguy’s sparse, amorphous dreamscapes. But importantly, Norton, Matta and Tanguy all shared an interest in visualizing the world by engaging the unconscious, the unknown and the irrational. Like the Surrealists, Norton was an avid reader of psychoanalytic theory – namely, Jung and Freud. She referenced the former’s Psychology of the Unconscious in the unpublished notes accompanying The Art of Rosaleen Norton, and appealed to the credibility of psychoanalytic ideas when defending the book against obscenity charges in November 1952. Norton conceived of her graphic work as a means of engaging with the unconscious and with immaterial planes of existence variously referred to as archetypal, astral and divine. In this way, her process of illustration is complementary – if not ancillary – to a process of psychic exploration:
Norton began […] restricting her normal consciousness in an effort to induce automatic drawing and allowing what she called an ‘abnormal mode of consciousness’ to take over. According to Norton this produced “a number of peculiar and unexpected results and some drawings which were later exhibited.
If Breton’s definition of Surrealism as “pure psychic automatism”  is to be taken seriously, then Norton’s generative use of automatic drawing during self-hypnosis is surely Surrealist by nature.
Norton’s ambivalent engagement with modernist traditions carries a political charge. While borrowing from Cubism and Vorticism, Norton discards those movements’ emphases on formalistic revolution, instead repurposing selected techniques to vividly depict her idiosyncratic occult mythology. Here, Norton celebrates a spiritual individualism, rather than adhering to the philosophical projects of the movements she channels. This emphasis on radical spirituality is expanded by her use of Surrealist tactics: like Matta, Tanguy, Breton and so many others, Norton displays an earnest belief in occultism as a form of metaphysical enquiry, and embraces automatism and trance as an alternative epistemology. Norton and these Surrealists (though all stylistically diverse) assert the “primacy of the unconscious”  and advocate, in Breton’s words, “the dream applied to the solution of the fundamental problems of life.”  Like Breton, Norton felt that a post-Enlightenment devotion to logic and rationalism had proved “hostile to all intellectual and moral advances,” and consisted in “mediocrity, hate and dull conceit.” In fact, Breton’s words of protest in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto are strongly echoed in Norton’s own take on the avant-garde manifesto model – a poem called Litany which features in her posthumous collection Thorn in the Flesh:
FROM THE EVIL OF “COMMONSENSE”
From taking thought from the morrow
From the perils of “ought” and “should”
LORD PAN DELIVER US!!!!
FROM THE FALSE GOD “FACT”
LORD PAN DELIVER US!!!!
FROM THE LIE THEY CALL “REALITY”
FROM THE PERIL OF “PROGRESS”
FROM THE “SANE AND HEALTHY OUTLOOK”
FROM MEDIOCRITY LORD PAN DELIVER US!!!!
NOW AND FOREVER MORE. AMEN-RA.
There are numerous critiques at play in this poem – some of which are here omitted for brevity – though we might note the reciprocal critique of rationalism and religious dogmatism. “Fact” is described as a “false god,” while the last line is an irreverent twisting of the Christian “Amen” into a name from Ancient Egyptian polytheism.  Norton implicates rationalism in a critique of monotheism, questioning modern society’s singular appeal to “commonsense,” “fact” and “sanity.” Like Breton, she suggests that rationalism entails not only a set of epistemological tools, but indeed an ethical and political agenda: the “perils” of “ought” and “should,” and “progress.” If the logic of rationalistic science had led to Nazi eugenics and the atomic bomb, then Norton’s most productive period (the late 1940s and early 1950s) was a crucial time to be questioning the natural authority of the Enlightenment project. 
The techniques and tendencies of surrealism presented a natural mode through which Norton could, in part, articulate her politics of resistance. There are specific critiques of this kind in Norton’s graphic work. One sees dreamlike compositions such as The Jester, which groups social authority figures into a unified composition and renders them as marionettes, controlled by an archetypal fool, surrounded by demons. Among these authority figures is a scientist, depicted with a white lab coat, round spectacles and holding a laboratory retort. In the absurdist and surrealistic piece of short prose The Parable of a Call to Alms, Norton champions a “nonsensical” witch figure in a dispute with a Sage who arrogantly promotes “logic”, “the scientific attitude” and “the God Electronics.” These works mark somewhat literal subversions of rationalistic signifiers. But far from being isolated examples, they underscore how Norton’s broader use of Surrealist techniques constituted a radical politics of resistance, challenging the authority of rationalistic science as the foundational paradigm for society. From the nascent sympathies for occultism evident in Norton’s early short stories, an all-encompassing worldview congruent with Surrealism emerged. This worldview was soon to challenge society in many other ways.
Chapter Two: Resistance to Hegemony in the work of Rosaleen Norton
Pitiless perfect lips that opened and spoke forth the rays of power. And the trees radiated outwards, flowing slowly, slowly, irresistibly, with silent terrible precision; moving always under the surface of things. Undermining…
Everywhere, they coiled pouring beneath the surface of all Creation, and where they passed the old order died and created forms were overthrown by power of the Spirits whom men have called evil.
“We are the ranks of the adversary”
Rosaleen Norton, “A Vision”
Like the radiating trees and mysterious forces in her poem-essay “A Vision,” Rosaleen Norton’s art practice prior to 1949 was moving mostly “under the surface of things.” Despite being published in Smith’s and Pertinent, and having exhibited paintings at the bohemian Pakie’s Club in Sydney, Norton had remained “very much a figure of the artistic underground.” This suddenly changed in the winter of 1949, when Norton, her cat Geoffrey and lover Gavin Greenlees hitchhiked south and secured a booking at the University of Melbourne’s Rowden-White Library gallery. Norton’s ensuing self-titled exhibition formed a pivotal moment in her career: a moment in which her art exploded into the public consciousness and became a site of political contention.
The show was opened on deceptively peaceful terms, with an opening speech from celebrated humanities professor Alan R. Chisholm. But two days later the vice squad arrived at the scene, immediately seizing four of the works on display and charging Norton with offences under Public Obscenity laws. This was not merely a police force initiative – it also reflected hostility from the wider public; the officers who confiscated the four most contentious works (Witches’ Sabbath, Lucifer, Triumph and Individuation) reportedly did so in light of public complaints. Visitors had described Norton’s work as “lewd and disgusting,” while the university’s Students’ Representative Council president – one I. J. Greenwood – said the show “offended good taste” and “should be stopped immediately.” In light of this moral dispute, one might ask if were these works merely contrived to shock the masses – to épater la bourgeoisie – or if, instead, they contained a complex political posture that confronted mainstream sensibilities.
Here it is prudent to pause and remember that ‘politics’ extends beyond the word’s generic usage in referring to the “formal politics” of law and governance. Certainly it includes the “informal politics” of daily life, the broader “activity through which people make, preserve and amend the general rules under which they live.” Yet common to all definitions of politics is a concern with distributions – of power, influence, and resources – an idea that encompasses knowledge, images, objects and texts. On this matter, critical theorist Jacques Rancière refers to “the distribution of the sensible,” the inclusion and exclusion of sensible materials in society. And it is here, Rancière observes, that politics and art fundamentally overlap: “Aesthetics  is not a discipline dealing with art and artworks, but a kind of, what I call, distribution of the sensible. I mean a way of mapping the visible, a cartography of the visible, the intelligible and also of the possible.”
This is the theoretical foundation from which I intend to explore the work of Rosaleen Norton. My inquiry does not aim to measure Norton’s role in specific political movements or landmark historical developments. Indeed, Rancière has criticized models of political art that propose a system of direct causality, insisting that within modernism, “political effect occurs under the condition of […] the suspension of any direct relationship between cause and effect.” Instead, Norton’s work coincides with Rancière’s notion of dissensus, constituting “a dispute over what is given and about the frame within which we sense something is given.” In mid-century Australia, Norton’s work disputed what was “given” (or distributed) by proffering so-called obscene art; likewise it disputed the frame of that contest, challenging mainstream paradigms to propose alternative moralities and epistemologies. The idea of dissensus is useful in that it allows for a political analysis that does not rely upon being alerted to stock “political” signifiers. Instead we can trace how Norton’s work challenged what Rancière calls the “police order” – society’s networks of power that determine accepted distributions of the sensible, according to “the underlying norms that define what is allowed or not allowed, available or unavailable in a given situation.”
In this chapter I will explore Norton’s work in relation to two aspects of this police order; firstly, the religious hegemony and secondly, the dominant paradigms surrounding gender. The title of this thesis suggests political postures according to what is challenged, what is being resisted. While I wish to avoid straightforward political binaries – which were never Norton’s domain – it is nevertheless this sense of resistance that I will attempt to trace throughout her work. Given that Norton equates her notion of “The Adversary” in “A Vision” to Lucifer, Norton’s resistance to Christian hegemony presents a natural departure point.
Rosaleen Norton and Christian Hegemony
There shall not be found among you any one […] that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord. Deuteronomy, 18: 10-12
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. Exodus 22:18
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. Samuel 15:23
Rosaleen Norton was a polytheistic Neopagan occultist. Eventually, she came to call herself a witch. Norton’s spirituality comprised an inherent challenge to Christian values; in turn, her art was a sustained articulation of her aberrant beliefs, a dissensus within a visual landscape that had been configured on Christian terms. One should note that between 1947 and 1966  Australia’s religious affiliation was at least 85% Christian, with the remainder mostly recorded as “not stated/insufficiently described.” Only around 1% of Australians during this period identified themselves as subscribing to Other (Non-Christian) religions, or “no religion.” As such, it would be inaccurate to attribute the 1950s notoriety of Norton’s practice to a trend away from Christianity in Australia. This cultural shift would come later, as Roger Thompson notes: “not until the 1960s did Australia start to become a post-Christian society, where religion no longer has the same degree of power it once enjoyed to influence political events.” Precisely how Norton’s art responded to these circumstances bears consideration, and I will argue in this section that her work both explicitly and implicitly critiqued the established Christian hegemony.  Meanwhile, I will contend that this critique was levelled more as a fierce assertion of equality, as a liberative impulse, than as a condemnation of Christianity’s tenets per se. In this way, media portrayals of Norton as a straightforward antagonist of the belief system – an “antichrist” figure – are ultimately misrepresentations, and belie a more nuanced form of resistance.
Let us return to Norton’s 1949 solo exhibition and in turn her most definitive published collection, 1952’s The Art of Rosaleen Norton. In the former we find a work entitled Witches’ Sabbath, one of the four confiscated works. In the latter, the image is revived, redrafted and renamed to Black Magic. These images mark a radical departure from acceptable depictions in the context of mid-century Australia. By the same token they exemplify Norton’s capacity to consciously position her imagery against, not merely in contrast, to Christian norms.
At the top of the frame we find two nuns: symbols of singular Christian devotion, visible conformity and – notably – celibacy, an extinguishment of female sexuality in the name of God. Here, that symbolism is aggressively subverted. The emblematic habits are torn asunder to reveal the nuns’ breasts and, in the case of the right-hand figure, a suggestively winking face. Norton places the left-hand nun on a crucifix, implicating Christ in the depraved arrangement and so committing the ultimate sacrilege. This is doubly present in Black Magic, where the central nude woman’s foot rests atop an inverted cross, commonly associated with Satanism or anti-Christian sentiment. The focal point of the image is, of course, the interspecies fornication between woman and panther; and if there was any doubt as to the carnal nature of their embrace, one need only consult Norton’s poem that sits alongside Black Magic in The Art Of: “Panther of the night… enfold me. / Take me, dark Shining One; mingle my being with you, / Prowl in my spirit with deep purring joy / Live in me, giver of terror and ecstasy / Touch me with tongues of black fire.” Certainly this unorthodox romance could be read as a metaphor; Norton’s poem suggests that the panther is a symbol of the titular “black magic” and in an obscenity trial following the publication of The Art of, expressed that the panther represented “secret forces of the night.” In broader psychoanalytic terms, she also said the embrace signified a “fusion of the conscious and subconscious mind.” While this may enrich a reading of the image, the bestiality depicted retains its primary impact, flouting a biblical taboo: “Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death […] and if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast.”
Through the subverted images of nuns and crucifixes, and the emphatic depiction of bestiality alongside, Norton creates a visual dialectic that poses a pointed resistance to Christian codes of sexuality. Meanwhile, menacing horned figures in both iterations of the image – closely resembling established depictions of the devil – make a more general statement against Christian hegemony. This feature is emphasized in Black Magic, where a second “devil” glares at a microcosmic city. His satisfied grin and dominant framing alongside the trapped civilization seems to propose an alternative power dynamic in which demonic influence reigns over the polis. His fingers clasp a serpent, or rather, a Biblical Satan – his arm, too, appears to be a snake’s body. The image is ultimately oriented towards a subversion and complication of Christianity’s primacy, through the presence of Christian iconography and the intrusion of its impermissible opposites. The gesture recalls Rancière’s description of politics,  understood as a dispute between a subject and the police order: “Politics is when you create a stage where you include your enemy, even if your enemy doesn’t want to be included.” As if to articulate this convergence, Norton’s poem announces: “Hatred and heaven are blending within me.”
Black Magic, although a pronounced example, is not unusual within Norton’s oeuvre in its confrontation of Christianity. Nevill Drury reminds us, more broadly, that “during the 1950s Norton’s controversial paintings and drawings embodied a deep-seated pagan impulse that ran counter to orthodox religious sensibilities.” By the same token, however, Drury’s discussions surrounding Norton and Christianity routinely emphasize that Norton was neither an avowed “antichrist” figure, nor did she worship one; rather, she worshipped Pan and was unfairly painted as a Satanist or devil-worshipper by the media. Marguerite Johnson has gone on to further theorise this portrayal of Norton, arguing that “Rosaleen was presented as society’s scapegoat, the witch on the outskirts of the community, a demon required to reinforce family values and Christian morality.” According to Johnson, then, Norton’s anti-Christian image was borne not of her own deeds, but rather contrived by the Christian hegemony as a form of propaganda by which to assert itself.
This may seem a ridiculous assertion in light of the imagery and disposition we have just explored, whereby Norton was clearly working with a view to challenging Christian morality in some capacity. Even so, these incongruous viewpoints can be reconciled, and to do so highlights one of the key nuances of Rosaleen Norton’s politics.
In exploring this we might return to “A Vision.” The piece lays itself out with a distinctly (though not satirically) Biblical tone, beginning with “There was darkness; the living darkness of the Void” and flowing into what appears to be a creation myth. Snakelike metaphysical beings emerge from the void; their pronouns are capitalized; They are imbued with “godlike aloofness” and “infinite untellable knowledge.” These serpentine spirits, with their infinite knowledge, bury themselves beneath the surface of Creation, announcing themselves as “the ranks of the Adversary.” Norton writes that she “realised why men always fear Knowledge for knowledge brings with it destruction.” Attesting to a cultural ignorance that recurs “throughout the ages,” Norton writes that “each man and each group flee in terror from the serpent forces beneath the surface; from the living roots of the Tree of Knowledge […] for to each man, as to the group, the death of the beliefs that he lives by is the death of his world.” Evidently, what Norton is privileging here is knowledge, not of a given type, but knowledge as a value in itself. Norton maintains that individuals and societies suppress the pursuit of knowledge because it may harbour uncomfortable truths, or by the same token, disrupt comfortable belief structures. Norton describes those who fearlessly seek knowledge as being hated:
…Hated for they dared to deny humanity’s most powerful god; its holy trinity which is Safety and Comfort united in one – Tradition. This god has many other names such as Orthodoxy and Public Opinion. It is called Society and Convention, and by many different creeds it is called the Only True Faith. But it is still the one god – the Tribal God; and he is a jealous god who casts rebels out of his domain, saying “thou shalt have no other gods but me.
Here we see perhaps the clearest articulation of Norton’s attitude towards religion. Not once is Christianity, the Bible, or any other specific religious icon mentioned in the scathing polemic. Instead Norton targets broad tendencies (towards tradition, orthodoxy, convention, ignorance and anti-intellectualism). Through “A Vision,” Norton advocates for adversary, but not against Christianity in any specific sense, instead critiquing the dogmatism and conservatism common in religion. Similarly, she critiques the masses’ blinkered subscription to religious doctrines (described as monotheistic), arguing that to do so is to adopt a wilful ignorance, a so-called “comfortable bliss, [a] fool’s Paradise.”110 It follows that specific attacks on Christianity within her art are expressions of this same broader frustration; attacks on the particular – and in the event, emphatically Christian – religious hegemony surrounding her.
Rosaleen Norton and Gender
Rosaleen Norton was at the vanguard of feminism and the counter-culture revolution. She was doing it, living it, decades before the second wave of feminism… In the fifties, Rosaleen was divorced, living in sin with a man 13 years her junior, had no children, was living as an artist and was a self-proclaimed witch. I certainly consider her a feminist icon.111
Sonia Bible, director, The Witch of Kings Cross documentary (forthcoming)
- Therefore did the Sage gird him with self-righteousness and don his armour of ironclad male […] And he spake of smiting hip and thigh (and divers other places): for is it not written, “thou shalt not suffer a bitch to live?” 11. And the Witch of Zend’or spake, saying “Cut the cackle, and answer me yea or nea!
Rosaleen Norton, “The Parable of a Call to Alms”
Given the focus of this section, one could be forgiven for presuming the above excerpt from The Parable of a Call to Alms was included to offer a sketch of Rosaleen Norton’s attitude towards gender relations. In truth, the artist’s politics regarding gender are not distilled in any single quotation. Norton rarely wrote or made art about gender explicitly. There is no value in exploiting details from Norton’s oeuvre (such as the excerpt above) to caricature her as a prototypical feminist artist, self-defined by a gendered campaign against the patriarchy. Nevertheless it will be shown that Norton’s work evinces characteristics that align with a feminist mode of resistance; as Drury puts it, “one can argue that she arrived at much the same viewpoint as present-day feminist practitioners of witchcraft and goddess worship.” Though Norton’s work may not be expressly feminist art, it manifestly troubles the dominant gender paradigms of its time, challenging not only gender roles – but also the presumed nature of gender itself.
The excerpt from The Parable of a Call to Alms provides a segue rather than a distillation. It underscores key intersections between the last section’s focus, and the concerns of the current one. Certainly, the Parable satirises a distinctly gendered exchange, belittling the male Sage and celebrating the female Witch. But more interestingly, it does so in a manner that apes Bible verse, and – through its dark-humoured Exodus 22:18 parody (“thou shalt not suffer a bitch to live”) – implicates male hubris with the perceived arrogance of the Christian hegemony. This is a politically loaded representation. As Austin Cline recalls, “the persecution of witches reached its zenith at a time when Christianity’s attitudes against sex had long since turned into full-blown misogyny,” and I will contend that one of Norton’s most crucial political undertakings lies in artistically resisting the intersection of patriarchal and monotheistic ideologies.
In this section I will chart disruptions of hegemonic gender assumptions evident in Norton’s work. This pursuit can be divided into three steps: firstly, by considering the antipatriarchal connotations and histories of witchcraft and polytheistic paganism which Norton thusly harnesses. Secondly, by tracing specific subversions of repressive gender relations in Norton’s work. And thirdly, by considering the ways in which Norton’s fundamentally disrupts the very concepts and constructs of gender that pervaded her time.
That Norton found herself within a patriarchal culture in mid 20th-century Sydney should hardly require much verification. Still, it is worth remembering the extraordinary extent to which power in Norton’s Australia was geared towards masculinity. When Norton was born, the suffragettes’ movement was only one generation past and New South Wales women were not yet entitled to stand for parliament. Norton’s public career  ran roughly in parallel to the incumbency of Robert Menzies, “the ultraconservative prime minister who reigned supreme in the 1950s with his anti-communist manifesto and harsh stance on censorship.” These formal politics underscore the era’s broader attitudes and systematically enshrined power relationships. Despite a surge in non-traditional employment during WWII, Australian women in the late 40’s and 50s were still expected to be housewives and child-rearers, and to largely eschew professional careers. The arts industry of the time reflected a broader gender imbalance in professional spheres. A 1949 article in Melbourne’s The Argus, mentioning Norton, notes that “it is unusual to have three art shows by women opened in the one week in this city, and a one-woman show at the Athenaeum this year will be almost a novelty.” In Rancière’s terms, the police order worked to exclude women’s agency, creativity and potential from the arena of the visible – and in turn, the perceived-possible.
This situation of inequity may well have influenced Norton’s gravitation towards witchcraft and the occult. But notwithstanding conscious motivations, we can observe the anti-patriarchal capacities of these traditions at play in her work. By the time of the modern era, Witchcraft’s historical representation as a persecuted practice under patriarchal hegemonies transformed its “alternative religiosity” into an active symbol of resistance. To quote Austin Cline, “the oppression of witches was somehow symbolic of the oppression of women in general, of women’s sexuality, and of sexuality in general.” By adopting the tradition of witchcraft into her aesthetic practice – and ultimately by adopting the identity of the witch – Norton was able to occupy a symbolic position of disobedience, declaring her allegiance in a long-standing struggle between empowered, deviant femininity and repressive patriarchal force. Norton embraces the historical tradition of witchcraft, but reconstructs the topoi of the witch according to her own idiosyncratic cosmology, philosophy and aesthetic. Her art generally eschews pointed hats, broomsticks, potions, cauldrons and malevolent spell-casting – instead repurposing iconography from Greek Mythology (Pan, Hecate), Jewish folklore (Lilith), Christianity (Lucifer, the Pentagram), and countless other sources – including her own imagination – to construct a new and revitalized image of the witch.
Feminist re-appropriation of the witch figure is now so commonplace as to seem unremarkable. Indeed, the image of the witch has arguably been emptied of its long-standing negative connotation, replaced with neutral and positive pop culture representations evident in the likes of Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenage Witch Buffy, Charmed and the Harry Potter franchise. But it is important to note that Norton’s practice prefigured this widespread reappropriation, which emerged as Norton’s own career was declining; Qinna Shen reminds us that “feminist self-fashioning as witches is part of the international second-wave women’s movement that started in the late 1960s” – that is to say, almost twenty years after Norton’s heyday. This certainly attests to Norton’s innovative, non-conformist streak – but more importantly, it reminds us that her gestures of re-appropriation would have borne far more political force in its time than we can readily appreciate today.
Poring over The Art of Rosaleen Norton, one is confronted with images that mark an insurrection into any society where, as Mary McIntosh describes, “women’s sexuality is suppressed by men or in the interests of patriarchy,” and whereby women “are prevented from realizing their full potential.” In Bacchanal, women of all descriptions revel among men, demons, beasts and skeletons in a wild orgy. It is one of Norton’s most visceral depictions of unbridled sexuality, abounding in taboo, and literally foregrounding female erotic pleasure in the form of two ecstatic, nude, red-haired figures. Fearless depictions of female sexuality abound in Norton’s illustration – notably in the The Initiate, which exalts an esoteric lesbian tryst, and in the previously discussed Black Magic.
Lilith, meanwhile, is a more sedate and stately nude, and aside from the suggestive inclusion of a black panther (recalling the notorious Witches Sabbath/Black Magic images) it might seem relatively benign. However, those familiar with the medieval Jewish story of the titular character will immediately recognize the work as a bold glorification of one of mythology’s most maligned feminists.
Lilith, according to the Alphabet of ben Sirach (c. 700-1000 AD) was Adam’s first wife in the Garden of Eden. Unlike her successor Eve, Lilith would not accept that she had been created as a subservient companion: “She said to [Adam], ‘The two of us are equal, since we are both from the earth.’ […] Since Lilith saw [how it was], she uttered God’s ineffable name and flew away into the air.” Lilith would soon be wrestled into the Red Sea by three angels, and choosing to stay there rather than acquiesce to God’s demands, she “indulged herself in unbridled promiscuity giving rise to more than a hundred demonic offspring each day.” Contemporary Jewish Feminist scholar Diana Carvahlo argues that in modern readings of the Lilith/Eve juxtaposition, “Eve’s creation and her actions in Genesis are interpreted as a product of patriarchy” while “Lilith, the independent, ‘demon’ and ‘first wife’ of Adam is praised as a symbol of female sexuality.” Gavin Greenlees’ verse, placed alongside Norton’s image of Lilith, emphatically confirms the image’s feminist leanings: “[Lilith] is the queen of night and sympathy […] She holds the swimmer, man, a devoted servant of her image.” Norton embodies the “swimmer, man” in two subservient fish, controlled by Lilith’s line. Greenlees continues: “And this is justice, for brute history / The tyrant who is no more,” suggesting Lilith’s rightful triumph over patriarchal tyranny. He adds: “Now female art holds meaning, free of purpose” – as if to suggest that by inverting patriarchal power relations, women’s art would also be freed from political imperatives, producing meaning purely on its own terms.
Norton invoked Lilith repeatedly, but Hecate – the Greek goddess of “magic, witchcraft, the night, moon, ghosts and necromancy” – was perhaps a more central figure in the artist’s cosmology. She appears in Norton’s psychedelic oil painting Untitled (Hecate) as an ominous, glaring blue figure sitting atop an inverted triangle, against a fierce backdrop of red and blue-green fire.
The inverted (point-down) triangle is a common reference for “maiden, mother, crone” in pagan symbolism, condensing a three-fold notion of womanhood which would reappear in feminist Triple Goddess worship. But if Hecate was, in part, a maternal figure for Norton, she was meanwhile a fearsome witch; Norton claimed that Hecate both “frightened and protected” her, thus channeling the goddess’ historical double valence as a menacing spell-caster and as a “benign life force.” Norton’s multivalent use of the Hecate figure exemplifies how Norton’s work resists straightforward tropes of femininity. Norton’s female icons embody a spectrum of womanhood, with each carrying diverse connotations both historically and aesthetically endowed.
My final point on the question of Norton’s relationship to gender is a more fundamental one. It relates to a questioning of gender binaries per se. Throughout Norton’s work, we see a commingling of characteristics traditionally ascribed to “male” and “female,” “masculine” and “feminine.” Bacchanal does emphasize women’s sexuality – this much is true – but the general impact of the work constitutes a blurring of gender distinctions. Several figures in the frame possess both breasts and so-called male genitalia; moreover, the seething wave of faces, limbs and body parts hinders they eye’s attempt to identify individuals, or the nature of their sexual encounters. Instead we see a landscape in which gender is confused, and sexuality is multifaceted and fluid. In other works, like Esoteric Study, Individuation we re-encounter bodies that resist interpretation as either male or female. More than just androgynous, these are intersex figures, inscribed with the presumed bodily characteristics of both man and woman.
Such depictions recall the “hermaphrodite” representation of Baphomet, a major occult icon associated with both Satan and Norton’s pre-eminent deity, Pan. Baphomet features prominently in the work of occultist Eliphas Levi, which Norton had studied avidly.
In Satanic Feminism, Per Faxneld argues that Levi’s Baphomet is a “symbol of synthesis and transcendence of polarities” – an idea which is prevalent in Norton’s approach to gender representation. Pan, for example, is traditionally understood as male – and so one might suppose that a patriarchal order is implied in Norton’s cosmology. However, in her “Occult Notes” Norton insists: “the concept that Pan represents Man or men or the exclusively male factor in things is erroneous […] Pan isn’t men nor man nor boys nor girls nor any other category peculiar to the human race.” In the short prose piece “Sudden Intervention of the Other,” Norton suggests the term “Femina Victrix,” i.e. victorious woman, as a correction for the term “Homo Superior,” or higher man, but quickly she abandons this binary contention, stating: “I prefer triplicity to duplicity, as has been said all along, implicitly.”
There is nothing implicit about many of the other gender-questioning moments in Thorn in The Flesh. Norton openly explores her own sense of gender, frequently rejecting the assumption that gender is binary or fixed. In “Sunday Night,” she describes an encounter on the astral plane. An astral being asks Norton, “Are you a man or a woman?” to which she replies “Neither and both.” She goes on to state: “Physical form is female. Sometimes Astral is male (or female or both). Mental is male and neither. Spirit is both and neither (M).” Similarly, in the poem “Full Circle,” Norton writes: “Male and female, neither, both – in many different times and places / Wheels within the wheel of Me, carven in a thousand faces. / Which was I? I know and do not know.” Her matter-of-fact “Essay on Sexual Response as Noted In Herself” is a reflection on her own desires, claiming she is attracted to “feminine men” as well as homosexual men, women, and various other categories of sexual partner. This detail might seem more personal than political if not for Norton’s observation that she is unpicking the “standardized norm of both sexes.” Sonia Bible has noted this trend in Norton’s practice, contending: “I don’t think that gender discrimination was her issue. I think that she was more interested in redefining gender.”
As mentioned earlier, Norton’s resistance to gender assumptions is tied up in challenging the norms of a society at once patriarchal and Christian. Yet her disdain for reductive gender binaries carries over to less obvious targets, such as the Neopagan religion Wicca. In an untitled Occult Note, Norton asserts that “…the Wiccan Gods – as presented by [Gerald] Gardner and to a lesser extent [Margaret] Murray, they seem to be mainly a kind of summing of, respectively, All Men (The God) and All Women (The Goddess) instead of Beings in themselves having correspondences.” Gardner’s Wicca, a modern polytheism with feminist overtones, was invested in reclaiming witchcraft as a celebration of womanhood, but here Norton is skeptical. She seems to suggest that Wicca reinforces reductive gender binaries – thus playing into the existing rhetoric of the hegemony rather than allowing for a radical re-evaluation.
Norton’s resistance to gender norms constitutes a key dissensus, challenging dominant representations and frames of understanding gender within mid-century Australia. Norton proposed a fluid, pluralistic view of gender and sexuality that was well ahead of its time. Despite the influential work of thinkers like Judith Butler in deconstructing gender in decades since, Norton’s resistance to traditional conceptions maintains the utmost relevance today.
Chapter Three: Negotiating Public Image as an Art of Resistance
The artful life is one wherein acts of resistance and affirmation, negativity and positivity, are concretized through the various modalities of lived existence.
Zachary Simpson, Life as Art from Nietzsche to Foucault: Life, Aesthetics, and the Task of Thinking
In the spiral horns of the Ram;
In the deep scent of Midnight;
In the secret Colour above and beneath the spectrum;
Is Life […]
I live in the green blooded Forest,
I live in the white fire of Powers
I live in the scarlet blossom of Magic,
I live in Infinity, I live.
Rosaleen Norton, “A Chant” (1962)
Hitherto I have focused on details of Norton’s written and graphic work, and their relationship to traditions, power relations and political postures of resistance. In this final chapter, I would like address gestures that may not constitute texts in the usual sense, but which form vital elements of Norton’s artistic project – signifying both the inner foundation and the aesthetic frame of her practice. These include the qualities of Norton’s personal lifestyle, her engagement with the public sphere, and notably her self-construction as a witch through the tabloid media. In short, I wish to examine Norton’s negotiation of her public image. It is important to note that our access to this negotiation is mediated: through the selectivity and subjectivity of biography, journalism and scholarship. Thus when considering the self-construction of Norton’s image, it is necessary to also consider the secondary reconstructions through which we receive it.
Can lifestyle constitute an art of resistance? The question firstly demands whether lifestyle can be understood as art; after all, it is common to speak of an “art practice” as a sealed or discontinuous pursuit, an occupation or pastime. For Rosaleen Norton, it seems, this was never the case. Drury stresses that Norton’s art was her “main passion, her main reason for living. She had no ‘career’ ambitions other than to reflect on the forces within her being […] as her sister Cecily told me, art was the centre of her life.” This could be a romantic assessment, or hagiographic exaggeration. However, given that Norton’s art conveyed her spiritual, metaphysical and political beliefs – her fundamental relationship to the world – we have little reason to doubt that it is essentially true. Keith Richmond affirms this inseparability of Norton’s esoteric art and lifestyle, stating: “throughout her life [she] remained largely focussed on two things, her art and occultism, although – as apparent to anyone familiar with her artwork – these were really one and the same thing.”
There is a political potency in the way Norton conflated art and life within her milieu. Sonia Bible stresses that Norton’s day-to-day existence was as significant as specific creative works (if not more so) in challenging dominant paradigms: “Although Rosaleen Norton was charged with obscenity after producing art works, it was her lifestyle that caused the most controversy.” This, she notes, was bound up in gender expectations: “It was not acceptable for a woman to be single, living in sin, working as an artist and calling herself a witch.” While other artists in Norton’s circles had explored the occult – for example, Rayner Hoff and Norman Lindsay – none had their reputations “so thoroughly besmirched” as Norton. This too would suggest a political undercurrent; Bible contends “it was just so much more scandalous because she was a woman.”
We need not ascertain that Norton conceived of her public image as a “work of art,” or contrived her lifestyle as a kind of all-encompassing performance. But there is no doubt that Norton lived aesthetically. From a young age Norton seemed to find her expression through esoteric artistic imaginings; in 1957 she wrote that “my first drawings, at about 3 and a half, we mainly creatures called ‘Nothing Beasts’ and ‘Flippers,’ which I knew very well as presences.” […] various psychic manifestations, both subjective and objective, have always been an integral part of my life.”
Norton began experimenting with trance art – her first forays into self-hypnosis rituals occurring in 1940, when she was 23. This, perhaps, signals the serious beginning of Norton’s occult practice in daily life. Norton documents her early self-induced trance rituals, recalling:
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 and tried to clear my mind of all conscious thought…
While such a ritual may be understood as a means to certain ends – psychic exploration, automatic drawing and so on – it boasts a theatrical aesthetic of its own. Furthermore, the Surrealistic co-dependence of trance ritual and graphic work characterises Norton’s interdisciplinary art practice, and underscores a relationship to prototypical models of magic-making. Carl Einstein explains that “myth and ritual have a performative mimetic function,” articulating through carefully structured enactments a relationship to nature and to others in a community. Norton’s long-term commitment to these rituals, which later became devotionals to Pan and Hecate, further collapses any life/art distinction. Norton’s lifestyle – comprised in a conflation of art and occult enquiry – represents a political resistance in a society geared towards efficiency rather than expression, prescribed roles rather than exploration. To orient one’s life not only towards art, but towards a dissensual artistic mode, suggests a consummate aesthetico-political resistance. In “Life as Art From Nietzsche to Foucault,” Zachary Simpson theorises how “life as art is consistently formulated as a rejection of, and form of resistance to, dominant or administered realities.” This was precisely Norton’s formula.
Rosaleen Norton and the Media
Notwithstanding the enduring interest of Norton’s work and practices, critics’ imaginations remain captured by Norton’s media representation. This discursive construction represents an ambivalent project that has been largely responsible for determining the nature of Norton legacy. In retrospect it is possible to analyse Norton’s interactions with the media, to expose their significance and political charge.
Aside from a handful of innocuous newspaper mentions in her youth, and the publication of her Smith’s stories in 1935, Norton does not feature in any public media until 1941. Here we find her art practice discussed in Pertinent, alongside several “visionary drawings.” These early articles describe Norton as if her reputation preceded her: “few, if any, other Australian artists have aroused as much astonishment, as well as technical controversy, as Miss Rosaleen Norton.” Meanwhile the stories lavish praise, suggesting Norton is “worthy of comparison with some of the best Continental, American and English contemporaries.” It appears that Norton’s appetite for media recognition had been whet; according to Drury, “Norton was encouraged by the coverage in Pertinent; for her it represented a breakthrough to receive such recognition.” By 1943 we encounter Norton in a more active dialogue with the press, in this instance with the Sydney newspaper Truth. Nestled amid soap advertisements and bleak news from World War 2 ran an article entitled “Girl Gets Themes When Hypnotised.” It appeared on the 30th of May – one day ahead of her first public exhibition at Pakie’s Club.
Here we can already see the visual hallmarks of Norton’s media depiction – suggesting these were largely pre-meditated tropes arising from the artist herself. She appears in a velveteen dress adorned with a silhouetted sphinx, and boasts her distinctive make-up; the journalist notes that “Miss Norton, dark and slim, herself affects the long, uplifted eyebrows familiar in satanic stage impersonations.” Nine years before Norton pronounced herself a witch, she already attracts the term “Satanic”; she is described as a “student of the occult” who has “delved deeply into the mysteries of witchcraft, as practiced in the middle ages.” Adding to this mystique, Norton tells the reporter that she has enjoyed “remarkable results in the field of psychic phenomena,” claiming that many of her drawings were made under “her own hypnotic influence.” She adds that a nude woman she has drawn beneath a leering satyr “is symbolical of herself” – undoubtedly a scandalous intimation. In the photograph, Norton smiles while drawing Nightmare, which the writer describes as “worse than the most terrible nightmare experienced by any normal person.” One might recognize a sensationalist streak in the journalism here, but evidently there is no holding back from Norton either. Artist and reporter appear united in a desire to provoke. Norton even goes so far as to announce that “vampires” exist on the Astral Plane – something she never claimed before or after. Thus it appears that from the early stages of Norton’s engagement with the media, she actively courted controversy. With her media engagement, as with her illustration, one can observe a measured and deliberate provocative tendency. The attention this provocation garnered would soon aid Norton in disseminating a range of more sophisticated, more politically loaded ideas.
Norton’s busiest period of media engagement came alongside her 1949 solo exhibition in Melbourne. Amid the uproar of police intervention and an ensuing court trial, Norton used the platform of nation-wide media coverage to broadcast her ideas surrounding censorship and the occult. An obscenity charge had been levelled at Norton, due to her “three studies of human hermaphrodites” and her sexually charged, Church-goading Witches’ Sabbath.162 In the papers, Norton decried the charge as “ridiculous” and maintained that her exhibition “would not close until forced to do so.” In the Sydney Morning Herald she suggested that her critics should “study closely Aristotle’s theory of the function of tragic art,” offering a fresh theoretical frame in which to consider the images.
In Sydney’s Truth, Norton derided the law enforcement’s intrusion into art matters, saying “was amused that cultural standards of Victorian policemen were greater than those of Professor A. R. Chisholm” before adding, in Adelaide’s The News: “artistic standards are always different from accepted standards.” In the Daily Telegraph, Norton elaborated: “Obscenity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.” She used the opportunity to denounce a broader social tendency towards censorship, saying “this figleaf morality expresses a very unhealthy attitude.”
Two weeks later The News also ran a story in which Norton clarified the role of her self-hypnotism and explained the symbolism of her most contentious works. Here she discussed demonology, witchcraft, religion, Freudian psychoanalysis and her esoteric cosmology. At least 93 articles mentioning Rosaleen Norton were published in Australia in 1949. Most quote or paraphrase her public statements, and it is unsurprising that Hobart’s The Mercury noted Norton’s “neat flair for publicity.” While many of the 1949 articles did reference the shocking nature of her art, most gave credence (or at least column space) to Norton’s defences.
Norton had thus fostered a strategic situation in which she could intensify controversy, and therefore public attention, through the media – while using the same platform to defend her work in a sophisticated manner. However, this was not a stable arrangement. Perth’s Sunday Times soon criticized the magnitude of Norton’s publicity, stating that it served only to “draw attention to works which may otherwise have passed, more or less, unnoticed […] forms of expression […] that outrage average decency don’t usually get very far.” Other outlets began to fixate on Norton’s physical attributes and bohemian lifestyle, rather than her artistic and political ideas. Perth’s Daily News described her eccentric apartment in intimate detail and called her a chain-smoking “feminine fantasy” with a “good figure” who engaged in “hair-raising” trance sessions. A sarcastic note by the journalist – “see?”– follows the only quotation from Norton, which concerns “ectoplasm,” astral bodies and manifest Being.
Norton’s coverage died off after the 1949 affair. When publicity returned in 1951, it carried a different tone. Now articles barely mentioned Norton’s practice and instead reported on the “minor earthquake” of outrage caused by her stay in a mens-only hostel in Fitzroy, or the vagrancy charges laid against Norton and Gavin Greenlees. Attention returned to Norton’s work in 1952 following the publication of The Art of Rosaleen Norton, but this reportage was less sympathetic to Norton’s imagery – Perth’s Mirror relayed descriptions of the book as “pornographic,” “shockingly depraved” and “maligning womanhood,” despite burying praise deep in the column. Another report in the Mirror, one week later, was all the more damning, calling the book “plain prostitution of what might have been art” and, ironically, denouncing the attention it had received.178 Meanwhile in Truth, Ian Stapleton (who had helped Norton secure the Rowden-White gallery three years prior) defended her, saying: “Miss Norton’s motives were found to be absolutely pure […] moral idiocy and fraud grip about 90 per – cent of the community [which is] a legacy of a savage and despicable moral attitude, called Puritanism.” The significant development in the early fifties is the lack of Norton’s voice: less and less is she quoted or interviewed within media representations. Norton’s most notable press appearance of 1952 is a tantalizing interview in the tabloid Australasian Post. Here, she entertains a controversial notion – “maybe I am a witch” – but in this instance, controversy would work against her. The article, combined with the banning of The Art Of Rosaleen Norton and its scathing press coverage, contributed to a general sullying of Norton’s public image. In 1955, she was accused of conducting depraved Black Mass rituals, involving orgies and animal sacrifice, in her flat. Later that year the police raided Norton and Greenlees’ home, discovering a photo of Greenlees in ritual garb flagellating Norton’s buttocks, for which the couple was “remanded on indecency charges.” Her romantic and occult involvement with the famous composer and conductor Sir Eugene Goossens, who was arrested for possessing pornography and ritual masks, further tarnished her reputation.
Seemingly in response to this bad publicity, Norton began to strategically reclaim the “wicked witch” image that was plaguing her. She did so by once again engaging The Australasian Post. Here it is vital to remember that witchcraft was not only taboo, but in fact still illegal in New South Wales: the British Witchcraft Act of 1735 would not be repealed there until 1969. In 1956, Norton reappeared in the Post, audaciously confirming “I Am a Witch!” A few weeks later she returned again, pronouncing “I Was Born a Witch!” Accompanying photographs featured Norton’s usual occult inventory, such as her altar to Pan, but also more clichéd witchcraft iconography such as a pointed hat that looked “like a prop from a Disney movie.”
Within this context she also professed to be a “devil worshipper,” albeit with the caveat, “if Pan is the devil.” This overt embrace of a familiar and maligned witch image was a radical enough gesture to direct attention back to Norton’s own articulations, and to secure her an ongoing public mouthpiece through Australasian Post. The articles grew into extended treatises by Norton, and allowed her to resume her public discourse regarding psychoanalysis, eclectic occultism and even religion. Norton stated in “I am a Witch!” that she believed in “lots of gods, Buddha, and even the Christian God.” Drury argues that this betrays her insincere self-construction as a witch, calling it a “revealing statement, which no witch would have made.” Elsewhere, he proposes that Norton’s claim to have been born a witch “was simply the development of her mystique.” Still, if adopting the persona of a stereotypical witch was a concession, Drury affirms that “Roie was enjoying the forum offered to her to explain her beliefs.”
Norton’s engagement with the media worked both for and against her, in ultimately unquantifiable ways. Typically, however, Norton’s more direct engagements proved far more beneficial to her practice, offering her opportunities to explain the nuances of her work. In 1949, Norton exploited this to great effect, articulating a politics of resistance against censorship and staging a defense of taboo occult imagery. Undoubtedly this media interaction constitutes part of Norton’s broader practice, influencing the scope and context in which her visual and written work could be appreciated. Furthermore, her personal reclamation of the witch image in the mid-to-late 1950s constituted a radical gesture which, while perhaps distorting the transmission of Norton’s genuine interests, afforded her a platform to once again articulate and disseminate her beliefs – reasserting her agency and voice in the public sphere.
“And yet where all beginnings are, and endings, in the Now That Sphinxwise holds the answers to our ceaseless “Why” and “How”? Where limits bound the limitless. Where part contains the whole: Where paradox is truth, where man can reach the changeless goal Named Knowledge – Thousand-eyed one, whose kaleidoscopic face Reflects, in part, the huge design of universal space.”
Rosaleen Norton, “Meditation on Beethoven and Einstein”
Over the past three chapters, I have argued that Rosaleen Norton’s practice can be understood as a politically charged art of resistance. From a young age, Norton resisted society’s distaste for the unknown and the macabre; this resistance became central to her rendition of gothic horror fiction, whereby she began to champion the figure of the artistoccultist. By the late 1940s, this youthful defiance had grown into a rigorous embrace of occultism and polytheism. Norton explored these esoteric interests using techniques endemic in Surrealism (trance, automatism, psychoanalytic symbolism), which posed a fierce challenge to the rationalistic, conservative mentality of her milieu. The works of Norton’s 1949 exhibition, and the closely linked collection in 1952’s The Art of Rosaleen Norton, formed an elaborate visualization of Norton’s personal cosmology and dreamlike imaginings. But they also constituted a radical dissensus, presenting images that defied acceptable standards in representation. They resisted the moral codes of a Christian and patriarchal hegemony, reconfiguring its distribution of the sensible. Finally, and perhaps most broadly, Norton’s own lifestyle, and her mediation of her public image, served as a politico-aesthetic resistance to the society around her. As a divorced bisexual woman practicing occult art, Norton rejected the social mores of mid-century Sydney. More remarkably, by eventually embracing the identity of ‘Witch,’ Norton harnessed the media to revalorize a slur against her, and reasserted her agency within the public arena.
Rosaleen Norton has long been understood as a freethinking, bohemian artist who challenged convention. But a thorough and sustained consideration of Norton’s creative gestures in political terms has offered an opportunity to understand their inner machinations, as well as their specific resulting postures. This now allows us to grapple with a fundamental question: to what end did Norton’s politics of resistance work? Despite her emphasis on persistent adversary, it would be unsatisfactory to assume that Norton resisted for resisting’s sake.
We might conclude that Rosaleen Norton worked towards knowledge, and towards freedom. Knowledge – the kaleidoscopic “changeless goal” of man, mentioned in the above excerpt – was always central to Norton’s practice. The paramount form of knowledge therein was experiential knowledge; in the occult note Magic and Witchcraft Norton wrote “this reality which is mine must and will be fully regained […] to me, Knowledge means personal experience.” Norton’s attitude recalls the words of Aleister Crowley (an avowed influence on Norton) who held experience as preeminent: “I want everything that the world holds […] This is the keynote of my life, the untrammelled delight in every possibility of existence, potential or actual.”  On the matter of potential existence one should remember that Norton’s ideal of knowledge included spiritual and metaphysical understanding. This too was an empirical and dynamic pursuit, sought through the occult modes of astral projection, magic and mythology, and explicated through the very process of creating esoteric art.
The ideal of freedom, meanwhile, implies a more socially oriented goal; by way of definition, freedom tacitly suggests external forces of control and restriction. In this context, for Norton, the fundamental freedom is self-determination. Her reflective essay Credo advocates a form of “pride” that eschews “herd values,” saying: “I am as I am and not as they would try and make me.” This is, in turn, the essence of Rancière’s dissensus: the assertion of one’s agency and equality against a policing order, a delimiting distribution of the sensible.
Given Norton’s strident individualism, one may wonder if Norton’s politics were solely self-interested. Beyond her “vision” of sustained adversary, did Norton have a vision for wider society? The answer is perhaps both no and yes. In an untitled occult note, Norton states:
“I do not wish to propagate any cult (even the Witch-cult), change society, establish a “better world” for others etc […] I have what I prefer to describe as a function rather than a “message” or a “mission” (which words I detest). The function is that of focus and catalyst in relation to certain forces, situations and people – and this function is best served by performing my own personal will.”
Once again, it is evident that Norton’s political interests lie in self-expression against established orders. Norton acknowledges that this libertarian outlook could influence the world: “If my own activities have any effect for or agin such movements [of cultural change], so much the better.” Still, ultimately, Norton does not seek disciples or adherents to her beliefs, but advocates for fellow-travellers in individualism: “I do not really like or want inferiors, but equals.” She reminds us, “I am not a “ruler” or a “lawgiver” but an explorer,” implying that to promulgate her own standards would risk becoming the sort of prescriptive force she is adamant in resisting. On one hand, Norton’s individualistic stance is confluent with the quasi-anarchistic politics of Crowley’s Thelema religion, which promoted the universal tenet, “Do what thou wilt, and that shall be the whole of the law.”  But unlike Crowley, Norton resists the urge to enshrine her ideas in a fixed ideology or religion: “I do not wish to found any school or order such as those founded by G [George Gurdjieff, founder of “The Fourth Way”] or C [Aleister Crowley].” She hereby professes to “disagree utterly with Crowley over a very fundamental point […] the will to proclaim the “Rule” of Man.”
This dissertation has addressed a specific quality that pervades Norton’s work and her posture within culture: resistance. But any beholder of Norton’s work should remember that resistance, characterized by negativity and struggle, is not the singular defining narrative therein. Norton’s practice would not have ceased to exist if society had simply welcomed it. Likewise – and despite the forces working against Norton – knowledge and freedom were not merely, perpetually forthcoming in her view. The paradox alongside Norton’s ‘resistance’ is that her art also signifies the immanence of these ideals. For just as mid-century Sydney was the site of Norton’s practice, so too was the esoteric world; the world of the astral plane, of the coven, of imagination and the unconscious; the world of Pan and the world of the boundless. In “A Vision,” Norton proposes a world defined by adversary, in which resistance is the imperative of occultism and art. In “A Chant,” for Norton, the world of knowledge and freedom has already won out: “I live in the scarlet blossom of Magic, I live in Infinity, I live.”
- Norton, Rosaleen. “A Vision.” Supplement to The Art of Rosaleen Norton (1982 Edition). Ed. Walter Glover. Bondi Beach: Walter Glover, 1984. This edition is used throughout and abbreviated hereafter to Norton, Supplement to The Art of Rosaleen Norton.
- As noted in the non-fiction collection of the same name. Richmond, Keith. “Introduction”. Norton, Rosaleen. Thorn in the Flesh: A Grim-memoire. Teitan, 2009. Print. This edition is used throughout and abbreviated hereafter to Norton, Thorn in the Flesh.
- Drury, Nevill. “Rosaleen Norton in Context: Modern Magic and Women’s Mysteries.” Pan’s Daughter: The Strange World of Rosaleen Norton. Sydney, Australia: Collins Australia, 1988. This edition is used throughout and abbreviated hereafter to Drury, Pan’s Daughter.
- Burden, Zora. “Guest Post: Conversations with Sonia Bible about the Witch of Kings Cross (Part II). “The Wild Hunt. Web. 13 Oct. 2015.
- i.e. that which is perceptible by the senses and mind. See: Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2004.
- Bronner, Simon J. “Tradition.” International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. Ed. William A. Darity, Jr. Vol. 8. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 420-422.
- To quote Keith Richmond in Norton, Rosaleen, and Keith Richmond. “Introduction.” Three Macabre Stories. Francestown, N.H.: Typographeum, 1996.
- Possibly an early reference to Norton’s favoured deity, Pan, who is typically depicted as a half-goat, halfman holding a (thusly-named) pan-flute.
- The last point refers to the questioning of the dream/reality dichotomy. Burleson, Donald R. “On Lovecraft’s Themes: Touching the Glass.” An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. David E. Schulz. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1991.
- Butler, Rex, and A.D.S. Donaldson. “Surrealism and Australia: Towards a World History of Surrealism.” Journal of Art Historiography 9 (2013). Web. 17 May 2015.
- Breton writes: “SURREALISM, noun, masc., Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason…” Waldberg, Patrick. Surrealism. New York: McGraw-Hill Book, 1971.
- Lewis, Helena. “The Negation of Negation: Surrealist Revolt, 1920-1925.” The Politics of Surrealism. New York: Paragon House, 1988.
- Breton, André. “1924 Surrealist Manifesto.” Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1969.
- “Amun-Ra” is the merged identity of Amun and Ra, two of ancient Egypt’s pre-eminent deities. See: Budge, E. A. Wallis. An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1997
- Norton had indeed commented on these topics. She decries Nazism specifically in a spoken word piece called “Political Memories: Two Versions of a Creed Summing Up the WWII Epoch” (date unknown); Roie Speaks York Beach: Teitan, 2009.
- Here it is worth noting that Ranciere uses the term “aesthetics” to denote a paradigmatic feature of modernity, as described in my Introduction.
- These census dates frame a period that roughly corresponds to Norton’s public presence, encompassing her 1949 solo debut and her last major media interactions in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
- By “hegemony” I refer to an ideological domination within Australian society, not by overt force, but by cultural pressures including the omission of competing beliefs from the public sphere. Del Gandio, Jason. “Hegemony.” Encyclopedia of Gender in Media. Ed. Mary Kosut. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2012. 159-161. Print. See also: Gramsci, Antonio. Selections From the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Ed. Quintin Hoare. Trans. Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.
- Which is related, though not equivalent to, dissensus: the latter addresses a more fundamental concern, the preconditions of a dispute – “a conflict about who speaks and who does not speak” (Rancière). See: Bowman, Paul, and Jacques Rancière. “The Thinking of Dissensus: Politics and Aesthetics.” Reading Rancière. London: Continuum, 2011.
- This is term is used loosely, to mark the time from her first solo exhibition (Melbourne, August 1949) to her final interactions with the media (mid to late 1960s).
- Crowley, Aleister. The Confessions of Aleister Crowley; an Autohagiography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970.
- Crowley, Aleister, and Rose Edith Crowley. The Book of the Law, Liber Al Vel Legis, with a Facsimile of the Manuscript as Received by Aleister and Rose Edith Crowley on April 8, 9,10, 1904. York Beach, Maine: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2004.
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