Once a fringe figure of a very conservative Australian society, Rosaleen Norton since her death in 1979, has become cult figure in esoteric circles for her visionary artwork. In her time she was portrayed as the epitome of wickedness. This was a facade she was quite happy to flaunt to the public and media, loving to shock conservative minds.
From a very early age, Rosaleen exhibited a non conformist rebellious nature. When she was 14, the headmistress of her school, Chatswood Girls Grammar, became the first in a long line of people to identify Rosaleen as a corrupting influence on others, and duly expelled her for producing ‘depraved’ drawings of vampires, ghouls and werewolves. She later studied for two years at East Sydney Technical College under the noted sculptor, Rayner Hoff who encouraged her ‘pagan’ creativity.
Although her talents were mainly artistic Rosaleen Norton also had considerable talents as a writer of macabre and exotic tales. At the age of 15 she had several horror stories accepted by Smith’s Weekly, a famously irreverent and lively newspaper which seems to have kept almost all of Sydney’s bohemian community in gainful employment at one time or another. She preferred to work as an artist, but during her months there she failed to produce anything conventional enough even for Smith’s, and was let go.
Rosaleen was Australia’s first female pavement artist. She also worked as a model for Norman Lindsay, whose early line drawings were both controversial and notorious. Norman’s influence on Rosaleen’s work is very evident. Of Rosaleen’s own work Lindsay was not so impressed, being even a little too dark for even his own tastes.
In 1935 she met and married Beresford Lionel Conroy, and the pair spent some time hitchhiking around the country from Brisbane to Melbourne. The marriage lasted until after WWII when they divorced.
Rosaleen Norton had her first public exhibition at Melbourne University. However, two days after it opened, police descended on the gallery and seized four of the exhibited pictures. Charges were laid under the Police Offences Act, citing that the works were decadent and obscene, and likely to arouse unhealthy sexual appetites in those who saw them. The charges against her were dismissed and 4 pounds 4 shillings costs were awarded against the police department.
One of the confiscated paintings was the well-known work, Black Magic. This depicted a black panther copulating with a naked woman. Rosaleen Norton’s paintings were a mix of magic, mythology, fantasy and Freudian symbols. They were the product of visions seen during self-induced trances and dreams or while carrying out occult experiments. She worshipped Pan – life and death, order and chaos, creation and destruction, and elemental forces. Rosaleen kept very detailed journals of her psychic explorations and was very well read on Freudian and Jungian psychology. She had her own well developed cosmology and an intricate understanding of ceremonial magick.
She experimented with self hypnosis and automatic drawing for years, devising rituals which would put her into a trance state in which she could explore other dimensions. Her paintings and drawings for the most part were depictions of the myriad of gods, demons and other entities with whom she communicated and caroused with on these journeys.
A brave soul named Walter Glover, saw merit in Rosaleen’s works and put his own finances into publishing a book, “The Art Of Rosaleen Norton“, a collection of her illustrations accompanied by poems by her young boyfriend, Gavin Greenlees. The book like the Melbourne exhibition attracted controversy, and landed Walter in court on obscenity charges. The magistrate fined Glover five pounds and ordered that two pictures, including one of “Fohat”, a cheeky looking demon with a snake for a penis, be obliterated from unsold copies of the book. Because of this copies of the book were confiscated and burnt by the US customs. The whole affair bankrupted Walter. He was however never to loose faith in Rosaleen, and would years later when his bankruptcy was lifted, went on to republish the book, this time in a much changed Australia, causing no stir. Both editions are now collectors items.
Rosaleen was now a renowned figure in the infamous Kings Cross district of Sydney, home to prostitutes, criminals, artists and would-be cosmopolitans. She was attracting a steady stream of sensationalist media attention. Originally she enjoyed the attention and played upon the public persona. She certainly looked the part, her eyebrows plucked into high arches, her face framed with jet black hair and curves which resembled her paintings. She was also named as the leader of a witch cult, which was really nothing more than a few friends gathering at her flat. This was however enough for the tabloids to expand into something more elaborate.
By the 60’s Rosaleen was starting to slip away from public attention as she increasingly found the small minded media tiring. Her liberated ideas were now no longer so shocking in an age of free love and open drug use. She quietly continued to create her visionary artwork and sell to any who were interested.
A decade later she had become a complete recluse confining herself to her close circle of friends. In her final years her health started to fail before she was finally admitted into the Sacred Heart Hospice, diagnosed with cancer. Here even to the last, surrounded by nuns and crucifixes, she remained unrepentant and committed to her beliefs, dying on December 5th, 1979.
Shortly before she died she is reported as saying: “I came into the world bravely; I’ll go out bravely.“