Monday, September 21, 2009

Imagination & Visionaries Part Four

In Sydney's Kings Cross neighborhood you will see large brass plaques in the pavement. Kings Cross is an area long noted for its Bohemian atmosphere and denizens. The plaques celebrate this areas sometimes ridiculed and steamy past and are also an attempt to generate interest from tourism in the area. Between the "touristy" El Alamein Fountain and rows of strip clubs on Darlinghurst Road, among the names of famous drag queens and local community campaigners is a plaque that says "Rosalee Norton," and a second one that says "born in a thunderstorm with pointed ears...genius or crank?" Who knows what percentage of passersby will wonder about this plaque and the woman who inspired it? I hope that it is more than I imagine it would be, for I feel Rosaleen Norton's life story is both fascinating and instructive.

Rosaleen Miriam Norton (2 October 1917-5 December 1979) was an Australian artist, occultist and witch sometimes referred to as "the witch of Kings Cross." She was born in New Zealand, and the seven-year old Rosaleen emigrated with her family to Australia in 1925. Rosaleen knew from a very young age that she was different from other children. The young girl chose to sleep in a tent in the garden. Out here she enjoyed being in the prescence of an orb spider. The spider's prescence had the extra benefit of scaring her family away so she had the privacy to begin to look at nature's wonders and enjoy her love of the night. Even at her young age, she was "aware of a world wherein moved vast, mysterious powers, the sense of gay daemonic prescences and hauntingly familiar atmospheres, elusive yet powerful and compelling, when everything around me seemed to change focus like patterns in a kaleidoscope."

Her feelings and intuitions led to a series of visions and intuitions she experienced as a child, including the awesome otherness of a dragon. Rosaleen felt a deep awareness of greater dimensions beyond the material world. These other sides to being and reality would have a profound influence on her artwork and her magical philosophy later in life. As a young girl, poor Rosaleen had a foreshadowing of the scandals and problems with authority figures that would befall her later in life. At school, she had drawn a picture inspired by Saint Saen's Danse Macabre that scared the wits out of her teachers at Chatswood Girls Grammar. They saw the young girl as an immoral influence on the other pupils and she was expelled. Rosaleen was able to get a place at East Sydney Technical College because of her artistic talents. Even there two teachers tried to have her expelled, but the head of the school threw in his support for her. When Rosaleen began her college life she was in a vastly different world than that of the suburbs where she left her family. She stayed at a hotel near Circular Quay that was then-ahem-charmingly known as "Buggery Barn." She fit right in among this milieu of "artists, writers, musicians and drunks."

Soon after this she moved two more times finally landing in a run-down neighborhood near Kings Cross. Rosaleen was definitely a night owl, bisexual, artist and occultist by then. She enjoyed the camaraderie of the Cross's nocturnal inhabitants, and she spent most of her life living in or close to the area which is the unofficial heart of the city. She supported herself as a pavement artist and an artist's model to make a very low income as a student. Norman Lindsey, whose paintings evoked an eroticism and mysticism that would become so imbued in her own work, was the artist she modelled for. Later on, Rosaleen did discern a major difference between her own and Lindsey's work: "His is a Daylight world and the satirical element is used as a foil rather than admitted as another form of beauty. The vision of Rosaleen Norton is one of Night; she dislikes any of the sterotypes of beauty and finds the 'Daylight' world in general does not make good subject matter." Norton wrote this last bit about herself anonymously. Lindsey described her in condescending terms as a "grubby little girl with great skill who will not discipline herself." Despite what other people and the moralistic, conservative Australian press said about her, Norton continued to study art and pursued a personal study of trance states and the unconscious.

According to her autobiographical articles in the Australian Post she described entering a "deep trance state lasting for five days...what some Buddhist schools call the "Trance of Annihilation." Norton was also reported to have taken certain hallucinogenic drugs or plants to undergo her psychic journeys and achieved visionary states. She also devoted time to reading C.G. Jung, Eastern philosophy, Theosophy and after that texts which had concentrated more directly on magical workings and rituals. Through her intense study of these areas and numerous personal observations, Norton was able to present her experiences within a metaphysical framework instead of a purely psychological one. The magical realms or planes of existence she encountered helped her to produce her artwork. Often her artwork portrayed entities she witnessed in these altered states of consciousness. In addition, some of her paintings showed her own image alongside these beings depicted in a state of meditation, psychically crossing over into another plane of being. The first image is of Rosaleen Norton with one of her paintings and the second one is also another of her works. To be continued...

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