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INTERVIEW
Meeting Le Maître

An introduction to the Art of Michael Bertiaux with an interview conducted by Ariock Van de Voorde.

The occultist and artist Michael Bertiaux resides in Chicago and is something of a living legend. He is best known among fans and followers of the writer and Thelemite Kenneth Grant, who first brought Bertiaux’s Expressionist art and philosophical writings to wider attention in the third volume of his Typhonian Trilogies, Cults of the Shadow (London: Frederick Muller, 1975). Since the late 1960s, Bertiaux has worked with an idiosyncratic interpretation of Vodou that is commonly known as the Gnostic Voudon occult current. The first comprehensive collection of his thoughts and teachings on this subject was published as The Voudon Gnostic Workbook (New York: Magickal Childe, 1988). A strange and complex book, it fell out of print following the death of Herman Slater in 1992. Though Bertiaux continued to be active in Chicago, making art and teaching a few occult students, for more than a decade his work was overlooked by contemporary art and occultism. A revival of interest began in September 2004, when Robert Ansell made contact with the artist, undertaking the publication of Cosmic Meditation (London: Fulgur, 2007) as the first in a series of works, titled Bibliothèque du Verseau. This was soon followed by Weiser’s republication of the Voudon Gnostic Workbook (San Francisco, CA: Weiser, 2007) and the first full-colour book reproducing his art, Vûdû Cartography (London: Fulgur, 2010). Bertiaux’s magnum opus Ontological Graffiti was published by Fulgur in 2016. Forty years in development and a decade in production, this title is Bertiaux’s most substantial and important work to date.

Early Life

 

Michael Bertiaux was born on 19 January 1935, in Seattle. His family lineage held artists and craftsmen, including his mother Bernice, who had an art studio in their home on 42nd Avenue. With her interests in Theosophy and Spiritism, she encouraged Michael to read philosophy and mythology and influenced him towards thinking of art as a means to reveal the hidden. ‘My mother taught me to paint. She was an artist, a Gemini, and I would say extremely progressive for the time. Her idea was to support and encourage all intellectual and artistic interests of children. She was wonderful.’ The two painted together throughout his youth, employing a wide variety of materials. The only limitation came after Suzie, the family cat, ventured unattended into the studio and tracked paw prints of oil-based paint all over the house. A subsequent ban on oils resulted in experiments in tempera, watercolours and gouache.

Michael was educated by the Christian Brothers at O’Dea High School in Seattle, where he was head of the art club. In his neighbourhood, Zoë Dusanne was bringing modern art into her gallery, including works by prominent European painters and local artists. Her gallery cum commune opened his mind to new styles, particularly Expressionism, which sat well with his interest in German philosophy. During this period in the Pacific Northwest there were a number of enclaves where people mixed art with mysticism, as seen also in the work of the Northwest School, which saw national attention when it was featured in Life magazine shortly after Michael graduated from high school in 1953. Bertiaux was drawn to Kenneth Callahan, Mark Tobey, and especially Morris Graves – with Graves living on an isolated island in Puget Sound, and his work shown in small galleries near Michael’s house, Michael saw him as an inspiring ‘mysterious Zen-hermit artist’. The fact that Graves called himself a mystic was just as appealing as his paintings.

At Seattle University, Michael received formal art training under Nick Damascus, whose influence can still be seen in the facial structures in Michael’s work. ‘Nick was raised

Michael Bertiaux at work in his studio, Chicago, March 2012. Copyright © Robert Shehu-Ansell, 2012.

Greek Orthodox, and he had us paint in oil and taught us to imitate classic Catholic icons. Everything took the look of classical or medieval Byzantine. Even as my art evolved, I kept some of this because I like having facial reality on entities, even when using an otherwise abstract style.’

After university he pursued graduate studies in philosophy at Tulane. He then took a post at a Seattle parish church, which sponsored further study at the Anglican Theological College in British Columbia. He continued to paint and create, finding influences in Abstract Expressionism – particularly Arshile Gorky and Paul Klee, whose techniques he used. At the time, Bertiaux’s work sought to represent energy fields or spirits, ideas that were grounded in his private esoteric studies and in his involvement with the Seattle Theosophical Society. This fascination with animism proved to be a defining one, for when Michael heard of the opportunity to teach philosophy for the Anglican Church in Haiti, he jumped at it.

 

Haiti and Voodoo

 

Michael Bertiaux may be famed for his occult work with voodoo, but while his time in Haiti was formative, the obsession predates it. As a boy who regularly attended the cinema, he once saw a trailer for Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie. Though his parents didn’t let him see the film, the seed was planted, and he began to develop a fascination with Haiti and voodoo.

His time in Haiti as a young man was seminal. ‘Haitians give value to the most imaginative things. I absorbed the atmosphere, and observed the way artists there used colours and the way they organised pictures. I learned from them techniques to imbue paintings with energy, personality, history and a psychic life.’ With so much empathy for the Haitian approach to art, Bertiaux found his employment as a Christian spiritual guide difficult. He was not alone in his fascination. Some ladies of his parish in Seattle had asked if he could bring back some ‘native art’ for them, and through making enquiries with locals, he was taken to meet artists.

It was here that his ‘most profound education’ began, because it was at this time he first encountered Vodou. Michael was introduced to Dr Hector JeanMaine, who initiated him into his world and showed him artists creating work as an expression of the spiritual. The sight of their paintings overwhelmed him. He was also influenced by their use of materials: everything that could be used was implemented, and nothing went to waste. Michael marvelled at the ‘freedom, rashness and innocence’ of Vodou artists and their ability to show historic, religious and esoteric truths. But soon François Duvalier, Haiti’s ‘President for Life’, began exiling foreigners and Michael was denied an extension of his visa.

Chicago

 

He returned to Seattle to work again at St. Mark’s, where he was set to become a priest. But inwardly he felt drawn to explore art and occult subjects, and this found expression through lectures he gave for the Theosophical Society in Seattle. As a consequence he was not admitted into the priesthood on account of being ‘too radical’. So in October 1964 he moved to Illinois, initially to work for the Theosophical Society, but later finding a position as a social worker on Chicago’s South Side. However, he continued to provide lectures for the Theosophical Society and these led quickly to direct contact with Chicago’s occult community. With his job also providing an introduction to the local Haitian community, Michael became known in Chicago’s esoteric subculture.

In April 1964 Hector Jean-Maine, who had been travelling between Haiti and New York, was forced into more permanent residence in the US. Through contacts in Chicago’s Haitian community, he immigrated to the American Midwest and reconnected with Michael. ‘Hector and I had become good friends, and he was thus aware of my artistic interests. He had asked for some paintings depicting certain entities, and then some of the other Haitians asked for the same. These were initially for the purpose of meditation’. With Hector’s teachings, guidance and initiations, Michael was given greater authority over various occult orders. Weekly meetings were held in Hyde Park Lodge: rituals and séances, discussions and lectures. Hector also gave instruction for Michael to create paintings based on the group’s ritual experiences, then to be used as a focus for meditation in the weekly sessions. Many paintings were of spirits and deities related to the Voudon cultus, including Ghuedhe (Guede) Nibbho  and some, like The Primordial Parents, served as ritual gateways. For these Michael began to employ the ‘use what’s there’ technique learned in Haiti. Paintings from this period onward thus have a wide array of unorthodox canvases, and often are painted with enamel paint from hardware stores. His style in the mid- to late 1960s moved more towards Expressionism, about which he states, ‘I don’t want to be too abstract; I’ve always felt a picture should tell a story and have something recognisable to latch onto’. By using subjects that were identifiable to the conscious mind he felt that doors could be opened.This would then let in colour, symbolism and compositional placements to affect the subconscious.

Because of their relative isolation in Chicago at that time, Michael’s various occult working orders developed idiosyncratic practices. He was therefore considered by others in the American occult community to be unorthodox, even sinister. ‘Due to public opinion of the “evil of voodoo” perpetrated by film and other popular-culture depictions, many were curious but wary. Although the Ecclesia Gnostica Spiritualis was in contact with different church groups, our magical orders were “too scary” for others. This was fine with me. My philosophy was those whose fear made them apprehensive were not meant for the knowledge we held.’

Despite this isolation, the reputation of Michael’s occult groups grew. After the publication of The Magical Revival in 1972, Michael wrote to Kenneth Grant to express his appreciation for the author’s treatment of Achad, Fortune and Spare. A friendship was struck. ‘With Kenneth and the Typhonian group, we found a friendly port, a welcoming haven for magical cooperation. He and I continued exchanging ideas through the years, and we’ve had many overlapping members in our orders’.

Kenneth Grant took the view that Michael and his groups were transmitting authentic and ancient hidden wisdom and featured an exploration of Bertiaux’s work in Cults of the Shadow (1975), Nightside of Eden (1977), Outside the Circles of Time (1980) and Hecate’s Fountain (1992). This treatment brought Bertiaux greater notoriety as an occult artist, and various occult orders and esoteric Masonic groups began to contact him and commission works for their temples. Such works, along with his own art, kept him busy throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This period of fame also saw him active as an occult lecturer. Indeed, the Voudon Gnostic Workbook was a project that began life as a collection of notes for a lecture that was unexpectedly cancelled.

Michael Bertiaux, Ghuedhe (Guede) Nibbho, 1969. Enamel and acrylic on acrylic board, 80 x 100cm. Property of the Famille-Ghuedhe lodge O.T.O.A.

Michael Bertiax, The Goddess of the Future. An Astral Portrait of Marie von Crowley, 1974. Enamel and acrylic on acrylic board, 80 x 100cm. Property of the Ghuedhe-L’horizon Lodge.

In the 1990s, Michael’s inspiration shifted, and his art became a means to cope with a personal tragedy. His godson, who lived ten floors down from him in the same apartment building, was murdered. Deciding to keep his godson’s apartment, he created a temple and studio in this space in tribute and immersed himself completely in his art. This began a fifteen-year period of prolific painting and writing centred on the ‘Gholemhe’. ‘Everything during this period was Gholemhe. My art was consumed by it, in my philosophic explorations I considered the traditional golem mythology from a Heidegger standpoint, and ritually it was my most successful experiment. This is how I managed my grief.’

Michael retired in 2002 and now works full-time on occult study, writing and art. ‘Starting with Vûdû Cartography and moving forward, my writings give recollections of the foundations of my initiations and growth through various methods, and cover, in depth, the development of the techniques used in my orders. I will show the reader different means of exploration. The words and art chosen, and the way they are presented, will unlock doors.’

 

Interview

 

Ariock Van de Voorde: There is growing light on the occult art scene: why do you think it is getting so much attention now?

Michael Bertiaux: Good ideas often have a gestation period. In the sixties, voodoo was something foreign, dark and menacing and now it is used in product marketing. My groups were exploring Eastern esoteric practices when the information on such was hard to come by and even seen as taboo. Now every housewife is doing yoga, and tattooed kids are representing themselves as ‘gurus’. The ideas in my writings did not always find an accepting audience in the past, but by the 1990s they were incorporated into comic books released by major corporations. As far as my work, I create art for ritual, spiritual, religious purposes, and have not tried to promote it back then or now, it’s just that modern culture caught up to my ideas and came knocking.

AV: In terms of your paintings, how would you label your style?

MB:Perhaps ‘Occult Expressionism’. I work with mystical symbolism taken from fetishistic and totemic religions, some that I’ve studied and worked with in Haiti, Japan and the United States, and some aspects that have been revealed through other sources. I like extreme contrasts of lights and darks. Many of my paintings are figurative in nature, with symbols representing occult secrets and states of spiritual consciousness indicated by specific colours. Even if a painting is abstract, I like to have something recognisable to the conscious mind to pull the observer to the ‘right place’, so to speak.

AV: Has your style changed significantly over the years?

MB: Well, like anyone who does something over a long period of time, I’d like to believe that my skills have improved! But yes, I have been inspired by and have employed a number of different styles. That said, based on content and intent, there is continuity in my work over the years, even through different styles and mediums. The spiritual nature. Some things I am presently working on are inspired from notes and related memories of rituals dating back to the early 1960s. Some of my Gholemhe work has taken five, ten, fifteen-plus years of work on certain paintings.

AV: What do you consider when defining occult art?

MB: Give me your napkin. This is something that is seen as waste. But it literally holds your essence, your DNA. It remembers this conversation, and the context and the mood . . . and by working with it, I’m now in there too, and my intentions as well. [Michael begins crumpling the napkin up.] I am now creating a texture for my paintings. I will then be able to always use this painting as a tool for a psychic link between us. [He sprays and brushes various liquids and dyes onto the paper.] I am now preparing it to become part of a landscape. I need to get the texture, colour and minerals just right. This is a landscape I have been to, on another world, where I need to take you to get you to fully appreciate a certain concept.

AV: A hidden concept?

MB: Exactly. I then add what could be called ‘passports’ needed to get through to this desired destination. This is also done with colour and specific symbols. With the methods that I use in my art, all of this is possible. You can take it as far out as both quantum theory and imagination will allow, or you can look at it at face value and see I’ve turned waste into beauty. In any sense, we have magic. As far as occult art, I don’t have a definition for everyone. It is very individual. Everyone should have their own occult experience. There are certain parts of what they are doing in art, if they are really deep into it, which allow artists creations unique to them. One of my favourite philosophers, Benedetto Croce, said ‘Art is expression’. To that, I would add that magick is the imagination of art as expression

AV: I guess that’s not too heretical for artists, but it may ruffle occultists’ feathers. Many are content reading and quoting others, and seemingly swearing off creative imagination. Crowley spoke of magick as ‘the Art and Science of causing change’. Where is this idea without the pictures of the mind, and how powerful is an unimaginative person in such work?

MB: Magick is completely the working of imagination. Those same ‘occultists’ would argue that it is not imagination because they had ‘real’ experience with something working magick. Well, who said it was just your imagination involved, you know? There is such a thing as Cosmic Imagination, just as there is Cosmic Meditation!

AV: As I see it, the greatest occultists have been the most imaginative. Rather than limit them to fantasy and introspection, their imaginations drove them to action.

MB: Imagination is unlimited!

Studio materials, Chicago, March 2012.

Preparing a passport, Chicago, March 2012.

Preparing a passport, Chicago, March 2012.

AV: I see some of your art as coming from beyond the imagination. That, to me, is what makes it occult.

MB: I get inspiration from dreams, meditation, visions…. From all different levels of imagination, including Cosmic. It can often take me several days and multiple methods to actually visualise how I want a painting to be. Sometimes the choice of colours becomes what I would term ‘semi-automatic’. It goes somewhere other than realising a planned idea. Sometime I paint in a trance

AV: Ontological Graffiti covers the ritual settings of your groups that led to or were inspired by your artwork. How has that changed now that you are creating work outside of a group setting?

MB: It really hasn’t. I have a ritualised setting with incense and candles and certain magical preparations: incantations or prayers. This is not a complex Golden Dawn-type requirement, rather very simple, like Haitian chants. You then move to a meditation and a form of channelling. It is still very similar to Ontological Graffiti’s descriptions.

AV: In the Voudon Gnostic Workbook and other writings, you have displayed some of your influences from art, occultism and philosophy. With the meaning of ‘occult’ being ‘hidden’, what is an influence you have not spoken of, or that would surprise people?

MB: I have always been influenced by science fiction. The idea of expanded horizons of consciousness is a big deal with me. I prefer Saturnian science fiction rather than the fuzzy and flaky type. It spurs the imagination, and that is important!

AV: In Kenneth Grant’s chapter on you in Cults of the Shadow, he states, ‘In all forms of magick, the imagination or image-making faculty is the most important factor.’

MB: Oh, definitely! And beyond magick, philosophy is based on imagination as well! Heidegger wrote a criticism of the philosophy of Kant, which is sort of like criticising the Bible in the German philosophical context, and he said exactly that in regard to imagination. He said the power behind Kant’s philosophy of the transcendental apperception is merely imagination in its philosophic function. The Neo-Kantians felt that he was the enemy, and was stating that they had shallow roots. Perhaps their imagination is what is shallow?

AV: In answering a question about art, you quoted a philosopher. You studied philosophy for your degrees, and continued to read and explore through the years. It is clear that certain philosophers have affected your writing, but do you think there is an influence on your paintings as well?

MB: Maybe not the structure or look of paintings, but perhaps in stirring ideas. It’s hard to say. Perhaps a little by British Idealism and by maybe Kant and Hegel. The excitement of philosophy begins with Kant, because he woke from his ‘dogmatic slumber’ to find the world in chaos with a need to be restored. Maybe some American philosophers. I’ve always supported Idealism because its view is the most imaginative. I’m actually inspired by many philosophers, but the inspiration to create when considering them, more often than not, comes not in artistic expression but rather in me restructuring or reinterpreting their systems to make them more defensible. I personally don’t like to be identified with any specific philosophy because of their often rigid nature, which is highly unappealing to us!

AV: You said that modern culture is catching up to your decades-old ideas. Can that cause a problem for you in that you may now be forced to focus on and explain ideas that you may have moved on from?

MB: I am not forced to explain anything. It is all in my art and writing: they speak for me. It is up to the reader. I used to have hundreds of students and carry on correspondences, but I can’t any more. I am creating my best work now, and the limitations of age have caused me to make a choice with what I do with my time and energy. My intention is not to carry on the same work continuously or have others do this. This is a point missed by many readers of the Workbook. Instead, I do exactly what Hector did for me, I show individual occultists how to solve problems and construct pictures of their own universe. I’m giving you materials for books to write yourself

AV: Should I end this piece with a command to people to leave you alone so you can paint?

MB: I don’t want to seem unappreciative of people’s admiration. I am flattered. That said, if people are truly fans, they would want to see more from me, and with my time left, I intend to use it to create. By the time I complete the rest of my books, Fulgur will have presented examples of my body of work than span over fifty years, which is interesting. My old books came back into print, and my new books are beautiful, but I would have been just as content to continue painting here with my cats. Sometimes it was easier having that sinister reputation, because then you have the freedom with less eyes.

Michael Bertiaux, Macanda, Haitian Witch Goddess of the Crossroads and her id-familiar, 1968. Enamel and acrylic on acrylic board, 80 x 100cm. Property of the artist.

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Ontological Graffiti

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MICHAEL BERTIAUX

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