Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Gwendoline Otter

Picasso the diabolist

Some follow-ups to my earlier post on the painter Michael Ayrton, his interest (or lack of) in the ideas of Aleister Crowley, and his travels, astral or otherwise, in the “White Country” of the Potteries: Laver

The recollections of Ayrton’s friend James Laver, V&A curator and dabbler in the arcane, shed no light on any of this, nor on Barnett Stross’s alleged but unlikely astral battles with Crowley, though Laver’s gossipy autobiography Museum Piece (1963) is notable for its detailed account of his visit to Old Crow in Hastings in March 1947. By this point the Beast was sadly in decline, shooting up several times during the conversation; Laver noted the spots of blood on his shirt sleeves. He had been introduced to Crowley back in the ‘twenties by Gwendoline Otter, but makes no mention of him in connection with Ayrton or Stross.

Laver’s attack on Picasso as dictator and black magician turns out to be derived directly from Ayrton’s broadcast “A Master of Pastiche. A Personal Reaction to Picasso”, subsequently anthologised in John Lehmann’s New Writing and Daylight VII for 1946:

“I do not believe that it is possible to create living art out of anything but the direct visual experience of nature, combined with the heritage of a tradition, unless it be by the practice of magic ritual. Since Picasso does not attempt the former, he must be considered in terms of the latter, and considered in these terms his processes of stylistic inversion and formal disintegration are black magic, no more, no less … The parallel with black magic can be carried further, for destructive distortion and alteration of ritual is the basis of diabolism. To his most devoted admirers he is celebrated for his gift for paraphrase. Black magic is also the cult of personal power, and fame goes with it. Of these two latter attributes Picasso shows no lack. He is the most powerful influence and the most famous artist alive, but is it possible that any contribution to the mainstream of European art can be made by his particular form of diabolic egocentricity? In view of the fact that black magic is a death cult and in view of the fact that the whole impetus of Picasso’s art stems from manners and modes created for now extinct ends – the Romanesque, Catalan primitives, the Greek vase and medieval stained glass are examples – he is a very master of necrophily …

… It is part of his power that he is able to embrace the efforts of lesser men and restate their aims, in his own terms and in relation to the formula current in his own work. This in itself is the hallmark of a particular form of genius. But more than all this, his power lies in his position relative to his times, his temporal domination. Nor is this incompatible with the archaism of the different stylistic starting points of each new ‘époque.’ It is that Picasso is contemporary in the hysteria of his art in exactly the same way that Hitler is contemporary in the hysteria of his politics, much of which – anti-semitism is an example – is archaic in principle.”

This is an audacious critique, but it bears consideration. Its weakness is perhaps less its analysis of Picasso’s process than its rather dated, ‘nineties characterisation of “diabolism” as inversion, reversal etc. Despite his monstrous egotism and pursuit of personal power, Crowley was not a Satanist in any strict sense, and the terms in which Ayrton talks rather suggest that he had no real familiarity with AC’s theories. If so, the speculations documented in my previous post cannot stand.

Ayrton’s own work was perhaps excessively literary. Alan Munton points out to me that Robert Colquhoun once accused Ayrton of being a painter who did too much thinking, a distraction best avoided in that trade. “But what about Wyndham Lewis?” countered Ayrton. “Aye,” conceded Colquhoun. “But what a painter! Let him think if he wants to …”

Barnett Stross in 1935, by Margaret Marks

Barnett Stross in 1935, by Margaret Marks

Next, my thanks to Mark Finney for taking the Michael Ayrton-Barnett Stross connection in a new and interesting direction. The doings of the “Burslem Boys” – Potteries painters John Shelton, Arthur Berry and Norman Cope – are chronicled admirably on Mark’s site, with the benefit of his access to original documents in the keeping of the families of Shelton and Cope. The latter died tragically in 1943, but his own surviving lists of his work note two pieces sold to Barnett Stross (one being The Beer Drinker, for 6 guineas), and at least two “sold to Ayrton” for 3 and 5 guineas, including The Window Gazers. Both named pieces were brush drawings.

Cope’s combination of meticulous draftsmanship with an extreme expressionism would certainly have attracted Ayrton, but one particular title on the list leaps out in connection with Ayrton’s own work – an item called Shraff Tip, “shraff” being broken ceramic waste from the potteries. Browsing Cope’s work and seeing this image, Ayrton may well have picked up the idea for his own later pieces, The Tip and The Sleeper, discussed in my earlier post.

Finally, apologies for having doubted the existence of Freda Cavell, with thanks to Bill Bennett for pointing out that in Frances Spalding’s biography of John Minton, Dance till the Stars Come Down, she has a walk-on part in 1945 as “the Witch of Streatham”. (Though Google only recognises the title as applied, oddly enough, by Iain Sinclair to Angela Carter, of all people …)