Sunday, 24 June 2018

A Redemptive Spectacle: St Anthony and the Bel Ami Competition, 1946

In 1946, a competition was held in New York by the film producer David Loew and the director Albert Lewin to select a painting that would feature in their forthcoming film: The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, based on a novel by Guy du Massaupant. The previous year, Lewin had directed an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and for the production they had commissioned a painting by the surrealist artist Ivan Albright to feature as the eponymous picture. This would be revealed in a scene shot in colour; the only one in an otherwise black and white film. We see this carried off to staggering effect, with the lurid image of Albright’s bloated, putrescent Gray vividly encapsulating the protagonist’s physical and moral degradation in what is still an unsettling scene.

For the Bel Ami picture, Loew and Lewin proposed as their theme the Temptation of St Anthony, and for their contestants, they gathered together some of the most celebrated figures of the 20th century art, the majority of them exponents of the Surrealist movement. They would comprise: Salvador Dali, Abraham Rattner, Dorothea Tanning, Leononra Carrington, Horace Pippin, Paul Delvaux, Stanley Spencer, Ivan Albright, Eugene Berman, Louis Guglielmi, and Max Ernst, who would be the eventual winner.

In many ways, the 1946 competition represented a seminal moment for the surrealist movement demonstrating, through application of a common subject, the sheer diversity of style and theme encapsulated by the movement in its three-decade history, and the depths explored by its idiosyncratic philosophy. It was also a year which saw surrealism as a movement in exile, with many of its founding figures now living in North America and Mexico, having been ousted from its birthplace in France by World War II. The effects of these preceding years would be profoundly imprinted upon their later works.

Yet, in this choice of theme, the Bel Ami competition also represented a key moment in the history of another artistic tradition: the life and sufferings of St Anthony the Great. As a theological figure, St Anthony holds a central place in Western Christianity, being among the first hermits, and setting the model for monastic life throughout much of the later middle ages. As a tradition in art, however, he is better known as the subject of proliferation of graphic, unsettling, and often bizarre images produced throughout the later middle ages. These detail the numerous encounters with supernatural entities he experienced throughout his life, as recorded by his biographer Athanasius. These focus predominantly on accounts of a series of attacks by demons, and temptations at the hands of the ‘spirit of fornication’ appearing in the form of ‘a small child, all black’. These scenes would often be depicted in a style not far removed from that of the later surrealists, combining horror and absurdity, with often deeply sexual overtones.

Given this colourful tradition, it would seem as though the theme would constitute the perfect subject matter for the surrealists. This colourful tradition, combined with the strange and transgressive principles of surrealist art, would ostensibly prove a perfect marriage of form and subject. Yet it was one that represented a number of fundamental contradictions, not least because of its ideological implications. It was, after all, the adoption of an overtly Christian theme by a movement whose basis was historically both avowedly atheist and overwhelmingly anti-clerical. Given this background one might expect this adoption to be, if not a continuation of the theme, then at least a conscious subversion of it. The result, however, was something altogether different. Yet, in order to understand fully what this outcome represented, it is first necessary to explore the development of the St Anthony theme itself.


Although the tradition of St Anthony is one which has its roots in the Hellenic Christianity from late antiquity, as a theme in art it is in foremost the creation of a medieval European mind. It may also be more appropriate to think of it not in terms of a tradition so much as a cohesive movement. For although its development can be traced to as early as the 11th century, the real emergence of the theme in art, which produced many of its most recognisable examples, can be identified in the late 15th century. Furthermore, the paintings that do arise during this period bear a number of notable consistencies, focusing predominantly on demonic attacks taking place in caves and wild places in the desert, as detailed in the legend.

The wave of St Anthony depictions that manifested in the late 15th century arose from the coming together of a number of factors, comprising developments both in art, and the wider intellectual currents of the time.  One work in particular seems to have precipitated this trend: Martin Schongauer’s engraving from c.1470, depicting Anthony borne aloft by devils. Stylistically, it had its roots in the Gothic tradition, whose combination of intense morality and a fascination with the macabre made Schongauer’s theme a fitting choice. Its resonance with popular currents at the time is evidenced by the fact that the works it would later inspire came largely out of artists from Germany and the Netherlands, in the years of the nascent Northern Renaissance.

Martin Schongauer - 
St Anthony (engraving)
It would later take on a following in Italy, inspiring numerous artists of the baroque movement. Among the earliest of these was, in fact, Michelangelo, whose c.1487 study of Schongauer’s engraving constitutes his earliest known work. However, with the exception of his, and Salvator Rosa’s work over a century later, the Italian examples of the theme tend to eschew the overtly demonic elements of Anthony’s sufferings in favour of feminine depictions embodying temptations of the flesh. These were chiefly allegorical, and represent later interpretations of the legend, arguably inspired more by the later St Hilarion of Palestine. Anthony’s demonic assailants, on the other hand, appear in the very earliest sources, and were on the whole conceived of literally.

It is the presence of these demons which also underlines the importance of Schongauer’s work. In particular their form. They are chimaeras: compound entities consisting of a motley assortment of conjoined animal parts. While demons in western art had a long tradition of bestial depictions, these tended to follow a more traditional model, seen in examples like the Livre de la Nostre Seigneur and the Codex Gigas. This even appears in earlier St Anthony paintings, such as Sassetta’s St Anthony the Hermit Tormented by Demons. Produced forty seven years before Schongauer’s work, the sheer contrast of style is readily apparent. 

One explanation for this choice may lie in Schongauer’s source material. Although the demons do appear as early as Athanasius’s account, in his words they take the form simply of animals. These were, he writes:
...coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed...
This apparent disparity may have arisen from the fact that Athanasius's account was not the principle source the for European artists. That came in the form of a Latin adaptation by Jacobus De Voragine, as part of his Legenda Aurea comprising accounts of the lives of various saints. Compiled around 1260, and enjoying considerable circulation in manuscript and print. His version of that same scene, translated here by William Caxton, omits these crucial details, appearing thus:
And anon they came in form of divers beasts wild and savage, of whom that one howled, another siffled, and another cried, and another brayed and assailed Saint Anthony, that one with the horns, the others with their teeth, and the others with their paws and ongles, and disturned, and all to-rent his body that he supposed well to die.
If this was a mistake on the artist's part, or a wilful misinterpretation is unclear, but the decision evidently struck a chord within the late medieval mindset, setting a model for numerous artists to follow over the subsequent decade. This pattern is evident in the works of Grunwald, Koler, Breugel and Bosch, to name only a few. Indeed, it is easy to see the appeal of this idea, both as an expression of horror and an exercise in imaginative skill. But even if this was the initial spark that initiated the St Anthony movement, it was far from the only contributing factor to its unique development.
Matthias Grünewald,  
detail from the Isenheim 
Altar (1512–1516)

One other possible explanation for this style of depiction lies in how demons were understood by the medieval mind. Though tied in heavily with folkloric traditions, the main body of western demonology arises from the philosophies of the scholastic movement, beginning largely in the works of St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas developed his ideas on the subject through a process of logical deduction, determining the nature of fallen angels in opposition to what was understood about the remaining loyal angels. In the text, it is implied that the forms taken by the demons was a voluntary decision taken by the demons themselves. Athanasius even states that ‘Changes of form for evil are easy for the devil’. It is possible to see this decision as being motivated by a desire to blaspheme. By taking on a compound form of multiple animals, they are defying not only God’s creation according to scripture, but also the neo-Platonist idea which served to support it, which saw all living things as versions aspiring to the model of an immutable, perfect form of that being.

Chimaera themselves also take on a particular philosophical character within the scholastic tradition. This is perhaps best demonstrated through the works of the grammarian Thomas Erfurt. His branch of philosophy known as the Modestae or ‘philosophy of modes’, drew a distinction between what he described as 'active and passive means of recognising and interpreting an item (be it through deductive intellect, learned patterns, or passive intuition) within which there resides that item’s fundamental modi essendi or being in itself. In his work, the Grammatica Speculativa, Erfurt actually used the image of the Chimaera as a figure to illustrate this point, explaining how the active modes of signifying chimeras “are taken from the parts from which we imagine a chimera to be composed, which [as a fiction] we imagine from the head of a lion, the tail of a dragon, etc”. Thus, the chimaeric depiction of demons is indicative of their outlaw status within the material world, being so wicked that nothing can directly depict their true form, so they must take on the worst aspects of whatever other animal life alread exists on earth.

One other factor in this trend was St Anthony’s pre-existing position in European folk-beliefs, and it is perhaps this which is hardest to overlook. Although hailing from Egypt, the cult of St Anthony ultimately found its home in Europe, when, in the 11th century, his remains were transported to Paris from Constantinople, where they had spent much of the previous centuries. He was interred within the La Motte St Didier, later the Saint-Antoine-l'Abbaye, where he was later said to have cured several of its worshippers of ergot poisoning. These incidents would begin a long-running association with a disease which was rife throughout the middle ages, and would shape much of his depictions in art.

Ergotism, dubbed St Anthony’s Fire after the saint, is a disease acquired when ergot, a fungus which affects grain, is baked into bread to produce a poisonous compound, resulting in vascular constriction and damage to tissue around the extremities. Inspired the miracles wrought in the Abbey, the name and the image of St Anthony was regularly evoked to bring healing to those suffering, for which images of devotional art were commissioned. The most famous of these was the Isenheim Altarpiece in Alsace which houses the famous screens of Mattthias Grunwald. There was even an order of monks founded specifically to treat sufferers of the disease – the Hospital Brothers of St Anthony. According to tradition, the monks of that order kept pigs, following examples from some parts of the legend where St Anthony allegedly spent some time as a swineherd. This accounted for the appearance of pigs in some of the works, including those of Bosch and Joos van Craesbeeck.

Matthias Grünewald,  detail from the Isenheim 
Altar (1512–1516) possibly depicting the 
effects of ergotism

But while the nerve and tissue damage caused by ergotism was perhaps its most debilitating long-term effect (if the sufferer survived), poisoning by ergot had another disturbing side effect. In its natural state, the ergot itself mould had few harmful effects. But when cooked the process resulted in the creation of a compound structurally very similar to Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, resulting in uncontrollable hallucinations. This theory can go a long way to explaining the nature of the peculiar quality of the paintings of the St Anthony tradition. For even if not all the artists had themselves experienced ergot poisoning, the condition was pervasive enough in medieval society for the artists to have learned of its effects, and through the popular legend, and the various intellectual currents of the time, translated a collection of wholly subjective experiences into a roughly formalised tradition.

But in its association with hallucinogenic experiences, the presence of ergotism in the St Anthony tradition begs a number of questions. First: how literally was the subject matter perceived, both to the artists, and the sufferers of the condition. And, in turn: what was the ultimate intention behind its depictions.

Associations of diseases with spirits, particularly mental or neurological conditions, date back to ancient times. This can be seen in medieval Europe, where conditions like epilepsy and sleep paralysis have been identified by the presence of succubi. Yet even since classical times there have been detractors like Hippocrates and later Galen, who have argued a natural cause for these illnesses. Ultimately, both ideas would endure to varying degrees among both educated and illiterate classes, often with substantial crossover. 

Since many of the paintings, such as Matthias Grünewald’s St Anthony, were produced for explicitly devotional purposes intended for popular consumption by all strata of society, it is likely that multiple levels of interpretation could have been present in any one of these works. Each of these carrying their own implications. This interplay of interpretations is in fact the focus of Hieronymous Bosch’s St Anthony Triptych. In this painting, it has been argued that alongside fantastical imagery the painting comprises, it is possible to identify various alchemical and medical apparatus associated with the treatment of ergotism.

Therefore, any possible combination of readings can be presented as to the literal or figurative presence of demons for both Anthony’s legend and for contemporary sufferers, creating the potential for quite subversive readings. This uncertainty becomes even more pronounced as the theme expanded beyond its immediately devotional applications, and took on a life of its own throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. And it is this ambiguities inherent within the St Anthony tradition that formed the basis for much of the surrealists interpretation of the theme.


In the gloss to her entry for the 1946 Bel Ami competition, Dorothea Tanning gave the following comments:

It seems to me that a man like our St. Anthony, with his self-inflicted mortification of the flesh, would be most crushingly tempted by sexual desires and, more particularly, the vision of woman in all her voluptuous aspects.

This placing of St Anthony’s sexual desires at the thematic centre of her composition is indicative of much of the surrealists’ reaction to their task of depicting him as art. Of the eleven entrants, there are only two from which explicitly sexual imagery is entirely absent. It is present in a multitude of forms, from the naturalistic to the overtly fantastical. While this is something that had long played a significant part in the artistic tradition, this is nowhere found in the original texts of Athanasius. Nor, however, is it entirely absent. In one notable scene, demonic sexuality is embodied in the form of the ‘spirit of fornication which tempts young people, appearing in the form of a ‘small child, all black’. In a pattern which would repeat when the text later accounts of his daemonic attacks, it is in fact Anthony who summons this entity, so that he may know its nature, and in overcoming it declares: 

Sith I have perceived that thou art so foul a thing I shall never doubt thee.
Carried to its logical conclusion, therefore, the horror demonstrated within the St Anthony tradition becomes synonymous with eroticism. So while overt sexuality is absent from many of the earlier St Anthony depictions within the northern tradition (pre-dating the more lurid Italian contributions), the association of horror with sex meant that it was never totally absent from many of the traditional images. This is something which is particularly true of Grünewald’s piece on the Isenheim Altar, where the suggestive positioning of several of the demons demonstrates a sexual element to their actions; something to which Ernst - whose Anthony was based on Grünewald’s – would imply more explicitly. Likewise, the diseased subject in the bottom left hand corner, while generally interpreted as a sufferer of ergotism, could equally be afflicted with syphilis, a reading enforced by his apparently uninhibited pose. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this subject would be transposed directly into Dorothea Tanning’s temptation.

But what perhaps pervades the scene most strikingly is not the acts of the demons, but the apparent mindlessness with which they are done. It is as if they are following a hideous compulsion more than any heretical agenda – a pre-emptive embodiment of André Gide, and his notion of the ‘Gratuitous Act’.

In many ways, the treatment of sexuality in the St Anthony tradition is something in which the surrealists find an unexpected common ground with the earlier artists of the tradition. As a movement whose pursuit of artistic and cognitive freedom tied in closely with its anti-clericalism, they would find little in common with the rigorous asceticism Anthony himself espoused. But nor was their conception of freedom tied up with a belief in the inherent beneficence of human nature of the kind espoused Romantic movement. They instead took their teachings from the 'Divine' Marquis De Sade, for whom natural human will was, like Grünewald’s demons, fundamentally monstrous and uncontrollable. But while Anthony strove to overcome such corrupting influences, the Marquis De Sade advocated a path of uninhibited exploration and embodiment of these impulses in order to see what ultimate form they took. It followed that, if man was defined by his nature, then this represented the purest means of intellectual self discovery. In this sense, De Sade was the effective embodiment of the spirit of Fornication St Anthony would defeat.

Max Ernst - The Torment of St Anthony, 1946

Therefore, in spite of this significant ideological divide, the fusing of horror and sexuality demonstrated within the St Anthony tradition is one which would continue in much the same vein. For the surrealists, this underlying Philosophy of the Bedroom found evocation through a consciously Freudian filter. This took the form in an aggressively abstracted kind of sexuality. The surrealist pursuit of freedom (in which sexual freedom was a fairly high priority) was a predominantly male affair. Within the surrealists depictions of St Anthony, women and female sexuality often live out a dual function as both the source and subject of the horrors they represent. Disembodied and mutilated evocations of female sexuality appear in Dalí's St Anthony, where a headless woman's torso protrudes through a window. Likewise Guglielmi's woman (nude but for long gloves and stockings) is twisted back to front, and Berman's women take the form of limbless, crumbling statues.

Perhaps the most striking example of this trends is in Ernst's contribution. His St Anthony features the form of a nude woman being absorbed into the scenery, her head lost in a mass of writhing tentacles, held prisoner by the seething biota that comprises Ernst's nightmare landscape in a loss of identity that parallels Magritte's The Rape. What this ultimately serves to underline is the synonymity between horror, and sexuality. Like the demons, Ernst’s woman is a living part of the landscape; they are equal symbiotic parts of the same horror that pervades the scene.

The works of the surrealists would ultimately constitute an inversion of the sexual morality of the St Anthony legend. Where, in his biographies, his asceticism and abstinence would lend him strength and guard him against the malign forces of the fallen world, in the world of the surrealists it would represent his ultimate flaw, and the cause of his suffering. Nowhere is this more true than in Max Ernst's piece where, in the gloss to his 1945 painting, he describes how:
Shrieking for help and light across the stagnant water of his dark, sick mind, St. Antony receives as an answer the echo of his fears: the laughter of the monsters created by his visions.
In arguing for a sceptical and consciously Freudian reading of his work, he is effectively denying both a literal and a figurative reading of the tradition – they are neither demons nor appropriately representatives of the demonic in daily life. Yet, in reducing them to the status of self-spawned hallucination, he is in no way robbing the subject of its fundamental power. To the surrealists, dream was not an escape from reality, but a means through which its true depth could be understood, and for which Sigmund Freud had provided the key. What it thus represented, at least for Ernst, was not a subversion but a re-working of the theme, that transposed the power of original subject, directing it to an end more relevant to the 20th century mind.


Ideologically, one of the main detractors amongst the painters of the Bel Ami Competition was Salvador Dalí. While he would join his contemporaries in their opposition to organised religion for much of the earlier part of his career, the years 1940-1947 would see him return to his former Catholicism. This change is reflected in his art, which came to feature increasingly explicit religious themes.

Like many of the other entrants, his painting was modelled on an earlier example of the tradition. In this case, his inspiration came from the Italian Baroque painter Salvator Rosa, depicting a kneeling St Anthony holding aloft a cross to ward off a menacing collection of demons. Yet while similar in composition, the implications of both paintings are distinctly at odds. As an artist, Salvator Rosa had the reputation of a spiritual renegade, commonly identified as a precursor to the Romantics. His other works primarily feature classical themes, with a preoccupation with the more subversive elements of Hellenic aesthetics. The artist himself, in portraits, cultivated a wild character, often painting himself with leaf crowns and goatish features in the manner of a satyr.

Salvator Rosa, 1645

Working nearly two centuries after the original devotional Anthony movement, the differences of style and motivation are evident. And though coming from the Italian baroque tradition, his demons bear far more in common with those of Grünewald and Bosch than his those of his compatriots. His St Anthony appears as a study of human frailty more than of spiritual strength. His sees the saint sprawled across the forefront of the scene, cowering in the face of the approaching demons, or simply reeling from the horror of the scene before him. Yet where Rosa's Anthony cowers, Dalí's rises up defiant. He is naked, but by no means vulnerable. His body appears thin but grizzled, and covered with lean, ropey muscles. It is now the demons' turn to cower, rearing up, and recoiling from the power of Christ.

Salvador Dali, 1946
Despite the stylistic differences, it is also interesting to note that one of the elements carried over into the Dalí work are a rock and a skull. Their symbolism neatly underpins the ideological divide between the two paintings. The owner of the skull is unclear, but carries the suggestion of some sort of relic, possibly hinting at Anthony's own impending sainthood. The other motif, the rock, could almost be an invention of Dalí's. For while it features in both paintings, Rosa's is set on a mountain landscape, where rocks are everywhere. Dalí transposes the scene to the desert, where the rock is the only natural feature on an otherwise bare landscape (except for a scattering of pebbles), indicating a deliberate inclusion. Anthony leans on this rock, drawing strength from its presence in a clear nod to the book of Matthew, verse 16:18, which declares: I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church. Peter is derived from Petra, the Hebrew word meaning 'rock'.

Dalí's decision to part from his fellow surrealists and depict a triumphant saint, rather than a suffering martyr, is perhaps indicative of the artist's struggle to overcome a number of personal demons, both literal and figurative. Shortly after the competition he would return to France, where in 1947, he would undergo an exorcism. As Dalí would spend much of his career blurring the lines between Dalí the artist and Dalí the man, it is difficult to say for certain just how sincere his return to Catholicism really was. Yet the fact that he did not publicise the incident is a testament to its probable authenticity. This revelation would only come to light much later through the letters of Father Gabriele Maria Berardi, who performed the rite, and whom Dalí rewarded with one of his own original works: a sculpture of a crucifix. The reward of the crucifix itself would only be discovered when it was found amongst Bernardi's personal effects after his death.

Leonora Carrington is another artist of the 1946 competition to strike a significantly different note from the other entrants, not least because hers only nominally dealt with the theme of temptation. Her painting focussed on the idea of the meditative St Anthony, in which he is depicted in a pose of spiritual contemplation; sitting by a river accompanied by a pig, and surrounded by a curious assortment of fantastical imagery. Anthony is set against a dreamlike backdrop of desert mountains, and forests in the dimming light of early evening. The figures that populate this landscape are indicative of Carrington's fascination with the occult, experimenting with imagery from all throughout western esoterica. In her gloss, she identifies the figures to the right as the Queen of Sheba and her attendants, explaining how:

...[they] emerge in ever-decreasing circles out of a subterranean landscape towards the hermit. Their intention is ambiguous, their progress spiral.

The river is also supernatural in nature, miraculously flowing from a clay jar, held aloft by a ram-headed man. Of this, Carrington explained only (and rather cryptically):
One could only quote the words of Friar Bacon's brazen head: Time is – Time was – Time is past. I was always pleased with the simple idiocy of these words.
Leonora Carrington, 1946

The reference is to Robert Green's satirical play The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c.1590), which follows the affairs of Dr Roger Bacon, a 13th century scholastic philosopher and scientist, with a reputation as a magician. The play itself was also the inspiration for a much more famous work: Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. The brazen head, to which Carrington refers, is a magical device that was believed to have the power to answer any question asked of it. When tested however, it is able only answer in the most general terms imaginable: Time is – Time was – Time is past. Bacon is just one of a number of figures reported to have possessed a brazen head, a list which also includes John Dee, Robert Grosseteste, and Albertus Magnus.

Time represents a core theme in Carrington’s St Anthony, in that it depicts a scene outside of time, with the events of Anthony's life (past and future) taking place in the background, fixed in place by the only two constants in Anthony's life: his perpetual contemplation and devotion to God. The river also separates periods in time, dividing the leafless winter pastoral scene on the right from the lush summer vegetation to its left, perhaps in some fanciful evocation of Heraclitus's principle that no man ever sets foot in the same river twice. Anthony himself also has three heads, perhaps another reference to the three-fold nature of time present in the painting. Curiously, hers was not the only three-headed Anhony to feature in the 1946 competiton: Louis Guglielmi's entry also has three faces, in alternating expressions of despair. When approached on the subject of Anthony's multiple heads, Carrington answered simply 'why not?' 
Hieronymus Bosch, 
 c. 1500–1525 

For her model, Carrington chose Hieronymous Bosch's Temptation. This was Bosch's second major St Anthony piece, his earlier, and much darker take on the subject was his Tryptich depicting various scenes from St Anthony's life, including the demon attack. The demons aren't absent from his later work, however, but are pushed to the fringes of the scene, and reduced in stature to comical goblin-like creatures. Their tiny assaults seem to be met with indifference by the brooding saint, perhaps knowing himself to be spiritually (if not physically) unassailable while in this state of contemplation. Likewise, the threats of worldly corruption are not wholly absent in Carrington's work. These converge on the bald-headed girl to his left, whose temptations comprise both sex and food. Carrington remarks:

The bald-headed girl in the red dress combines female charm and the delights of the table. The mixture of the ingredients has overflowed and taken a greenish and sickly hue to the fevered vision of St Anthony, whose daily meal consists on withered grass and tepid water with an occasional locust by way of an orgy.

Food was perhaps deemed insufficiently dramatic for many of his artistic depictions, but it does play a central part in his legend. During his temptation by the devil in the desert, mirroring Christ's own struggles in the wilderness, Anthony is tempted by the promise of a silver dish bearing honey cakes. This theme was also taken up in Flaubert's novel of 1874: The Temptation of St Anthony, where food is presented as one of the most potent of worldly temptations, and a barrier between man's soul and spiritual enlightenment – which he calls 'the celestial light'.


When Carrington’s painting was sold at auction in 2014, the catalogue frankly states that her Anthony could never have won the competition. For Loew and Lewin, their concern was predominantly the darker and more graphic elements of the St Anthony tradition, in which Ernst's creation fairly outdoes almost everyone present. Yet what this perhaps most profoundly demonstrates is perhaps the most enduring aspect of the St Anthony tradition throughout history: the preoccupation with shock.

While it would be trite to characterise the trend towards spectacle itself as a form of temptation, there does seem to be an undeniable element of morbid fascination at work in these pieces. Yet this is something that lies at the very heart of the St Anthony tradition in art – an unforgiving critic may perceive the tradition that sprang up around his legend as an elaborate excuse for artists to indulge their more subversive tastes while enjoying the patronage and leniency afforded by the clerical authorities, just as a more lenient one may see their iterations into the sinister darkness of philosophical depravity as a test of spiritual courage equivalent to St Anthony’s own. The truth of the matter perhaps lies somewhere in between. In any case, it is clear the artists themselves were not ignorant of the complexities of their subject. Bosch's meditative Temptation can therefore be seen as a counter-weight to his unforgiving Tryptich, just as Grünewald's brutal scene has its own counterpart on the Isenheim Altarpiece that evoked the more wholesome legend of St Anthony and his meeting with St Paul the Hermit, described by Jerome. In this respect, it is perhaps possible to see these historical contradictions living on in the works of the surrealists, collectively seeking to expand the scope of the Sr Anthony legend into their own, terrifying century.


Bergman, Madeleine, Hieronymus Bosch and alchemy : a study on the St. Anthony triptych, Almqvist & Wiksell international, 1979.

Boureau, Alain. Satan the heretic: the birth of demonology in medieval west, University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Cameron, ML. The Visions of the Saints Anthony and Guthlac in Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture, Macmillan, 1992.

Caxton, William. The Life of St Antony in The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, From the Temple Classics Edited by F.S. ELLIS, 1900

Bursill-Hall, G.L. Grammatica speculativa by Thomas of Erfurt ; an edition with translation [from the Latin] and commentary, Longman, 1972

Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1980

Reiman, Susan Rubin. Risking Who One Is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature, Harvard University Press, 1994.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Everywhere the glow of something waiting to end: on Gary J Shipley’s Warewolff!

"Even in the face of things that seem impossibly alien in both subject and sentiment, the narratorial voice still surveys it all with total detachment. And nor should it be any other way. Shipley has bored a hole into the inner life of a multitude of subconscious minds, and whatever pours out is judged on its own terms, without dissemblance or apology."

My review of the latest release from Hexus Press, published over at 3:AM Magazine earlier this month:

Monday, 17 July 2017

It's In The Computer: technology and the unknowable in John Carpenter's 'The Thing' and 'Prince of Darkness'

This weekend I attended a 35th anniversary screening of John Carpenter's The Thing. It was every bit as mad and visionary as I remember, but I also felt I was now far more able to appreciate the impressive degree of humour which carries the suspense of the script. There's the absurdities of Childs and MacReady's punchy, hyper-masculine dialogue, and the occasional drifts into slapstick, but the scene that raised the biggest laugh was the sequence in which Blair, the station's doctor, turns to his computer in search of answers.

Aside from representing a now conspicuously convenient exposition device, one of the biggest sources of amusement here was the idea that it was possible for a computer to plot so accurately the behaviour of this entity in so short a time, and in such a specific fashion based on a scattering of initial data. It's easy to put this down to the technological ignorance of an audience for whom computers were something still largely beyond their grasp. This was after all a time in cinema where a film in which Matthew Broderick accidentally hacks into the US's nuclear defence network via a computer game could still make a viable plot. This trope was even lampooned in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004), with Dr Liz Asher's famous line: I'll cross-fertilise the data.

But this scene is perhaps not as absurd as it seems. Advances in epidemiology had been taking place for much of the later part of the 20th century, with computers assisting in the creation of sophisticated modelling software to support large scale research projects. As Luke at the Pencil Neck Record Geek blog points out, this was also the year in which AIDS finally gained national recognition, and the behaviour of viruses suddenly became a matter major popular concern amid a climate of growing paranoia. But while the film actually now seems weirdly prescient in light of the recent story of the 'coming back to life' of the largest virus ever discovered, preserved for 30,000 years in the Siberian Permafrost, this application of computing would have been high on the agenda in the scientific community even then.

This wasn't impossible technology. But even so, such an analysis would only be possible if they had the software with them at the base that had been designed with a similar purpose in mind. This then begs the question of what exactly they were researching at Outpost #31 that they would have access to such a resources (plus flamethrowers)? Given the costs of maintaining and staffing an Antarctic research station, it's likely that multiple projects would be running simultaneously across the base, and this does seem to be the case. The cast lists Blair and Fuchs as biologists, Norris as a geologist and Bennings as a meteorologist, together comprising pretty much all the fields of study you would really cover in an Antarctic research station. MacReady is also identified as a meteorologist in the book but is re-introduced as the company pilot, most likely so as to be more in-keeping with  Kurt Russel's characterisation as the hardbitten, whiskey-fuelled badass we see in the film.

Yet there is another dimension to the presence of this technology in Carpenter's film. One of the first segments of dialogue is between MacReady and and the dedicated chess computer: Chess Wizard. And while her role in the film itself is short lived, her precocious intelligence being written off after beating MacReady (MacReady's 'cheating bitch!' line made all the more pointed given that hers is the only female voice in an otherwise all male film), she marks an important thematic aspect of the film - the idea of Computers against the unknown.

The unknown and the unknowable is a persistent trope in horror. Much of how we conceive of it today is shaped by its role in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. His fiction is filled with unnameable terrors, made frightening not by the absence of their description but the impossibility of their description. Eugene Thacker explores it in his book In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1, and points to a trend of persistent and conspicuous vagueness in the descriptions used in film titles like Them, and They Live. The Thing, and its amorphous, implacable alien nemesis is no exception from this trend. Yet it is important to note the quality of unknowability is a figment of human subjectivity. Not so, perhaps, for the objective mind of a computer. And the fact that this is even fleetingly identified as a feminine presence, while all around men are turning on one another, is certainly worth bearing in mind when approaching the film from a critical perspective.

The Thing is not the only one of John Carpenter's films of that decade to feature a computer as an interface with the unknown. 1987 saw the release of his less celebrated but equally visionary Prince of Darkness. Like its predecessor, Prince of Darkness also features a research team holed up in a building against an invading entity. But in the later film they are transposed from the icy wastes of Antarctica to the dilapidated cityscape of downtown L.A. where they establish a research post in an abandoned church with a murky occult history. Here the horrors that await them are more overtly supernatural, and the team set to analyse them represent a significantly more diverse bunch consisting of theologians, mathematicians, ancient language scholars and philosophy professors alongside the scientists.

Even more so than in The Thing, computers provide an insight into the unknown. They are able to present hidden meaning in the words of ancient texts, and reveal the presence of impossibly sophisticated differential equations recorded therein, before eventually becoming the mouthpiece of the entity that is the eponymous Prince of Darkness.

But there is a second technological presence in the film, one that is far more speculative. It appears in the recurrent dream sequence, where the team begin experiencing the same vision of the church in the not so distant future, accompanied by the chilling message:

We are unable to transmit through conscious neural interference. You are receiving this broadcast as a dream. We are transmitting from the year one, nine, nine, nine...

The introduction of broadcasting technology as a means of transcending time into an already conceptually dense film was a daring decision on Carpenter's part. But as well as heightening the occult technological undertones present in the drama, it also represents a call back to an earlier film: The Stone Tape. Created by Nigel Kneale for the BBC in 1971 as part of its 'Ghost stories at Christmas' series, it is cited as being among the principle inspirations of Carpenter's later film. 

The Stone Tape was witness to another point of transgression of science into the realms of the paranormal. It sees a team of scientists attempt to turn their knowledge and their impressive array of audio-tech to examine an apparition of a screaming woman materialising in an ancient stone vault. Like Carpenter's L.A. church, this chamber is located in the lower levels of a semi-ruined manor house. But their experiments  soon turn up something more far less prosaic than an mere haunting.

Again, there is a heavily gendered dimension to the interplay of science and the supernatural in Kneale's work. It features Jane Asher as the brilliant, dedicated and much underappreciated protagonist Jill who, as the data analyst for the team, providing a central role in the work of the team. Yet this goes ignored even when her discoveries prove the only insight into what is really going on. She is also notably the only one able to empathise with the humanity of the dead woman beyond a simple piece of data, all the more poignant given her ultimate fate.

The historic association of programming and femininity is a lost chapter in the history computers that has only recently come back into the public consciousness through films like Hidden Figures (2016) and the growing cult following around Ada Lovelace. This trend carries over profoundly into Carpenter's later film. Even though by this point the field of computing and its image in the popular imagination had been almost entirely claimed by men women are continually depicted as the guardians to the computers. Through them, they stare boldly into the unknown, holding council with CPUs like the participants of some elaborate digital seance.

Prince of Darkness has sadly achieved nothing like the kind of critical acclaim of Carpenter's other works like The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13. But despite all the schlock dialogue, the cod philosophy and gross-out special effects, I believe it is and remains one of his most important and visionary films of the 1980s.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Thinking in Drones: Encounters at the weird frontier of experimental electronic music

One can hear many things in a drone. Resonances and patterns emerge in a fleeting semiotics of uncertain design. I appealed to the internet for a name to give to this phenomenon and found instead wellspring of strange ideas: forums and journals filled with the dispatches of individuals to whom these signals spoke directly. Many veered towards conspiracies, or the realms of the paranormal by way of explanation. Whatever its manifestation, this form of sonic pareidolia is a function in the programming of our much assuming brains without which there could be no sense in the material world. It is in us all, yet finding a means to accurately describe even one such experience of this phenomenon can be tortuous.

Such was the problem I encountered when trying to form a coherent response to my time spent at the fringes of London’s electronic music scene. When I began to explore the milieu of noise and drone, and their oblique history in music, I found a similar diversity of voices and ideas. Visionaries such as John Cale and Karlheinz Stockhausen saw their creations as representing one aspect of the same cohesive sonic universe that popular and traditional music inhabited, distinguished perhaps only by tempo. Those amongst the more extreme, noise-oriented fringes have drawn a much harder line, seeing their work as a fundamentally different kind of beast, or even a challenge to the concept of music itself. Their dispute echoes the arguments of Surrealism and the Dadaists a century before, striving either to destroy the canon utterly or else subvert its precepts towards stranger ends, but united in a collective drive toward the unknown: new territories and new ideas.

But for the creators of experimental electronic music, what shape do these ideas take, that they now seek to understand? To many, the prism of electronic sound is a glass peered through darkly indeed. To these artists, the realms of drone held a sense of disassociation - of things brutal, alien and unfamiliar. Some have even seen cataclysm; the death of the universe. This has formed the crux of a creative process a creative process that can be at turns expressive, morbid, and coldly abstract. The artist Argumentix, Speaking in the 2008 documentary People Who Do Noise, explained his composition process, drawing inspiration from apocalyptic ruminations on the near future:

A lot of what I think about and write about artistically is the idea of being fifteen years in the future and looking back at the time that I’m living in right now and observing what was going on and what led to this apocalypse or big world change, because I feel pretty strongly that the world is going to completely change as we know it and to express that emotion and that impending doom, I mean, like, pop music doesn’t work anymore, and so people need something that is directly tackling that issue.

The documentary goes on to feature artists incorporating dream visions, altered states, periods of illness, and the ever greater subversions of technology in the pursuit of a desired sound. As a writer of cosmic horror, I felt like I’d come home. In the few months I’ve spent amongst the devotees of London’s own electronic musical fringes, I’ve often wondered that the two worlds haven’t converged more often or profoundly. For H.P. Lovecraft - the patron saint of weird - his legacy to music has been a curiously underexplored thing. In popular music, it has been celebrated almost exclusively in goth and heavy metal, drawing more of the kitsch, pulp horror elements of his work. But there is evidently room for other sounds in the Lovecraftian canon.

Lovecraft himself spoke of music in the real world very little, almost never of contemporary music, and despised most channels of popular culture in which he might have encountered it. Yet from his frequent allusions to music in his stories, one can imagine where his tastes might have lain. His stories contain a profound sonic dimension composed of a myriad horrors: cracked flutes and whistles herald the blind, ‘idiot god’ Azathoth sprawling on his throne at the centre of the universe. Cries of demon hounds are carried on the night winds while ingenious instruments concealed in the mouths of gargoyles breathe eerie monotonies through the subterranean abodes of grave robbers. Tillinghast’s electronic drone engine draws down monsters from the aether, while the mad virtuoso Erich Zann fiddles into the abyss.

Later writers of the Lovecraftian canon have followed this lead. Simon Whitechapel’s Walpurgisnachtmusick, sees its protagonist begin a psycho-erotomaniac journey towards fleshly apotheosis in an specialist record shop, making the work of the fictional minimalist band MiddlePain his primer for debauchery. Likewise in Alan Moore’s The Courtyard the narrative centers around an experimental noise-rock band: The Ulthar Cats, channeling the unwholesome beyond through their psychedelic performances in an abandoned church in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

On a deeper level, Lovecraft’s philosophy of cosmic pessimism and alienation chimes well with the darker side of the electronic scene. In later years, his depiction of the hostile and unknowable universe - the world without us (to borrow a term from Eugene Thacker) - would inspire such thinkers as Michel Houellebecq, and the anarcho-futurist cum radical Neo-Reactionary philosopher Nick Land. Land and his fellow exponents of the Accelerationist movement, his colleagues at Warwick’s ominous sound Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), were themselves advocates of experimental techno as the collective anthem for their vision of a new world. The circle was so nearly complete.

Likewise, it is not just the tone or aesthetic that makes it such a potent territory for exploring these strange ideas. Perhaps the thing which most distinguishes noise and drone as a subcategory of electronic music is its inexorable connection to the technology used in its creation. Not only do its sounds and rhythms not exist in other forms of music, but the interrelationship between the artist and the complicated nexus of synthetic and recorded sound, loops and oblique mathematics that make up its composition is one wholly unique to the genre. Its composition is as much an act of exploration and discovery as it is an act of creation. For here, music is not the work of human agents, but a collaboration with the alien and implacable will of the machine.

Some artists, such as Daryl Groetsch (performing under the name Pulse Emitter) have taken this notion to its more extreme conclusions. Seeking to remove the human element from music altogether, he described one of his experiments thus:

I want to start taking data from nature and patching it into my synthesiser. I’ve done that a little bit with photo cells. You know? I can stick it out the window and the sun setting will go from a higher voltage to a lower voltage, and that can control the synthesiser. But I want to be able to take, like, a topographical map of Mars, and turn that into a voltage that will control my synthesiser, and then have pieces of music that are entirely based on data.

This dichotomy between human creativity and the appropriation of the syntactical currents of the natural world reflect a tension which has existed in music and art that has existed for centuries. Nietzsche identified the dichotomy as Dionysian and the Apolline, exploring the elaborate interplay of the two creative impulses - to learn the nature of the gods through reason or join them in revels on the celestial plains through transcendent intoxication.

To a reader of the Romantic poets, Groetsch’s experiments in environmental data hold a particular resonance. They recall a passage in Coleridge’s Eolian Harp:

 And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely framed,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

Two hundred years before the advent of our post-digital age, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge first penned the immortal lines of his poem The Aeolian Harp, he was not simply musing on the beauty of nature or the legacy of classical Greece from which the instrument arises. Writing at the time of the enlightenment, he and many of his fellow artists and writers were wrestling with fundamental questions of the soul and the ultimate intelligibility of the world and divinity during a period of such immense and frenetic change that one felt one's basic consciousness ill equipped to cope, suffering a paralysing disconnect between the soul and the material world. One has only to think about the internet, mass data, Twitter, datapocalypse, augmented reality, globalisation and the many other strata that comprise our borderless world and those beyond it, and such concepts become shockingly relatable.

His response, and that of many of his peers (Wordsworth, De Quincey, Verlaine and Rimbaud et al.) was to seek altered states. Opium and its various preparations are considered the most typical of the movement, but there were others, too. Hashish was de rigeur in France following Napoleon's campaigns in Egypt, and even chemical refinements such as amyl nitrate was coming into use in the medical profession. Yet this rush towards intoxication was never intended as an escape from the modern world. Through this exploration of consciousness and the soul, the thinkers of the age were seeking to attune themselves to this new world, and create a philosophy and a language that could fully comprehend its nature - both the material and the divine.

Unlike the denizens of the EVP forums, the drone never spoke to me in isolation. My first taste of experimental electronic music came while I was in university, but at the time it left me cold. It was only when I came to London and had a chance to enter into the scene and encounter it directly that it really began to make some form of weird sense.

While the ultimate pursuit of the Romantics was in the pursuit of an enlightenment ideal - to bring the light of science to the unknowable realms of consciousness. The electronic mythopoetics of the experimental electronic scene strike at something at once more abstracted, more fanciful and more obscure. A night of drone is an experience somewhere between a Dadaist happening and a ritual invocation. Like devotees of the cult of Mithras, we converge in cellars and dark spaces in furtive numbers. The music is an offering, an appeal to the machine god, like a medieval sorcerer forming furtive pacts with the denizens of the unwholesome beyond. This relic of ancient times takes place against a backdrop of harsh science fiction soundscapes, bathed in the scintillating glow of a myriad LEDs. But the drone scene isn’t new, nor does it exist outside of time. Drone is the perpetual present, the screaming edge of now, the primal chaos that has always been with us beneath the sheen of ordered sobriety. Like a creeping decay, it awaits all that lingers to long in the dark, changing only as we develop ever more sophisticated apparatus through which to observe it.