Making the Book Talismanic: An Interview with Robert Ansell
Robert Ansell is the Director of Fulgur Press, which has published the work of esoteric artists for 20 years.
Robert Ansell is the Director of Fulgur Press, which has published the work of esoteric artists for 20 years.
'We who proudly make ourself every graven image,
Shall have great copulations
And are allowed to love our Gods:
-Austin Osman Spare, The Witches' Sabbath
Avi What led you to work at Sotheby's?
Robert: Well, my formal education was somewhat erratic, but I decided to pursue a career in fine art, starting out as a saleroom porter—in those days, this was considered an apprenticeship of sorts. I joined Sotheby's in September 1984 and within months was transferred to the Book Department, working under the tutelage of Simon Heneage. He proved to be an inspirational mentor and a lasting influence, because it was Simon who introduced me to the work of Austin Osman Spare.
Avi How did encountering Spare's work change you?
Robert: Oh profoundly, but I feel it significant that my first connection with him was through a direct experience of his art. Only subsequently did I get to know the contextual narrative of Kenneth Grant, and later still, Pete Carroll. Of course, their approaches are hugely important and influential, but personally my context for approaching Spare has always been through that feeling his work produces, what we might call the magico-aesthesis. There is actually very little written about this aspect of his work. This is because the popular approach has been through his development of sigils, but I suspect Spare's early awareness of magico-aesthesis formed the very foundation of his practice as an artist-practitioner. So perhaps—since encountering Spare's work—you could say I have developed an interest in the relationship between creativity and certain states of perception.
Avi Can you illustrate what you mean by 'magico-aesthesis' with an example from Spare's artwork?
Robert: Yes. Let's look at one of my favorites, an early image from 1910 titled 'The Self's Vision of Enlightenment.' As a drawing it would seem to evoke a certain kind of elusive quality, a feeling of strangeness perhaps, which is typical of Spare's best work. We can see something similar in the work of the fin-de-siËcle symbolists—indeed G.F. Watts was a big influence on the young artist—but somehow Spare's approach is more personal, more intimate. And it is this juxtaposition of intimacy and strangeness that continues to fascinate so many, while deeply unsettling others. Even in the early days, George Bernard Shaw is alleged to have remarked that Spare's work was 'too strong a meat for the normal man' and over the years I've met collectors who have kept his work in cupboards, cellars, attics—even in the garage. I once asked an elderly friend of Spare why. 'Because they don't stay in the frameÖ' he said, without a trace of humor. Only years later did I begin to understand the phenomena he was talking about, but suffice to say here that Spare developed formulas for representation that evoke ambiguities within our field of perception. In my view, this is the essence of his magico-aesthesis. Take our sample image. Several elements are liminal in nature; the shading, the partially finished areas, the grotesque physiology of the central 'skull-hands'; even the draped figure takes on a more masculine appearance the longer you look. But the real punctum—to borrow an expression from Barthes—is the open eye of the face. Here we find Spare has combined several disruptive elements; the facial features are exaggerated, the figure is both asleep and awake, the right hand is raised in some kind of communicative gesture—although the meaning remains obscure, creating a sense of displaced tension—and all the while that open eye is fixed upon us, making it personal. And let's not forget, as an occult image this is somewhat radical because there are no esoteric symbols here, no obvious indicators that allow us to place the image comfortably. In some sense, it reminds us that art and the occult can both claim a power to evoke; and in terms of practice, Spare internalized both.
Avi So a deep internalization of occult doctrine can contribute tremendously to an original creative output? David Chaim Smith's work in "The Sacrificial Universe" is an example of how a "traditional" doctrine like the Kabbalah can inspire radical new perceptions and art forms provided it is truly imbibed within.
Robert: Indeed, because what we see as originality is often born from a blending—a mash-up—and deep internalization offers results with the most integrity because it provides for a very thorough mix. In this regard David's work is an excellent example, because over many years he has drawn inspiration from several spiritual sources and then fully internalized these sources through his practice. Consequently, his vision is often radical and even challenging for these traditional doctrines, although personally these are some of the qualities that I like the most about his art; that it resists closure and forces you to accept it for what it is.
Avi So for example David Chaim Smith's triple world biomorph cover illustration almost suggests a remix of driftwood art with an internalized reworking of the kabbalistic worldview.
Robert: Actually I think it suggests many things, but yes, this is the way the mind seeks closure—comparing the unknown to the known. In this way we build a map of experience, of certainties. By the time we are adults we don't see the real world at all, only the map, the maya. All that we perceive is measured by it. But you know, this comparing and checking is so automatic, so continuous, most people only become aware of it when the process is interrupted. Art has the power to do this, which is why from an esoteric perspective it offers such an important context for exploration and revelation.
Avi Solomon: What do you mean by a Talismanic book?
Robert Ansell: The idea of the talismanic book was something I encountered in 1986 while working at Sotheby's. I chanced upon a copy of Aleister Crowley's "Ahab, and other poems" and was immediately struck by its mesmeric qualities. It wasn't simply a matter of materials or typographic design, but somehow as a whole the book seemed resonant and vital. Later I discovered that Crowley had noted the similarities in manufacture between traditional books and the magical talismans of the Golden Dawn and had begun experimenting with merging the two methods. At the heart of this process was the notion that the book-talisman should be charged with the force that it was intended to represent. Of course, this can be interpreted in many ways—and my own take is fairly post-modern—but when I first encountered it in the mid 1980s, this approach seemed the very antithesis of commercial book production, particularly within the occult genre. Curiously, I found that inspiring.
Avi How can one make a book talismanic? Is the book's talismanic potential necessarily dependent on it's maker's intention and craft or can the reader bestow a talismanic patina on it in turn?
Robert: In terms of talismanic potential, I think we are discussing two distinct yet overlapping processes here, but what they both provide for the reader is a powerful sense of embodiment. There are several ways to express this, but since the beginning of Fulgur in '92 the approach I have developed has been to bridge the divide between book-subject and book-object. In this way, by reaching for certain transcendent qualities, it becomes possible to provide expression for what might be described as the genius libri—the spirit of the book. But candidly, for me at least, the book design process is less about conscious intent and more of a revealing.
Avi Can an e-book be talismanic?
Robert: Philosophically, that's an interesting question. Given an e-book is a disembodied text it would be easy to say no, but it's worth remembering that e-books are still in their infancy—there are not yet digital counterparts for Manutius, Baskerville or Bodoni, much less Tschichold. And as a medium, the printed word casts a long shadow. That said; I could see a time when e-books might offer certain talismanic qualities, some of which would be unique to the electronic format. I find this a fascinating area, because it confronts some of Walter Benjamin's established thinking with regard to the auratic authority of the art-object. When I left sothebys.com in 2001 I actually developed a proposal for an entirely digital publishing concept along such lines. It was wildly progressive back then, but perhaps today less so.
Avi How does running Fulgur help you pull these threads together in practice?
Robert: Today, Fulgur serves as a medium of expression for esoteric artists, primarily through publishing books and editions, but also by providing dealer representation. Running the business has been a privilege actually, because over the last twenty years I have been fortunate to work with some talented and fascinating people. In addition to the limited edition books, a few years ago I launched an esoteric journal entitled Abraxas that aims to represent the best of contemporary and historical esotericism. It is of large format, highly visual and art rich—those who love Parkett and FMR will certainly appreciate the quality—but the content is firmly devoted to serious engagements with the esoteric. I feel this important because as a genre the occult is often marginalized from a cultural perspective; Abraxas tackles that head-on. In a sense, you could say it is a more culturally mobile expression of the central idea that founded Fulgur—put simply, when a book is rendered as a talisman it also becomes a metaphor for our most spiritual of experiences; rare, mysterious and inspiring. As a publisher, my instinct has always been to share that.
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