Herbert Crowley: Mind-Bogglingly Fantastical
Josh O’Neill, publisher of Beehive Books/Locust Moon Press and the brilliant Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream project (2014), has been been hard at work for the last few years compiling work by Herbert Crowley (1873–1939). He is in the middle of a Kickstarter to fund an oversized book, The Temple of Silence, which will bring Crowley‘s forgotten worlds back from the vaults. The intricate, detailed symbolism reminds me of the early 20th century French Symbolists with a touch of drug induced ’60s. I asked O’Neill to reveal more of this remarkable artistic discovery.
I plead ignorance of Herbert Crowley’s work. How did you come to be aware of it? I first saw Crowley’s comic strip “The Wiggle Much” in Dan Nadel’s Art Out of Time collection of comics by forgotten artists. It was so otherworldly and symbolistic and strange—I became fascinated by it. Even more so when I realized it had been printed on the back of “Little Nemo In Slumberland.” I did some very cursory research into Crowley, but couldn’t find any info at all. His bio in Art Out of Time says that aside from the existence of these strips, “nothing else is known about Crowley or his work.”
Until I met Justin Duerr, a Philadelphia artist and researcher who had done true deep-dive primary source research into Crowley’s work and life. He showed me illustrations and paintings and sculptures that in many ways outstripped those incredible comics in their beauty and bizarre wonder. Justin had literally pulled Crowley pieces out of raccoon nests in the ruins of Crowley’s former home in upstate New York, had traveled Europe searching for lost Crowley works, and the stuff he’d discovered was absolutely mind-boggling. As soon as he showed me the material I insisted that we produce an art book.
A Tiered Fantastic Structure, 1911–24
Is there any relationship to Alistair Crowley, the English mystic? No relation, though I strongly suspect they may have met each other! They were both involved with the NYC avant garde of the era, and they had a number of friends and acquaintances in common. They were both closely associated with the mystical philosopher Ananda Coomaraswarmy, for instance. I would be very surprised if their paths never crossed.
C’est extraordinaire combien la lune ne fait de l’effet (The effect of the moon is extraordinary), “Wiggle Much” Design, ca. 1910
Rye, ca. 1911
There is a symbolist and psychedelic quality. What do you think is so fetching about this work? There’s so much I could say in answer to this question, it’s hard to know where to start. Crowley used a lot of his work to explore the concept of duality—his art was often dark and frightening, but also playful, silly and funny. That tension in his art is electric, and palpable. The absolute unconstrained expressiveness of his work in tension with this highly attuned, magisterial command and cartooning control. You can feel his desperation, his ambition and anxiety radiating off the page.
His voracious use of his influences too—the way he’s blending Eastern art styles, designs from India and Egypt and Tibet, in with the endlessly pliable tropes of the still-new medium of cartooning, inventing a language on the fly. I talked about this work with Art Spiegelman, and he described Crowley as one of the great roads-not-taken in cartooning and illustration. He DIDN’T have a huge impact on his media. But he should have—and it’s not too late.
What surprise will this work bring to the reader? Crowley’s work is simply unlike anything else out there. You can draw comparisons to his heirs like Jim Woodring, Edward Gorey and Maurice Sendak, but really Crowley is in a class entirely his own. The insane level of detail in his Temple series; the strange poetic symbolism of his Wiggle Much strips; his bizarre nightmare creatures and adorable grotesque sculptures—these things all stand alone as a body of work in modern art.
Where would you say Crowley fits in the history of the form? Crowley was both a cartoonist who was published in the storied New York Herald Sunday comics section, and a modern artist who was exhibited alongside Van Gogh and Picasso in the 1913 Armory Show. He was right there in the thick of it at the dawn of both cartooning and of the American avant garde—two forms which have taken wildly divergent paths, but were not so firmly divided back then.
He was far from the only cartoonist exhibiting in the Armory show. This was a moment in America when newer artforms like abstract expressionism were suddenly and controversially ascendant. So in that sense, Crowley was very much of his time—a restless expeditionary inventing new forms of art, when newness was in the air. He was taking advantage of the sudden freedoms that were being afforded artists at the time, and pushing his work to strange and stunning places.
It’s a true shame, and a crime against art history, that he’s been so completely forgotten. We’re hoping to change that.
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