wandering into modernist territory

by Art Chantry ( art@artchantry.com)

i have this wonderful book called “books for our time” , edited by marshall lee, with written contributions by herbert bayer, merle armitage, john berg, s.a. jacobs, ernst reichl and a forward by george nelson (published by oxford university press, 1951.) it’s a really gorgeous little book that is basically a catalog of an exhibition sponsored by (among others) the AIGA. the list of writing contributors were actually the judges of the exhibition and together constitute the very best BOOK DESIGNERS living at that moment. that list of names is like a who’s who of the very best book artsts alive then. and this little book totally holds up to the expectation of greatness you’d expect from that list of names. even the design of this book (by marshall lee) is absolutely gorgeous.

AC:we always assume that underground world of culture exists in isolated solitude of crackpots and cave dwellers. in reality, it's a rich long tradition of ideas and thoughts and creativity that interconnects like a vast gridded mesh across the years. and it's the official nursery of most american popular culture. instead we take it all for granted like it simply grew on a tree.

indicative of the era this was published, when a book was judged for a book arts competition, it was juried in it’s ENTIRETY. basically, they did not merely ‘judge a book by it’s cover’ like we tend to do today. in keeping with their period aesthetic, there are NO book covers reproduced in this volume, but the title pages of the selected books . that’s how it was done back then. so, this book is a collection of absolutely brilliantly designed title pages, all of them exquisite and visually stunning exercises in (among other things) typography and layout. this is one of the best ‘typography’ books i’ve ever found.

to give you an idea of what this stuff is like, here’s a brief, incomplete list of the NAMES of the designers repeatedly featured in the credit lines of these book designs: alexy brodocvitch, merle armitage, paul rand, william golden, marshall lee, s.a.jocobs, ernst reichl, w.a. dwiggins, john begg, alvin lustig, max bill, gyorgy kepes, l. maholy-nagy, ladislav sutner, herbert bayer, robert josephy, bradbury thompson, erich mendelsohn, dr. m. agha, jan tschichold, kenneth patchen, harry ford, frank lieberman, boris artzybasheff, salvador dali, saul stienberg, and paul klee! and that’s not even all of the desingner/artists listed shown in this book- these are the artists exhibited multiple times. the ‘singles’ are impressive a swell. and buried among these exulted names in the history of art and design of the book is another name that took me totally by surprise when i saw it – aleistar crowley! the great beast. “666″. the evilest man in the world. book designer?

the image i show you is the title page of the book that was selected for inclusion (originally published in 1904). here is what is written below it: “considering the kind of books contemporaneous with (this book), it’s clean, simple asymmetry was little short of clairvoyant at the turn of the century.” what they mean to say is that crowley’s book design was so modern and ahead of the pack that it’s worthy of inclusion just for the pioneering design thinking he promoted. crazy, huh? hard to imagine that the master of sex “magick” and founder of the OTO, perpetrator of more outrage and blaspheme than any other man at the turn of the century would be such a brilliant avant guard typographer and graphic designer.

well, not really. if crowley was anything, he was man of his times. sure, he REBELLED against the norms of his era with all his might, but that only more firmly solidifies him in his era (like the concept of ‘satan’ can’t exist without christianity, so that makes satanism a christian religion. that sort of logic). his was a victorian ‘gentleman.’ when you rebel against victorianism (in the parlance of the times) you were a romantic, an artisan, a back-to-nature boy. you became firmly a part of the ‘arts and crafts’ movement of DIY. you became a jack of all trades and used your visions to promote your self-identity. there was little difference between william morris or elbert hubbard or gustav stickly or f.l. wright or aleistar crowley when you get down to the nitty gritty of instinct. sure, the close-up details were different, but the larger cultural context was the same.

crowley is long known as an ‘artisan’ and control freak. he designed his own rituals, costumes, symbology, his own ceremonies and even religion (and the offshoot organizations). he painted the murals and designed the rooms of his sanctums. he wrote the tomes that were the assorted sacred texts of his religion. he even designed a (still popular) set of tarot cards for commercial sale. so, it makes all the sense in the world that he would also DESIGN his own religious books. what would be the design STYLE he would use? well, surprisingly, it wasn’t art nouveau or anything based on nature imagery (like his contemporary competition might have used). he so rejected even “those pretenders” to his throne that he embraced the total rejection of the natural form in his magic books (and their design), that he embraced modernism (of all things). years before jan tschichold created a tidal wave of layout revisionist philsophy with his simple asymmetric “flush left” page layouts (instead of centered page layouts), crowley was already there.

crowley’s design work is actually rather surprising. he seem to be an avant guard trendsetter long before the mainstream avant guard caught up to his thinking. he was often recognized for this skill. but, because of his turgid life and soured reputation, he is ignored today. it’s like we are embarrassed to recognize him on the street.

kenneth anger, a crowley disciple and former child actor in hollywood (who went on to write the book ‘hollywood babylon’ and pioneer underground cinema and early rock video with his films like “scorpio rising” and “welcome to the pleasuredome”. in fact, his later film ‘lucifer rising’ starred bobby beusoliel, rock singer and manson family member who was imprisoned for murder and went on to form the aryan brotherhood as a massive prison gang) worked to uncover the murals at crowley’s abbey of thelema at cefalu, sicily. they were painted over, but anger carefully removed the paint to reveal the original torrid images and inscriptions. crowley’s crude techniques and bold depiction and strong abstract symbology firmly anchor him not in a ‘romantic’ or even victorian “norm” of his era, but in the modernist territory of the surrealists. a real surprise.

but, if you are enchanted by the bizarre connections and threads that run throughout the underground world (like i am) go read up on the connections between crowley, the los angeles chapter of the OTO, rocket scientist jack parsons and his association with science fiction writer l. ron hubbard and how the church of scientology was formed. there is also a marvelous figure in the middle of that story named R

ameron’ who went on to become a central figure in wallace berman’s beatnik bohemian LA art circle that spawned the ‘semina’ culture that included some of the major artists and hipster movie stars of the forties and fifties. these bizarre stories are always fun to explore. much of it seems to have taken place in reality, too. go figger.

another interesting story (as told by crowley himself, so it’s open to question) was that during the world war 2 years, he offered his services as a spy to winston churchill. knowing full well that crowley couldn’t be trusted, churchill instead assigned him to design a gesture – a magick hand symbol of power, if you will – that could be incorporated by OUR side against the axis power’s ‘zieg heil’ salute. what crowley claims he gave to churchill was the “V” for victory hand gesture. when viewed from the position of crowley’s thinking, you can plainly see the placement of the thumb between the two upright fingers of the hand is also an old OTO gesture of “sex magick” (it basically depicts a sex act). as time went on, crowley was delighted to see that same image turn into a ‘peace’ symbol by the rebels of a much later generation (the hippies). few people knew where that ‘peace symbol’ (or should i say ‘piece’ symbol?) came from (or cared).

now, we have ‘V’ for vendetta’ hand gesture recycling that same symbol into a gesture of revolt in the face of a growing economic fascism. the power of design just keeps on rolling….


AC: Crowley… i think he’s a curious figure. i don’t extol his ideas or whatever any more than i extol newt gingrich’s ideas. it all seems pretty silly to me. however, i’m real interested in what our culture DOES with the ideas and personalities of people like this….one of these days i’m going to work up the nerve to SHOW you guys why hitler was one of the greatest art directors of the last century. scary but true. doesn’t mean i’m a fascist psycho,. i’m just a graphic designer….

… i see this design world i operate in as a place of language. it’s an abstract language of color and form and texture and shape and iconography, et al. everybody can understand this language (because they grew up in our shared culture) but, they don’t realize they can understand this language. so, us masters of this language form (graphic designers, etc.) manipulate this language to change people’s minds – for a client who pays us. seems to me we need to drop our pretenses of aesthetic creativity and hubris to see this stuff for what it really is. crowley did. so did hitler. and so does karl rove and newt gingrich and then entire conservative underground. so does wall street. nuff said….by the way, in the last couple of paragraphic, i refer to the “peace symbol” when i meant ‘peace sign’. sorry.

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