Rosaleen Norton — joyful contrarian and occultist turned pioneer for free speech
- January 21, 2022
- Christiana Spens
The ‘Witch of Kings Cross’ Rosaleen Norton’s provocative art and unconventional life brought her notoriety in mid-twentieth century Australian society, but paved the way for a rich counter-cultural transformation.
Rosaleen Norton was born in the middle of a thunderstorm in New Zealand in 1917, to conventional, God-fearing parents. But Rosaleen did not fear God, and from a very young age, she embraced Paganism, magic, and a mind-bending, creative form of spirituality that appeared to society at that time as nothing less than Satanic.
Moving to Sydney at the age of eight years old, Rosaleen was a mischievous and imaginative child, obsessed with animals, insects and monsters. She chose to live in a tent in her family’s garden for several years (ensuring that none of her relatives would enter this sacred space thanks to a large spider that spun a web around its entrance, she said), and she created intricate and fantastical artworks, inspired by visions she experienced—first as dreams and then through a precocious and intuitive practice of transcendental meditation.
Norton’s flair for the artistic and subversive would eventually lead to her being expelled from school at the age of 14 for a particularly graphic, demonic drawing of monsters and spectres, which she had passed around her class. It had, however, fallen into the hands of her teacher, who told her parents she must leave school because her ‘depraved’ mind was a bad influence on the other children. Hardly deterred from her creative pursuits, she subsequently enrolled in an art school, East Sydney Technical College, where she was free to pursue her artistic path without restriction. Under the encouraging tutelage of sculptor Raynor Hoff, she threw herself into disciplined figure drawing and painting. At this time, as the Second World War began, she also supported herself as an artists’ model, writer and illustrator for several Australian cultural magazines, which had flourished as imported publications from abroad had become so much harder to acquire. She moved in with a young man called Beresford Conroy, and travelled up the Australian coast, before settling back in Sydney, and marrying in 1940, when they were both 17 years old, and before he signed up.
Sadly, this teenage marriage ended when her husband did not come back from the war; though he survived, their romance did not last through the separation. When her mother died soon after, Rosaleen left her family home and moved into the red-light district of Sydney, King’s Cross. Its bohemian lifestyle and sleazy undertones would become associated with Norton and her art thereafter, for better and worse.
Rosaleen was a striking and dramatic young woman: with a crop of dark curly hair, distinctive, intense eyes, and often dressing in black men’s clothes and esoteric accessories, she was a goth far before it was fashionable. Indeed, at this time—the late 1940s and early 1950s—her attitude and aesthetic clashed greatly with an austere post-war social setting and, especially for women, a focus on the family and the home.
But Norton shunned all that and had other plans for the direction and substance of her life, which involved rebelling against the then prime minister Sir Robert Menzies’ strict censorship laws. In the post-war period, she became deeply committed to the practices of meditation and trance magic and explored alternative spiritual practices—from Buddhism and Hinduism, to the Jewish Kabbalah and then English occultist Aleister Crowley’s ‘sex magic’ endeavours. The latter is the belief system, aesthetic and spectacle that she became notoriously associated with, in stark opposition as it was to the overwhelmingly Christian beliefs of Australians at that time, and a common familiarity with what at first glance seemed a kind of Satanism or devil-worship, and at the very least, a classic vision of sinfulness and the path to the flames of hell.
But Norton’s spirituality was somewhat misunderstood. While she certainly enjoyed subverting conventional Christian beliefs and imagery, and her work is full of horned creatures and flames, she was not and did not worship ‘evil’ per se. Rather, she had become awakened, through trance magic and transcendental meditation, to archetypal visions and characters such as the Greek god Pan and the Mesopotamian and Judaic Lilith, who symbolised to her the complexity and depth of human beauty and character. She certainly explored the concept of evil and did not find it in Christian conceptions of the devil. Rather, what she saw as the oppressive and often hypocritical institution of the Church seemed, to her, the real evil of society.
While Norton would often use substances such as LSD or speed to assist in this ‘raising of consciousness’, her desire was to transcend typical human experiences and to explore the greater plains of universal existence. There was a purity to this pursuit, and certainly a philosophical and spiritual inclination that was beyond mere decadence and the base ‘sinfulness’ that she became characterised, as the Australian tabloids learnt of her lifestyle choices and sought to outrage and titillate their readers with ever more scandalous coverage.
Norton did not resist such notoriety – and seemed even to have enjoyed it. Whether drawing scenes of copulating demon-like figures and telling people she had been born a witch, to hosting her sex magic orgies, she was fully aware of the connotations of her lifestyle, and it was a persona that she nurtured, rather than distanced herself from. Indeed, Norton did not seem to fear other people’s opinions of her, any more than she feared the Christian conception of God. This was rooted in her worship of Pan, in fact, which was not fearful but celebratory; she saw Pan as the symbol of a liberated lust for life, unshackled from the constraints of organised religion and stifling social norms. And so, she challenged the taboos and stigmas she came up against, and was persistently drawn to activities, people and ideas who were deemed strange, perverse and unacceptable. In this pursuit of the provocative and the surreal, she became a true and joyful contrarian.
Moreover, while the transcendental, philosophical aspect of her practise was evident and genuine, she also clearly revelled in the ‘baseness’ of sex and ritualistic magic, precisely because ‘baseness’ was, to her, a type of virtue in itself—with its link to and reaffirmation of the ‘natural’ parts of humanity and the world in which we live. Considering humans to have been ripped from their true, natural practises and character, and this disassociation a sort of psychic trauma, Norton considered what many would think of as base and sinful as quite the opposite—natural, genuine, and an important part of thriving as a body and soul, in a Pagan context.
These attitudes coalesced in her art, as well as the performance of Aleister Crowley-influenced trance/sex magic. These ritualistic, sexual, and meditative performances were considered necessary for a deeper spiritual life and awakening. For Norton, whose paintings depicted these scenes, beliefs and symbolic systems of thought, the spiritual and the artistic were a joint pursuit in spiritualism and philosophical enlightenment. To those not following these esoteric belief systems, however, her behaviour—and her art—came across not only as exhibitionist stunts, but as the very embodiment of evil. She was called a ‘witch’, and she happily embraced the label—a risky strategy at that time, and certainly for an artist who desired recognition as such.
Denounced as depraved and demonic, the notoriety began to seriously undermine her career. In 1949, though she had received much critical acclaim and recognition for her painting to date, her first solo exhibition at the University of Melbourne was raided by the police, and many of her paintings were confiscated and destroyed, on charges of obscenity. This gave rise to further mainstream media demonisation and further legal issues, which began to sabotage her practical and artistic freedoms—which were so clearly at the core of her beliefs and so necessary to her continued production.
While she was eventually acquitted of the obscenity charges, the rest of her career was undermined by a campaign of legal and social attacks on her lifestyle and art. A book of her artwork, published in 1952 alongside the poetry of her partner, the poet Gavin Greenless, The Art of Rosaleen Norton, was banned in her home state of New South Wales, Australia, as well as the United States. A few years later, her partner Sir Eugene Goossens, a renowned British composer and conductor, was arrested after bringing vaguely pornographic photographs into Australia, which was enough (with the media’s encouragement), to put an end to an illustrious career.
She was not alone in this respect; even J. D. Salinger’s relatively tame Catcher in the Rye was banned in 1956 for vaguely ‘indecent references’, and the environment for artists and writers, even when not depicting orgies and hellscapes as Norton did, was a hostile one.
At times seeming to be a martyr to the cause – that cause being sexual rebellion and free speech in itself – she appeared gleeful in others’ dislike of her, nevertheless, continuing to goad the public and the authorities with her occultism and subversion. This mischief-making, whether in private or public, was an art form itself, and she took it seriously. If anyone subscribed to the Wildean philosophy that one should live as if one’s life is one’s art, it was she. Her artistic practise was not only spiritual, but political. She was a true champion of freedom of speech and sexuality, and though she was punished for her entire life, she stayed true to these beliefs.
Interestingly, while Norton was depicted as such an outcast, and her beliefs so esoteric and anti-social, she was in many ways simply ahead of her time. What became counter-cultural and edgy in the 1960s became more and more mainstream over the decades, and after her death in 1979 (by which point she had become very reclusive). While perhaps her particular brand of sex magic is still on the outer edges of what is considered socially acceptable, it is not persecuted to the same degree these days. Her art, meanwhile, is recognised as accomplished and brilliant, though still obscure; perhaps, in time, she will be remembered more for that than for the fight she endured simply to produce it.
Rosaleen Norton’s life is a lesson in courage and defiance in spite of such social pressure and communal anxiety. Her fierce defence of the kinds of freedoms that are so easily lost, erased, and denigrated by ever-fluctuating notions of propriety is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s.