BY HENRIK DAHL
When psychedelic art first appeared as an artistic genre in the mid to late sixties, a wave of sexual liberation was sweeping the west. The era of the “Sexual Revolution,” as it became known, was a time of major social change, which had great impact on millions of people’s lives. Naturally, this historical transformation also affected and shaped the members of the LSD counterculture, and, consequently, psychedelic art.
The sixties saw the approval of the birth control pill, relaxed attitudes towards premarital sex, and the legal right to have an abortion. Moreover, after the 1966 obscenity trial over the publication of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, books featuring explicit sexual content were no longer banned in the United States. Obviously, these and many other political and social changes came to have great influence on psychedelic artists and their work, and, as this article will show, many of the paintings, posters and drawings from that era were clearly erotic.
But before discussing eroticism in psychedelic art, I would like to briefly explain my choice of terminology. The term I picked for describing art that combines the erotic with the psychedelic is the compound word “eroto-psychedelic.” Admittedly, this is not a common expression, but then again the subject is very rarely discussed. Also, the few times I have seen it in print it has only been briefly mentioned. For instance, Robert Anton Wilson used the term at one point in his book Sex, Drugs & Magick. In a sentence in his introduction, Wilson refers to “the eroto-psychedelic bandwagon.” Furthermore, art critic Ken Johnson used the term in an art context in his book Are You Experienced? when discussing the artist Dorothy Iannone. In a chapter titled “Sex and Sensibility,” the reader learns that after leaving her husband and embarking on a long love affair, Iannone found “inspiration for a lifetime’s worth of autobiographical, eroto-psychedelic painting, sculpture, and drawing.” Seeing that “eroto-psychedelic” is a self-explanatory and fairly effective term, it made sense to start using it in my writing.
One of the core elements when it comes to psychedelic imagery is nudity, and quite often the depictions of nude bodies are loaded with varying degrees of eroticism. Hence, a lot of psychedelic art can also be defined as erotic art. Clearly, not all nudity depicted in psychedelic art – or any other artistic genre – is of an erotic nature. The undressed body can of course have other meanings. Nudity may for instance symbolise innocence, being in accordance with nature, and unveiled reality. Additionally, a nude female body may stand for Mother Earth. The “back to nature” ethos of psychedelia, which remains a strong thread, is sometimes expressed using this kind of non-sexual symbolism. There are, however, also numerous examples of psychedelic artworks that feature sexual nudity. These images range from being slightly erotic to having explicit sexual content.
A lot of psychedelic art can also be defined as erotic art.
It should also be noted that references to sex are not just expressed through depictions of nude bodies. Psychedelic art, much like Art Nouveau in the late nineteenth century, often contains abstract shapes, undulating lines, and geometric patterns that allude to eroticism. And the long, flowing hair that is often seen in psychedelic art can certainly have erotic allusions, which by the way is yet another feature that the genre shares with Art Noueveau. Depictions of liquids and dripping objects may also allude to the erotic in that the fluids may look like saliva, lubrication, sweat and sperm. But the perhaps most obvious, yet rarely discussed, expression of eroticism in psychedelic art is seen in the frequent use of tunnels, spirals and concentric shapes, which can be interpreted as holes waiting to be erotically penetrated by the gaze of the viewer. In fact, erotically minded psychonauts may associate these motifs to body openings. Also, the visually stimulating imagery seen in psychedelic art often has an undertone of eroticism.
Although both female and male nudity are featured in eroto-psychedelic art, the female-coded body is by far the most common motif. To exemplify this, let us take a look at the work of American psychedelic artist Victor Moscoso. Perhaps best known for his concert posters for San Francisco venue The Matrix on Fillmore Street, his work is characterised by vibrating colours, psychedelic lettering and photographic collage. These features are seen in two of his most well-known posters, namely Neon Rose #2 and Neon Rose #6. Described by the artist as his first “psychedelic pin-up,” Neon Rose #2 was designed for a 1967 show by The Miller Blues Band. At the centre of the picture is a vintage erotic photograph of a bare-breasted woman wearing a very large necklace. In the picture, she is standing in an erotic pose with her arms pointing upwards. The woman’s body, which has an intense orange colour, is surrounded by concentric shapes that echo her somewhat unusual pose.
Also from 1967, Moscoso’s Neon Rose #6, which was made for a Blues Project show, is featuring a photograph of a bare-breasted woman in a sitting position. The woman is wearing several necklaces, and in her right hand she is holding a large rose. Moscoso based his poster on a French postcard from the 1890s. These “French postcards,” as they became known among its buyers, featured photographs of nude or semi-nude women in various postures and settings. Incidentally, the nude woman in Moscoso’s Neon Rose #6 reappeared some years later when UK graphic artist Barney Bubbles used the same erotic postcard, in its original black and white, on the inner sleeve of his cover design for Hawkwind’s 1973 album Space Ritual.
A key feature in many eroto-psychedelic artworks is the nude female breast. This is of course not exclusive to eroto-psychedelic art. Throughout art history, the nude female breast has been depicted over and over again in both religious and profane artworks – and its symbolism varies. In her book A History of the Breast, Marilyn Yalom discusses the female breast from many different perspectives and contexts; Yalom refers to The Sacred Breast, The Political Breast, and The Erotic Breast, which is also how she named some of the book chapters. In psychedelic art, the nude female breast can have several meanings. For instance, during the counterculture era, there was usually a strong political dimension to the exposed female breast. But obviously many depictions are also of an erotic nature.
The nude female breast has been a recurring feature in psychedelic art since the genre’s inception in the 1960s, and the body part continues to be depicted by some of the psychedelic artists of the twenty-first century. Of course, fascination with the nude female breast is not unique to psychedelic art. Artistically alternative and avant garde scenes have long been drawn towards nudity, and they have made sure to include the undressed body in various artistic expressions. In 1954, to name one example, more than ten years before the LSD counterculture became a defined movement, American artist, occultist and psychonaut Marjorie Cameron exposed one of her breasts in Kenneth Anger’s seminal – and arguably proto-psychedelic – short film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
Given that the LSD counterculture blossomed during the Sexual Revolution, it was only natural that the nude female breast would be a common feature in psychedelic art. If one takes a look at what inspired the psychedelic artists of the 1960s, one finds a thread of eroticism and nudity going back at least to the late nineteenth century. Many psychedelic artists draw inspiration from late nineteenth century Art Nouveau, a style which was often characterised by sensual and erotic motifs. In particular, several of the San Francisco poster artists were heavily influenced by Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, and a few of his paintings were even reworked in the psychedelic style. Mucha made detailed artworks filled with vegetation, flowers, and decorative lines, and at the centre of the image was usually a woman with a sensual appearance. Although his most well-known paintings do not contain nudity, the Czech artist did make several paintings of women with exposed breasts.
Interestingly, both Mucha and the San Francisco poster artists made most of their images in the context of advertising. Whereas Mucha illustrated advertisements for cigarette rolling papers, bicycles, and performances by French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, the poster artists mostly made images that advertised concerts by the bands in the psychedelic music scene. Given their visually stimulating appearance, one could also argue that the images of the San Francisco poster artists advertised the psychedelic lifestyle, and more specifically LSD, which, for a short period at least, undoubtedly was the drug of choice among young, fashionable people in the west.
When discussing similarities between psychedelic art and Art Nouveau, it is also worth mentioning British erotic illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, whose work is characterised by flowing, undulating lines. A lot of psychedelic art contains similar lines, and works such as the 1893 illustration The Peacock Skirt has similarities with some of the art that was made some 75 years later during the counterculture era, as exemplified by a Victor Moscoso poster from 1967. The image, which was made for a Quicksilver Messenger Service show at the Avalon Ballroom, took direct inspiration from the Beardsley illustration.
As was discovered by the San Francisco poster artists, the Art Nouveau style is surprisingly compatible with the psychedelic experience.
The psychedelic artists of the sixties clearly felt an affinity with the art of the late nineteenth century, which was characterised by psychedelia-friendly ornamentations, vegetation, floral patterns, and, not to forget, a subtle yet permeating eroticism. Completely devoid of violent or disturbing themes, the art of Mucha and other Art Nouveau artists focused on beauty. Thus, the style did not contain imagery that had the potential to provoke negative feelings among those using psychedelics in the sixties. In fact, as was discovered by the San Francisco poster artists, the Art Nouveau style is surprisingly compatible with the psychedelic experience.
Seeing that the LSD counterculture coincided with the era of sexual liberation, it was only expected that eroticism would be found in psychedelic art of the sixties and onwards. But what about the psychedelic experience itself? Is there a correlation between psychedelically induced altered states and eroticism? It is certainly the case that some people who take psychedelics experience erotic feelings and closed eye visuals of a sexual nature. In his 1975 book Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research, psychiatrist Stanislav Grof notes that “Individuals sometimes spend hours in overwhelming sexual ecstasy, expressing their feelings in orgiastic movements.”
While huge numbers of people have taken psychedelics without having thought about removing their clothes, it seems that for some individuals the psychedelic experience triggers an impulse to undress. Obviously, reasons for wanting to be in the nude may vary. One may for instance feel uncomfortable wearing clothes that are too warm or too tight on the body. Or perhaps one may feel that since the mind has been set free, the physical body should be “set free” too. But the decision to get naked during a psychedelic experience can of course also be sparked by sexual desire.
Taking off one’s clothes during psychedelic intoxication is probably seen by most people – even by some psychonauts – as odd behaviour. Still, if one takes a look at the history of psychedelia there are several examples of famous psychonauts and other luminaries who have taken their clothes off while tripping. A classic example is Allen Ginsberg’s first psilocybin trip at the home of Timothy Leary in 1960, where Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky famously took off their clothes and spent the rest of the trip naked. At one point during his experience, Ginsberg proclaimed that he was going to “start a peace and love movement.” And when psychedelic chemist Nick Sand took his very first LSD trip, he, too, decided to undress. “I just wanted to be naked. I didn’t want to be encumbered by clothing,” he said in the 2015 documentary The Sunshine Makers. A much more recent example of nude tripping is the first – and clearly extreme – ayahuasca experience of performance artist and art world celebrity Marina Abramovic, who at the time was close to 70 years old. During her trip, which is documented in The Space In Between: Marina Abramovic in Brazil, the artist felt a strong need to take off her clothes. In the 2016 film, she is seen crawling around in agony while the super-strong jungle brew – of which she took a double dose – works its way through her body. Interestingly, these three examples of tripping in the nude all occurred while taking a specific psychedelic for the first time.
It seems that for some individuals the psychedelic experience triggers an impulse to undress.
When discussing links between nudity and psychedelics, it is also worth mentioning the visionary artists Alex and Allyson Grey, who in their early days of psychedelic exploration often tripped “naked or comfortably clad.” It was during this period that Allyson developed her Secret Writing symbol system, which today is recognised as her signature work. Perhaps as a consequence of experiencing psychedelics in a state of physical nudity, the artist incorporated photographs of her own naked body in her 1976 exhibition Secret Language Walls at Tufts University Gallery.
In the case of Alex, he has a long history of depicting human bodies in the x-ray style. Although the artist is focusing on themes relating to spirituality and mystical states, some of his paintings are also themed around sexuality. Notable examples of the latter include the artworks Kissing (1983) and Copulating (1984). In the mid 1990s, he also combined cannabis spirituality with eroticism in a few paintings featuring “Cannabia,” the cannabis Goddess. One of these became the poster for the 1995 Cannabis Cup. Writing about the green Goddess on his website, the artist stated that, “To kiss her is to become intoxicated with her and turned on to one’s own fertile imagination.”
In the early to mid 1950s, the word was spreading about mind-expanding drugs in intellectual as well as artistic circles. The English author and philosopher Aldous Huxley was of course a key factor in making these substances known to a lot of people. In his 1954 essay The Doors of Perception, Huxley describes his experiences of taking mescaline, the active ingredient in the psychedelic plant drug peyote.
Around this time, the aforementioned American artist and occultist Marjorie Cameron decided to explore expanded consciousness via mind-altering drugs, or more specifically peyote, which she managed to find via mail order from a botanical garden in Texas. The resulting experience turned out to be profound. In a 1988 interview, Cameron comes across as a true psychedelic convert: “The walls disappeared. What I got was Huxley’s ‘gray world.’ Peyote causes a revolution in the unconscious.”
Inspired by the experience, Cameron made a drawing titled Peyote Vision. Usually dated to 1955, the artwork features a nude long-haired woman positioned on all fours. She is being penetrated by an undefined creature whose head shares the features of a peyote cactus. During the penetration, the woman appears to spew some kind of fluid out of her mouth, a detail that adds interesting complexity to the drawing. Given the drawing’s direct references to peyote in the title as well as motif, one could interpret the matter coming out of the woman’s mouth as vomit. For it is well known that the intake of some psychedelics, including peyote, may sometimes lead to vomiting, which in indigenous entheogenic cultures is seen as a cleansing. It is possible that Cameron was alluding to the assumed cleansing effect of vomiting.
Even though it is a seemingly simple drawing, Peyote Vision has become one of Cameron’s most appreciated and thought-provoking artworks. It is probably also one of the earliest examples of art from the twentieth century where both sex and psychedelics are such explicit features, which of course makes it an important artwork in the history of eroto-psychedelic art. Another fascinating feature of Peyote Vision is the theme of interspecies sex, or to be more precise sex between a human and an alien creature that could be a character in a sci-fi novel. Incidentally, the theme of interspecies sex had already been explored by other artists when Cameron made her drawing. For instance, Japanese artist Hokusai’s 1814 woodblock print The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, shows a woman shell diver having sex with two octopuses. In the image, an acknowledged classic in erotic art, one of the octopuses performs cunnilingus on the shell diver, while the other smaller octopus is fondling the woman’s left nipple.
Today, Peyote Vision is no doubt an underground classic, especially among people attracted to esoteric and occult art. But how did this drawing on paper become so appreciated? American artist Wallace Berman seems to immediately have realised the uniqueness and potential of Cameron’s drawing. Already in 1955, he included it in the first issue of his literary and artistic journal Semina, which also featured Berman’s photograph of Cameron on its cover. In 1957, Berman also featured Peyote Vision in an exhibition at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Here, it became evident that there was something special with the drawing, for soon Peyote Vision came to the attention of the Los Angeles Police Department, who cited the drawing as “lewd,” and shut down the exhibition. This is not the only time an eroto-psychedelic artwork has caused controversy. As will be discussed in a moment, in 1968 a Swedish graphic artist made a poster for an exhibition in the city of Lund that was deemed so provocative and scandalous that the scheduled exhibition was cancelled.
It appears Cameron never explained the meaning of the imagery in Peyote Vision. In later years, however, the artist identified the penetrator in the image as a solar God. It should be noted that central to the religion of the peyote using Huichols of Mexico is Tayaupá – the sun God (“Our Father Sun”). In her 1974 book Peyote Hunt, anthropologist Barbara G. Myerhoff writes that “Tayaupá, it seems, is considered extraordinarily potent, even dangerous to man… Father Sun must be kept away from the earth, it is said, for if he comes too close, he would burn it up.” Did Cameron take inspiration from this sun God? Given the artist’s obvious interest in peyote, it is plausible that she had the Huichols and their religion in mind. Regardless, since Cameron identified the creature in the drawing as a solar God, it is possible to interpret the matter coming out of the nude woman’s mouth as a spew of fire.
Peyote Vision is clearly an important artwork. Still, a large water stain to the left of the penetrator indicates that her art was not always properly handled. Moreover, many of her artworks do no longer exist. For instance, the artworks shown in her first exhibition in 1956 were destroyed in a fire. Cameron also deliberately damaged many of her artworks. Thus, if events would have turned out differently, Peyote Vision could very well have been among the works that were destroyed or lost.
Now, let us take a look at what was going on in late sixties Scandinavia, or more specifically the small city of Lund in the south of Sweden. In 1968, fifty years ago at the time of this writing, a graphic artist named Sture Johannesson was asked to make a poster for an upcoming exhibition that was planned to take place at Lunds konsthall, the city’s municipal art gallery. One could say that Johannesson, who at the time was in his early thirties and already a controversial artist, took his chance to launch himself as Sweden’s art provocateur number one. In fact, the finished poster, which has become known as Hash Girl, was deemed so scandalous that the upcoming exhibition was cancelled and its curator Folke Edwards resigned from his job. The image became Johannesson’s most popular work, and eventually made him into one of Sweden’s most well-known poster artists.
But how can a mere poster for an upcoming art exhibition result in such a scandal? Before answering this question, it is important to take into account the context in which Johannesson’s poster was made. By 1968, nudity and sex had certainly entered popular culture in Sweden. For instance, the year before, the controversial Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) became a much talked about international success due to its explicit sexual content. Directed by Vilgot Sjöman and starring actress Lena Nyman, the film came to represent Sweden’s liberal attitude towards nudity and sex, which became known by the expression “the Swedish sin.”
Besides in film, the theme of sexuality was also explored in the field of visual art. Before Johannesson made his scandalous poster, Lunds konsthall showed The First International Exhibition of Erotic Art. Between May and July 1968, the gallery featured erotic art from Japan, China, and India, as well as artworks by Hans Bellmer, Leonor Fini, and many others. The collection belonged to the sexologists and erotic art collectors Drs. Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen, who, incidentally, as a testament of their popularity, briefly appeared in best-selling author Erica Jong’s 1977 novel How to Save Your Own Life. In addition to acquiring an impressive collection of sexuality-themed artworks, the couple had also authored several books including Pornography and the Law (1959) and The Sexually Responsive Woman (1964).
Although Sweden was considered to be one of the more liberal countries when it comes to nudity and sex, the erotic art exhibition in Lund was, due to its content, met with criticism. Still, the exhibition was very popular and obviously suited the spirit of the times perfectly. Interestingly, the poster for The First International Exhibition of Erotic Art featured an artwork showing a copulating couple. Given that depictions of explicit sex were still seen as highly controversial at the time, it was an impressive feat that the poster was given the go-ahead. As expected, though, some people were upset by it, and the poster was even reported to the police.
The Sexual Revolution was blooming in the western world, and that spring, thanks to the ongoing art exhibition, eroticism was no doubt in the air in Lund, a small town centered around its well-respected university and its Lutheran cathedral. It was in this context that Johannesson made his Hash Girl poster. The image was made for Underground, an upcoming group exhibition about the hippie movement that was to start in February 1969. However, Johannesson decided to distribute the poster earlier than expected, and the Board of Directors of the gallery did not like what they saw. Loaded with eroticism and drug liberalism, the poster included the following confrontational phrase: “The underground will take over Lunds konsthall.”
Even though Johannesson’s image was originally created as an exhibition poster, it did not take long before people started to regard it as an artwork in itself. This meant that it would need to be identified with a title. In Sweden, the poster is generally referred to as Haschflickan (lit. “the hash girl”), and internationally as Hash Girl. It is also known by the title Friheten på barikaderna II (lit. “freedom on the barricades II”), which, except for the “II”at the end, is the Swedish title of Eugène Delacroix’s famous 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People. But the actual title of the poster is none of these, but is instead made up of a phrase written in a circular shape in the large cockade in the lower right corner of the poster itself, namely “Revolution Means Revolutionary Consciousness.” This was the title Johannesson used on his website in later years. Additionally, in conversation with the present writer, Johannesson once remarked that, even though he accepted that his poster had become known as Hash Girl, its correct title was indeed Revolution Means Revolutionary Consciousness.
Strangely, although Hash Girl is a very well-known image that continues to be seen at museums and in people’s homes, the poster has, to my knowledge, never been properly analysed by art critics. There is, however, reason to try to do a little more thorough reading of the image. Hash Girl, like many of Johannesson’s other works, is a highly detailed and carefully planned poster. And by taking a deeper look at its imagery, which one soon realises is surprisingly rich, one may perhaps understand why the poster had such a great cultural impact.
Just like the previously discussed Neon Rose posters by Victor Moscoso, Hash Girl features a photograph of a nude woman. The picture is reproduced in an intense pink colour. Unlike the Moscoso posters though, the woman in Johannesson’s image shows her genitals, which of course are unshaved. It is interesting to note that while the nude women in many of the eroto-psychedelic images from the counterculture era remain unidentified, this is not the case with Hash Girl. The woman in the poster is Ninna Ljung, who at the time the photograph was taken was 21 years old. During this period she was working at the restaurant Ringbaren in Malmoe, Sweden. However, when it became known that it was her in the poster, she got fired from her job.
In the photograph, Ninna is looking straight into the camera with a confident and, arguably, sensual gaze. She has blonde shoulder-length hair, and in her mouth, which is slightly open, she has the mouthpiece of a long-stemmed pipe, which she is holding in her right hand. The length of the pipe suggests that it might be a Chinese opium pipe. However, the marijuana leaf depicted right about the pipe’s bowl makes it clear that the pipe is signifying cannabis smoking. Even though Johannesson was a well-known drug advocate, it is important to note that the artist was not advocating random drug use. Instead, the drugs that were of interest to Johannesson were cannabis and the classic psychedelics, i.e. drugs that have the potential to cause – as it says on the poster – a “revolutionary consciousness.” Incidentally, it has also been suggested that the pipe in Hash Girl is a “peace pipe,” and that the revolutionary theme expressed in the image is the peaceful non-violent variety associated with the hippie lifestyle.
Repeated throughout the poster is a diminutive portrait of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara (who was killed in 1967). This is of course a nod to the revolutionary sentiments of the counterculture era. Another tiny photograph included in the upper right corner of the poster is that of American silent film actress Theda Bara, which was borrowed from the masthead of sixties UK underground magazine International Times aka IT. Apparently, these portraits had already become significant enough to be included in Johannesson’s image. If one does not know anything about the context of the poster, it might perhaps seem a little odd that Johannesson filled it with such well-known subcultural references. However, given that Hash Girl was originally made as the official poster for an exhibition about the hippie culture, it makes perfect sense that he incorporated both the Che Guevara portrait and the IT logo.
At the top of the image is the word “underground” written in large capital letters. The word is surrounded by other words that form the previously mentioned phrase “The underground will take over Lunds konsthall.” Johannesson’s choice of phrase, which was no doubt confrontational, shows his ability to communicate the sentiments of the counterculture era. But then again Johannesson was not just a bystander but instead very much part of the underground culture himself. (For example, in the sixties the artist founded the legendary Galleri Cannabis in Malmoe, Sweden with his artist wife Charlotte Johannesson.) The “take over” bit in the phrase is also expressed in the imagery that is seen throughout the poster. The most obvious example of this is seen in the upper right part of the image. Here, Johannesson included the famous 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix. The painting, which commemorates the July Revolution of 1830 in France, features a bare-breasted woman personifying the Godess of Liberty who leads the people over a barricade. In her hand she is holding the French Tricolour flag. The Delacroix painting, which can be seen at the Louvre, is reproduced in black and white except for the red, white and blue flag. These colours are also seen in parts of the text elements as well as in the large cockade that Ninna is holding in her left hand. Incidentally, the colours in the cockade form concentric circles. (The latter are commonly seen in psychedelic art.)
In the area above the pipe and the marijuana leaf it says “February,” and directly below this word is the number “69” in a much larger font size. While this is obviously the month and year when the exhibition was scheduled to start at the art gallery, the number 69 most likely also alludes to the sexual position of the same name. The fact that the exhibition was to premiere in 1969 was, from a conceptual point of view, a lucky coincidence that Johannesson used in a clever way. Incidentally, the cover design of the eleventh issue of Swedish counterculture magazine Puss (lit. “kiss”), published in 1969, featured an erotic illustration that shows the numbers 6 and 9 engaging in a “69”. Clearly, sexuality was a recurring subject in the Swedish art scene of the time.
There are some interesting similarities between the act of taking drugs and the act of having sex in that both activities often involve actions such as sucking, licking and penetrating.
While the motifs in Hash Girl can be interpreted in different ways, it would be hard to deny that the poster has an erotic content. In addition to the allusion to the just mentioned sexual position 69, there is of course the nude picture of Ninna with a mouthpiece of a pipe resting on her slightly parted lips. The inclusion of the pipe may be interpreted as yet another, albeit subtle, reference to eroticism. As a side note, it is worth mentioning that there are some interesting similarities between the act of taking drugs and the act of having sex in that both activities often involve actions such as sucking, licking and penetrating. Thus, one could say that the pipe in combination with nudity emphasise the eroticism expressed in the poster.
Interestingly, several of the motifs in Hash Girl are repeated in different parts of the image: The nude female breast, the picture of Che Guevara, and the colours red, white and blue. But it is not just these motifs that are repeated. The poster’s overriding themes of revolution and freedom are also recurring. This is expressed through the Delacroix painting, the nude body of Ninna, and the marijuana leaf. These three motifs could be said to represent the fight for freedom, sexual liberation, and drug induced altered states, respectively.
Johannesson clearly transgressed the boundaries of what was acceptable behaviour from a visual artist in Sweden in the late 1960s, and Hash Girl was immediately dismissed as drug propaganda. Although the explicit nudity in the poster was most likely a problem for the art gallery, it appears that it was mainly its references to drug use that was upsetting. What would have happened if Johannesson had removed the marijuana leaf? Even though it is of course impossible to say for sure, it is not entirely unlikely that the art gallery would have accepted the poster. After all, as has already been noted, in the late sixties Sweden definitely belonged to the more liberal countries in the world when it came to nudity and sex, and the gallery’s previous poster did in fact depict sexual intercourse. However, the sexual liberation that was seen in the country did not extend to drug liberalisation. Instead, authorities in Sweden were – and still are – decidedly against the use of any narcotic substances, including “soft” drugs such as cannabis. This aversion to the use of drugs later lead to the implementation of the ideology known as “zero tolerance,” which, to this day, is shared by all major political parties in Sweden.
Looking back today, in the later part of the 2010s, it is hard to imagine that Lund, a small city centered around its academic institutions, for a short period in the late sixties was at the very forefront of the sexual revolution. But that is precisely what happened when art curator Folke Edwards decided to present the world’s first erotic art exhibition, and later follow it up with an exhibition on the hippie movement. Although the latter did not materialise, it did result in an image that perfectly captured both the erotic and the psychedelic elements that were so prominent during the counterculture era.
The year 1968 also saw the appearance of another seminal image in psychedelic art, namely the aptly titled Cosmoerotica by Isaac Abrams. Unlike the previously discussed photography-based posters by Mosoco and Johannesson, Abrams’ painting could be described as a depiction of the spiritual side of psychedelic sexuality. Clearly, many people in the LSD counterculture took interest in this theme after having encountered feelings of spiritual unity and interconnectedness while having sex on psychedelics. Writing about Cosmoerotica in Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art Since the 1960s, David S. Rubin noted that, “the cosmic union of spirituality and sexuality was a dominant theme of the counterculture that produced the 1967 summer of love.” This theme was also expressed in the 1967 book The Sexual Paradise of LSD by Marsha Alexander, where, for instance, an interviewee named Stephen humorously describes a cosmoerotic experience by saying: “The last time I made love on LSD I felt I was balling the universe!”
Abram’s Cosmoerotica consists of various flowing shapes that are suggestive of fluids as well as space scenery, and while it is a non-figurative work, it is infused with a distinct eroticism. In an email exchange with the present writer in March 2018, the artist wrote that cosmoeroticism “is about integrative unity, the enhancement of feelings and sensation and the dissolution of difference.” During these experiences, “Eroticism & The Cosmic conjoined,” and the artist and his partners “became one thing.”
Isaac Abrams was introduced to psychedelics in 1962, an event that he describes as a life-changing experience. Writing in 2018, more than half a century after his first trip, the artist still sees great potential in entheogenic substances: “Psychedelics are life-affirming and importantly reconnect the user with the natural world … this is their cosmic mission.”
Psychedelia has always had a subcultural, underground edge, which is partly due to the extreme altered states that psychedelics may result in. Yet much of this culture and art also have a commercial side to it. Why, for instance, did Moscoso decide to make pin-ups? The pin-up is of course generally seen as “low culture,” and an expression of the commodification of the female body. Besides the early variety that was seen on the French postcards, the pin-up appeared in mass-produced magazines and on posters and became very popular in the 1950s. One would think that the psychedelic artists of the counterculture would stay away from such lowly imagery. Instead, they incorporated the pin-up and other similar “cheap” cultural expressions into their work. Despite its subcultural, underground roots, psychedelic culture has, in fact, strong links to commercialism, the mass-produced, and low culture. The erotic potential of psychedelia was quickly noticed – and commodified – by the broader culture. For example, the December 1967 issue of Playboy Magazine featured a psychedelic cover design created by San Francisco poster artist Wes Wilson.
Another example worth mentioning when it comes to the commodification of the eroticism seen in psychedelia is the cover design of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s best-selling 1968 double album Electric Ladyland. To some people’s dismay, the inside of the record’s gatefold sleeve featured a photograph taken by David Montgomery of nineteen nude women, several of which exposed their breasts. And as if this was not indecent enough, some editions of the LP even featured the photograph on the outer sleeve. Naturally, several record shops declined to sell the album, and Hendrix himself strongly disliked the image of the nude women, which he found embarrassing. Yet looking back today, it is fair to say that Montgomery’s now classic photograph is emblematic of of the sexual liberation that was so prominent of the sixties.
Although it is still generally defined as a subculture, psychedelia is incredibly wide-reaching. Of course, LSD and other psychedelics have been spread all around the world to all sorts of groups and individuals. The same can be said of psychedelic culture, which seems to grow well in most soils on the planet. This wide-reaching aspect is also seen in psychedelic art where images are often produced in more than one copy. In fact, it is not unusual for this kind of art to appear in editions that range from at least a few hundred to tens of thousands, sometimes more. Since the counterculture era of the sixties, psychedelic artists have often disseminated their work via printed media such as posters, record covers, magazines, books, comics, and handbills. Thanks to accessible printing techniques, the early psychedelic artists could get their new products out to the community in a fast and effective manner.
This willingness among artists to share their work effectively and with relatively little cost is also seen in today’s psychedelic art. The perhaps most obvious example is Canadian GIF artist and illustrator Jean Francois Painchaud, aka SuperPhazed, who, after Facebook banned several of his images, quickly became a minor internet phenomenon with 45,000 new followers on his social media accounts. Unlike the eroto-psychedelic artists of previous generations – who mostly made art for the urban environment and the museum walls – Painchaud makes art for the smartphone. Thus, Painchaud’s pulsing, pastel coloured animations, which range from the slightly erotic to the more sexually explicit, can be viewed basically anywhere, at any time, provided of course one has internet access.
When discussing psychedelia’s wide-reaching characteristics, it is also important to mention one of the most common carriers of LSD, namely blotter art. Some motifs have most likely been printed in substantial numbers on different occasions. One such example is the popular cartoon illustration of LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann’s seminal 1943 bicycle ride. Interestingly, though, while there is a wide range of motifs depicted on blotter art, one rarely sees any direct references to eroticism. Given the art form’s underground status, it is somewhat surprising that there is so little eroto-psychedelic imagery in these images. It seems the axiom “sex sells” is not applicable when it comes to this kind of modern day folk art. Supposedly, producers of blotter LSD do not need to rely on such tricks to sell their product. The lack of erotic motifs in the sheets may also be explained by the fact that blotter was not the standard carrier of the drug in the sixties, which is when most examples of eroto-psychedelic art can be found. Hence, when blotter art was established as an underground art form, interest in eroticism was not as prominent in psychedelic culture.
Still, there have been some instances where the motifs have alluded to sexuality. For example, posted on the Blotter Barn website is a picture of a hit of acid from 1979 that features a single sperm, which, given that blotter LSD is taken orally, makes it an interesting and slightly provocative motif.
This introduction to eroto-psychedelic art has mainly focused on images that were produced during the counterculture era. For reasons of brevity, many artists had to be left out. Examples include Yayoi Kusama, Philip Caza, Keiichi Tanaami, Martin Sharp and R. Crumb. And when it comes to art that was made from the early seventies and until today, there are many examples of works where artists have sought to combine the erotic with the psychedelic. Examples include such diverse artists as Robert Williams, Judy Chicago, HR Giger, and pop artist and one-time Deadhead Keith Haring. Moreover, one could argue that Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Lady Jaye’s groundbreaking Pandrogeny project merits inclusion in an article on eroto-psychedelic art. And if we take a look at what is being made in our current decade, one should not fail to mention the erotically charged work of Oliver Hibert.
Psychedelic art is typically filled with vibrating colours, concentric circles, spirals, and other visually stimulating motifs that are only rarely seen in “non-psychedelic” art. One thing, however, that is usually left out when discussing psychedelic art – a genre that came to life during the era of sexual liberation – is the genre’s recurring erotic and sexual elements, which are surprisingly often present either as explicit features or as an undertone in the artworks. This element of eroticism makes the genre stand out from a great deal of art that has been produced since the sixties until today. Usually referred to as “contemporary art,” artworks belonging to this category rarely deal with eroticism and sexuality. This peculiar fact was observed already in 1980 by American journalist Tom Wolfe, author of the 1968 classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine the journalist remarked that, “in contemporary art, there is almost no sexual content whatsoever. It’s one of the few major movements in art history where there is no sexual content.” The sexually liberated psychedelic artists of the sixties and later decades, on the other hand, opened the door to sexuality. Some of them, as this article has shown, even made it a central thread of their work.
By Henrik Dahl
Henrik Dahl is a journalist and critic specialising in psychedelic culture and art.
Featured image: Untitled (Sonja Burton, Flickr).
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12. Ibid., p. 97.
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