Wednesday, 17 July 2013

WR: Mysteries of the Accumulator ('The new cult of sex and anarchy')

Just finished reading Adventures in the Orgasmatron by Christopher Turner, a very well written and fascinating biography of Viennese psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich.  Turner casts his net wide and the book includes forays into Freud and his early disciples, Alfred Kinsey's groundbreaking studies, the origins of birth control ('Many critics have seen in the Rockefeller support of Kinsey's sex research an attempt by the ruling classes to manipulate human behaviour by trying to find the means by which sex could be controlled' p.214), Paul Goodman, Gestalt Therapy, Esalen, Herbert Marcuse and the insidious uses made of psychology and psychoanalysis in advertising from the 1950s onwards (Mad Men obviously springs to mind here, as does the work of documentary maker Adam Curtis).

The shoddy treatment of Reich by the FDA and 'crusading' journalists (the headline of Mildred Brady's article for Harper's Magazine April 1947 issue appears in the title of this post) now seems pointless and a waste of time and money.  For me the book stands as a testament to the treatment of non-conformity - towards the end of his life Reich was clearly delusional, becoming obsessed with cloudbusting (see Kate Bush) and UFOs.  He died while serving a prison sentence for violating an injunction against sending his orgone accumulators across state lines.  It's heavily ironic that the FDA ordered the burning of his books as had Hitler before Reich escaped the Nazis and fled to the USA.  His ideas were influential on a number of writers including Alan Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and most famously William Burroughs who made his own accumulators (see photograph above of Kurt Cobain sitting inside one of these at Lawrence, Kansas).  Makavejev's 1971 film WR: Mysteries of the Organism was always showing at arthouse cinemas in the 1970s and 1980s but I've yet to see it.

A review of the book here.

Two of the most interesting characters to emerge from the book for me were Ernest Dichter and Fritz Perls.  About Dichter Turner writes (p.393):
'He embraced consumer culture wholeheartedly as a bulwark against fascism and the best weapon against communism.  Like many European exiles, he felt that the totalitarian threat was simmering below the surface of American life.  Dichter saw the motivational researcher as a psychoanalyst-at-large  whose job was to safeguard democracy by assuaging the fears of an anxious society, he turned consumption into a kind of therapy.  Whereas thinkers such as David Riesman and C Wright Mills saw mass affluence as leading to an epidemic of alienation, Dichter interpreted it as the very thing that kept democracy and the economy on the march.  "If we were to rely exclusively on the fulfillment of our immediate and necessary needs, our economy would literally collapse overnight."

The elderly Perls became a guru-figure at Esalen, promoting 'free love', later becoming disillusioned.  His oft-repeated slogans included 'Live in the present', 'Re-own your projections', and 'Be here now' (used for a very crap Oasis album).

Obviously my own Accumulator Press imprint owes a huge debt to Reich via Hawkwind.

Lyons Lithographs

A lovely exhibition at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne showing the 40 lithographs produced by some of the finest British artists of the period (in the decade following the Second World War) in an attempt to brighten up the rather tired looking Lyons Tea Shops and Corner Houses that were a staple of the refreshment and relaxation business in that long-vanished England.  A lot of detective work must have gone into matching some of the prints with their original paintings and studies.   The catalogue for the first series Sixteen Lithographs by Contemporary Artists (1948) bore an introduction by our old friend James Laver.  I was also pleased to see two works by Michael Ayrton: The Spectators was not to my taste, but Life in Autumn was very pleasing - curiously this commission isn't mentioned in the occasionally over-detailed Ayrton biography by Justine Hopkins; there's also a very attractive John Minton Apple Orchard (see above), Kent.  Many might call it twee, but consider the contrast with today, when works of art are exhibited in restaurants to show how sophisticated (or not) trendy and wealthy the owners are - the Lyons lithographs were available to buy and employees got a discount.

One downer is that the small paperback catalogue, which I wanted to buy, costs an eye-watering £40!  It's not just the price of exhibitions that's becoming prohibitive.  I'm sure the Lyons lithographs regularly come up for sale - here's one at the Goldmark Gallery, for example.  See also an essay in The Guardian.   The other illustration above is Albert Bridge by Carel Weight, who painted many locations in the area where I grew up.  My book London's Coffee Houses has a section on the Lyons tea shops - see also an earlier post about the demolition of the very first one in Piccadilly, a photograph of which appears in the exhibition.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Ayrton, Stross & Crowley (revised)

First published 2/10/2010 UPDATE 5/7/2013 For addtional information on this topic see this excellent post from the Richard Warren blog in the list opposite.

I’ve recently become interested in the art of Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), painter, sculptor, printmaker, author and radio and television personality,. His Minotaur was once a powerful brooding sculptural presence in Postman’s Park near the Museum of London, where I worked for a while in the 1980s; during my lunch break on sunny days I would sometimes sit in this haven of peace in the City. Iain Sinclair writes about it in his essay ‘Bulls and Bears and Mithraic misalignments: Weather in the City’. Then, some years ago it disappeared - too off-putting for the lunching workers?
While dipping in to Justine Hopkins Michael Ayrton: a Biography (1994) I came across the following passage (p86):
‘Cecil [Gray, composer and music critic] had known the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, in the days of his power, and on one occasion introduced him to Michael, although the latter was little impressed by the bloated, boastful charlatan that Crowley had become since his fatal experiments in Paris. He was, however, the cause of a confrontation between the Beast and Barnett Stross, GP, MP and white wizard. Hearing through Cecil that Crowley had some particularly inventive and unpleasant devilry in mind he protested violently, and summoned Stross to the battle across the aether with his dark counterpart. Stross apparently triumphed, and Crowley threatened revenge on Michael in no uncertain terms; the fact that no disaster befell him only went to confirm the scepticism which was an essential part of his involvement with the spirit world.’

Ayrton and Stross were friends, the artist using the potteries as subject matter, in particular an old marl pit near Stross’s house, where he used to stay. Stross [quoted on p89] wrote that it was, ‘a dumping ground for old shards. Beneath the crockery there is a colony of rats, for when the potters empty and tip into this hole there is often food in the way of bread mixed up with the fragments. [Stross] took Michael to see this place one summer evening before dusk, and he saw the rats come up for an airing. Little ones and large ones, brown and badger and some were scabrous…He took Constant Lambert to see it, and Constant was very frightened…he thought no painter could paint such a subject and do it justice.’ The resulting oil painting ‘The Tip, Hanley’, executed in 1946, is in the collections of Stoke-on-Trent Museums; another work ‘The White Country’ painted the previous year is listed in a 1978 catalogue published by the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery as ‘Present whereabouts unknown; formerly in the collection of Sir Barnett Stross MP’.

Sir Barnett Stross does not appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. According to his Times obituary (15 May 1967 p12) he had enjoyed a distinguished career. Born in 1899, he was brought to Britain by his Polish political refugee parents at the end of the First World War. He got a degree in medicine at Leeds and started practice as a GP in the Potteries in 1926 – he became an expert on diseases associated with pottery workers, such as silicosis and warned of the danger of contracting lung cancer from smoking. In 1930 he joined the Labour party and at the 1945 election he was elected MP for Stoke on Trent’s Hanley division.

During the Second World War, the building in which he was giving a lecture for the Ministry of Food received a direct hit and Stross was later pulled out from the rubble seriously injured. He was the founder of the movement which rebuilt Lidice (now in the Czech Republic); the village was destroyed and its population massacred by the Germans in 1942 in reprisal for the murder of Reinhard Heydrich – for this he was honoured by the Czech government.

According to his entry in Wikipedia:
‘Two years after Stross' death, the Czech intelligence defector Josef Frolik named him as having been an agent of Czechoslovakia. According to Frolik, Stross (code-named "Gustav") had provided "interesting information about the domestic and foreign policies of the Labour Party while it was in opposition". Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay's book "Smear! Wilson and the Secret State" [p194] claims that such information as Stross supplied could have been obtained by writing to Transport House (the headquarters of the Labour Party)’.

Apart from the dubious claims that Stross was a Czech agent, I have found no other reference so far to his other secret life as a ‘white wizard’. None of the biographies of Crowley that I have consulted contain Stross’s name in the index. Crowley did frequent the Café Royal, as did Michael Ayrton and Cecil Gray according to the biography quoted above, so it is possible that Stross and Ayrton met him there.

Ayrton was also, according to the Birmingham catalogue quoted above (p11) part of a 'mystical circle' that included, 'Barnet [sic] Stross, Freda Cavell, James Laver and...Margery Livingstone' [another misspelled person who must be Marjorie Livingston,a psychic who apparently wrote books received clairaudiently, one from Apollonius of Tyana]. According to his autobiography Museum Piece (1963, p228), Laver, an art and fashion historian, Keeper of the Dept of Illustration, Engraving and Design at the V & A and author of a biography of Nostradamus, visited Crowley in his Hastings boarding house (he writes about witnessing him injecting heroin) so it is conceivable that other members of the group met the Great Beast, but the Ayrton connection may just be lazy research or wishful thinking. [I knew of Laver from his Whistler biography but I hadn't realised that he also wrote a biography of Huymans entitled The First Decadent]

Such was the notoriety of Crowley during his lifetime that many writers have attempted to spice up their autobiographies and biographies of contemporaries with alleged encounters with the Great Beast. Master of Villainy, the biography of Sax Rohmer written by his wife Elisabeth and Cay van Ash, states that the two met, although again I can find no other independent evidence for this; Rohmer was not a member of the Golden Dawn despite claims in some books to the contrary. Perhaps in the future more will emerge about Sir Barnett Stross, but I am more interested in the fate of ‘The White Country’.

Addendum: On 14th October I did a book signing at Atlantis Books. While I was there I thought I would ask proprietor Geraldine Beskin, an acknowledged authority on AC, about the Stross connection. I showed her a photocopy from the book, but she knew nothing about it - she also thought it was of dubious veracity.

Michael Ayrton's Barbican Minotaur

'His body is part human yet he begins as a bull at the loins and he bears a hump of sinews upon his shoulders which carried the great horned skull and the cattle brute mask of his head.  His belly however is human...' Michael Ayrton The Maze Maker (1967) p.168

Ayrton's Minotaur (1968/9, bronze) was presented to the City of London in 1973; initially situated in Postman's Park, it was also intended to be part of a turf maze, which never materialized.  Following a fascination with the myths connecting King Minos, the Cretan labyrinth, Daedalus and Icarus, he had first turned his attention to the Minotaur in 1962, possibly as part of his love-hate relationship with Picasso's art (in 1944 Ayrton had penned a notorious essay on Picasso entitled 'The Master of Pastiche').  In his version of the myth he denied that Theseus slew the creature, whose destiny was ultimately to become human.  His book The Maze Maker quoted above was read by a wealthy Czech-born American Armand Erpf who commissioned Ayrton to construct a labyrinth or maze on his estate at Arkville in the Catskill Mountains.  At the heart of the labyrinth stood two bronze sculptures of Icarus and Daedalus and a bronze Minotaur - a cast of which was made, purchased by the Corporation of London in 1972 (total cost of sculpture and installation £9000).  It remained in the park until 1997 when it was relocated to a raised walkway on the north side of London Wall (this area was being redeveloped in 2013).  Written using Philip Ward-Jackson Public Sculpture of the City of London (Liverpool University Press, 2003) pp233-235.  The image comes from Smoke.

ADDENDUM During Open House 2017 I had a very interesting tour around Salters Hall.  At the end we exited into the garden where we were shown a box containing the Minotaur, which had been installed there and was awaiting unveiling.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Man-Ergs and Minotaurs

To the Barbican last night to see Van der Graaf Generator - third encounter since the reunion - solo Peter Hammill seen many times.  Only knew about a third of the set.  After a restrained start - second song Flight was good but could probably have been replaced by one from the band repertoire.  The killer combination came at the end: Man-Erg, A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers and Childlike Faith in Childhood's End (for me Still Life is the quintessential VdGG record) - very few rock bands are equipped musically or philosophically to explore the areas these complex songs encompass.

Quite by chance, as I wound my way round the circuitous Brutalist concrete elevated walkways, close to the ruins of St Alphege, I found the Michael Ayrton Minotaur sculpture that once graced Postman's Park, surrounded by security fencing with a notice saying that it had been removed (was this a facsimile before me?)  A timely reminder to repost a piece about that creature and its creator.