BY HENRIK DAHL
Symbols – symbols everywhere. All along my journey they flashed forth the apocalypse of utterly unimagined truths. – Fitz Hugh Ludlow
Psychedelic art typically contains a number of recurring motifs. Examples include circles, spirals, eyes, concentric shapes, grids, landscapes, nudity, long hair, skeletons and mushrooms. Other common motifs are various kinds of non-human animals, vegetation, space scenery and mandalas. And when humans and objects are featured, they are occasionally seen in x-ray. Furthermore, psychedelic art is usually – but not always – characterised by intense, contrasting colours. There may also be a liquid quality to objects, where it looks as if they are melting. Obviously, these motifs and features are also included in many other artistic genres. Hence, in order to be defined as psychedelic, the motifs have to be combined and presented in a way that resonates with the psychedelic experience.
Why does psychedelic art nearly always contain this kind of imagery? Surely, there are numerous other motifs and features an artist could think of using. The images that one is exposed to while under the influence of psychedelics often display a huge variety, yet in the vast majority of cases the same motifs are used ad infinitum. For example, why is the eye such an omnipresent element in psychedelic art? Huge numbers of artworks, posters, book covers, album covers and leaflets feature the eye. To an outsider this could almost be seen as a pathological obsession. Although this piece is only a brief introduction to psychedelic imagery, it will hopefully spark some further interest in this fairly unexplored subject.
The psychedelic experience often produces deeply symbolic imagery, and naturally psychedelic art is usually packed with symbols.
The psychedelic experience often produces deeply symbolic imagery, and naturally psychedelic art is usually packed with symbols. In the words of psychotherapist Maria Papaspyrou, “Entheogenic journeys are highly creative spaces. They ‘speak’ to us through symbols, images, and feeling states that are carried forward by visions” (Papaspyrou, 2014: 35). Before discussing the symbolic meaning of psychedelic imagery, a few words should be said about what defines a symbol. According to Carl G. Jung, the symbol indicates something vague or unknown. Writing in Man and his Symbols, the Swiss psychiatrist said that, “A word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning. It has a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it.” (Jung, 1968: 3-4). Jung was mostly interested in the symbols of dreams, which of course are produced during sleep. Imagery that is encountered while under the influence of psychedelics, on the other hand, is seen when fully awake, albeit mostly with eyes closed. This piece will take a look at symbols that appear in psychedelic art. But first a few words should be said about some of the many significant developments that have influenced or shaped psychedelic culture and, as a consequence, psychedelic imagery.
In order to acquire a better understanding of psychedelic imagery, one needs to look at psychedelic culture as a whole. Its history consists of a somewhat complex mix of cultural references, which are often filled with symbols and signs, many of which initially had little or nothing to do with psychedelics. Therefore, being a researcher of psychedelia simultaneously entails making research in several different fields such as anthropology, religion, history, the arts, the esoteric, psychology and medicine. Only by using this eclectic, interdisciplinary approach is it possible to reach an understanding of why a certain motif is used in psychedelic art.
It would be easy to think that psychedelic imagery as we know it from the 1960s and onwards appeared out of nowhere, as if the motifs and features were contained in the LSD molecule itself. Of course this was not the case. The origins of psychedelic art, as well as psychedelic culture as a whole, can be traced back to a number of culturally significant events, some of which took place many decades, even centuries, prior to the LSD counterculture of the 1960s. When considering proto-psychedelic art and literature, it is not always known if psychedelics were an influence during the creation of a specific artwork or book. Obviously, there are many ways of reaching altered states of consciousness (ASC). Besides mind-altering substances, ASC can be reached through techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises or fasting, to name a few, and artworks inspired by non-psychedelic altered states can certainly come across as having been the result of someone taking psychedelics. When discussing artworks that have a psychedelic “feel” but probably did not involve any mind-altering substances, writers and researchers sometimes refer to these works as having a “psychedelic sensibility.” The English poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) is a perfect example of someone who made such works. Although there is no record of Blake using psychedelics, many people regard him as an important figure in the history of psychedelia. This is mostly thanks to Aldous Huxley, whose seminal 1954 trip report The Doors of Perception takes its title from a phrase in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Psychedelic sensibility is also present in the Lebensreform movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The lifestyle of these proto-hippies were linked to nudity, sexual liberation, organic farming, vegetarianism and long hair, which of course were also features of the LSD counterculture of the 1960s. Furthermore, psychedelic sensibility is found in the Art Nouveau movement (Masters & Houston, 1968: 110), which roughly coincided with the Lebensreform movement. Artists working in the Art Nouveau style used curved forms found in nature, typically forms resembling stems and blossoms. Several psychedelic artists in the 1960s counterculture were heavily inspired by Art Nouveau. This was particularly evident when it comes to the poster art of the hippie era. Czech painter Alphonse Mucha was a huge influence. So much so that his posters reappeared in the counterculture where they were reworked and given a thorough psychedelic treatment. For example, Mucha’s classic colour lithograph Job – a poster advertising a brand of cigarette papers – was used by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse in a 1966 poster promoting a concert at the Avalon Ballroom. Even though the latter features a colour scheme that is undoubtedly psychedelic, one could argue that Mucha’s 1896 original is equally appealing to the art-loving psychonaut. In fact, Mucha’s Job has several features that make it very similar to psychedelic art. The poster shows a woman with incredibly long flowing hair. She has an expression of contentment in her face and could easily be interpreted as being stoned. Of course cannabis smokers like to think that the cigarette in her hand is in fact a marijuana joint. Furthermore, framing the picture is a somewhat trippy zigzag pattern. No wonder the young San Francisco poster artists were magnetically drawn to Mucha.
Psychedelic imagery is arguably the result of many different cultural events and influences. Some of these – such as the works of poet and artist William Blake, Art Nouveau and the Lebensreform movement – have already been mentioned. Other examples include the children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and early accounts of psychedelic experiences by the likes of Fitz Hugh Ludlow, S Weir Mitchell and Antonin Artaud. Admittedly, the Surrealists and the Beats are also part of the story, and so are characters such as Jung and Aleister Crowley. In the 1950s, interest in altered states induced by psychedelics increased. An early pioneer when it comes to visual art was French artist and writer Henri Michaux, who made drawings while under the influence of mescaline and cannabis. Michaux’s experimentation resulted in his book Miserable Miracle, which was originally published in French in 1956. Also deserving a mention is Austrian painter Ernst Fuchs, who found artistic inspiration from his peyote experiences in the 1950s. But the perhaps most influential events in western psychedelia of the 1950s were the release of Huxley’s aforementioned book The Doors of Perception (1954), and the publication of R. Gordon Wasson’s Life Magazine article “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” (1957).
The 1960s counterculture was shaped by many different characters and groups, including the Merry Pranksters, the Grateful Dead and the San Francisco poster artists, to name a few. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that the counterculture’s interest in Eastern philosophy had an effect on psychedelic imagery. In particular, the Yin Yang symbol has been used in many artworks of the era. The late sixties also saw the publication of Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, and it is safe to say that his book – regardless of what one may think of the accuracy of its content – helped create an interest in indigenous shamanism. This is still very much seen in today’s visionary art movement. Another noteworthy event in the late sixties was the release of Crowley and Frieda Harris’ Thoth tarot deck. Finished already in the early 1940s, the deck contains a huge number of symbols and many of its cards are very similar to psychedelic and visionary art. Moreover, the early seventies saw the release of Be Here Now by Ram Dass. In equal parts fascinating and peculiar, this hugely popular book is filled to the brim with psychedelic drawings.
An early example of psychedelic art is seen in the work of artist Sherana Harriette Frances. In 1963, Frances took part in LSD therapy at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park, California. During her trip she experienced the dissolution of her ego, which she depicted in 18 ink drawings shortly afterwards. Her works – which are full of archetypes – are excellent depictions of the ego-loss (or “ego-death”) that some people experience while on psychedelics. Praised by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and others, Frances’ drawings were included in her book Drawing It Out: Befriending the Unconscious (2001). Several of the motifs that were mentioned in the beginning of this piece are found in Frances’ drawings. For example, in one of them, she is caught in a spiral together with five skeletons. In the drawing she is seen in the nude with her long flowing hair. As previously mentioned, spirals, skeletons, nudity and long hair are all common motifs in psychedelic imagery. Interestingly, it should be noted that Frances created her drawings several years before the appearance of the hippie movement with its psychedelic artworks, posters, album covers, light shows and films. In other words, her artworks were not influenced by the LSD counterculture of the mid to late 1960s.
The Skeleton symbolises death and mortality. Besides in Frances’ drawings, the motif is seen in many psychedelic artworks including the widely reproduced “Skull and Roses” poster by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse, which was made as an advertisement for a Grateful Dead show at the Avalon Ballroom in 1966. In addition to Kelley and Mouse’s poster, skeletons and skulls are also seen in the works of Alex Grey. The latter is known for depicting humans in the x-ray style. X-ray depictions, which typically show inner organs and skeleton structures, are also seen in shamanic art all around the world (Halifax, 1982: 76). Writing in her book Shaman: The Wounded Healer, anthropologist Joan Halifax noted that, “The skeletonized shaman figure is the personification of death. At the same time, like the seed of the fruit after the flesh has rotted away, his or her bones represent the potential for rebirth” (Halifax, 1982: 76). In addition to the examples above, it is worth mentioning the death card in Crowley and Harris’ Thoth tarot deck, which, naturally, features a skeleton.
Let us now consider one of the most common motifs in psychedelic imagery, namely the eye. The eye has great symbolic value. It can for instance symbolise omniscience, knowledge, the mind, and the all-seeing divinity. The single eye – which is how the eye is often depicted in psychedelic art – can symbolise enlightenment, eternity and the eye of God. Furthermore, in Buddhism we find the third eye of Buddha, which represents spiritual consciousness (Cooper 2013, 62). The eye has been present from the start in western psychedelic imagery. For example, John Woodcock’s front cover design of the first edition of Huxely’s The Doors of Perception features an illustration of three eyes, and since its release numerous book covers have included the motif in some way or another, a contemporary example being Hallucinations (2012) by Oliver Sacks, which features a single eye. A large single eye was also part of the cover design of The 13th Floor Elevators’ seminal 1966 debut album The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. As for painters working today, visionary artist Alex Grey often returns to the motif in his paintings. According to Grey, “The Eyes are wings of the Soul – they see us to Heaven” (Dahl: 2014, 96). Incidentally, it is worth noting that although most psychedelic visions take place behind closed eyelids, the eye in psychedelic art is almost always wide open.
Although most psychedelic visions take place behind closed eyelids, the eye in psychedelic art is almost always wide open.
Besides having great symbolic value, most people find the eye aesthetically appealing and the eye lends itself very well to artistic depictions, not least in a psychedelic context. The eye is no doubt one of Mother Nature’s most fascinating creations, and staring into a pupil and the surrounding iris – incidentally a psychedelic artwork in itself – can be a captivating experience. Furthermore, it should be noted that the shape of the eye consists of an oval surrounding a circle. The latter, as will be discussed in a moment, is a motif that is recurring over and over in psychedelic art.
The circle is a universal symbol with many different meanings such as wholeness, the infinite and the Self. Seeing that it has no beginning or end, it can also symbolise timelessness (Cooper, 2013: 36). Psychedelic art typically contains concentric circles (i.e. circles that share the same centre point), and given their visually stimulating character they are highly suitable as motifs in psychedelic art. In nature, concentric circles are formed when a small stone or such is dropped into still water. It is fascinating to think that humans at the dawn of humanity saw the same concentric circles in water as we do today. One who often returns to the motif is American artist Fred Tomaselli. For example, concentric circles are seen in his artworks Ripples-Trees (1994) and Abductor (2006), which have been used on the cover of David S. Rubin’s Psychedelic and Erik Davis’ Nomad Codes, respectively. Incidentally, concentric circles are also found in several kinds of shamanic art, including peyote inspired yarn paintings by the Huichols in Mexico.
One who took interest in psychedelic imagery at an early stage was Heinrich Klüver. In 1926, while studying the effects of mescaline, Klüver noticed that it produced recurring geometrical patterns. Klüver gave them the name form constants. In addition to psychedelics, form constants may for example also be triggered by epilepsy, sensory deprivation, migraine headaches and fever. Klüver categorised four types of patterns: lattices, cobwebs, tunnels and spirals. Another term for such geometrical patterns is entoptic images. These animated “films” are obviously a source of inspiration to the psychedelic artist. For those not accustomed to the psychedelic experience, it is important to mention that entoptic images induced by psychedelics are very different from self-controlled fantasies or daydreams. Rather than being cooked-up, the imagery is presented to the psychonaut with little or no control over its content.
Continuing this brief exposition of psychedelic imagery, let us now turn to one of Klüver’s form constants – the spiral. In her book An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J.C. Cooper says the spiral is “a highly complex symbol” that has been used since paleolithic times and appears in many different cultures. Among many things, the spiral is a symbol of the great creative force and the manifestation of energy. It also symbolises the realms of existence and the wanderings of the soul and its final return to the Centre (Cooper, 2013: 156). The spiral has a shape that makes most art and design look instantly psychedelic, and if one makes an internet search for spiral images one is bombarded with trippy results. Spirals are common on front covers in psychedelic literature. Presumably, the shape lends itself particularly well to the rather compact book format.
Long hair is seen in numerous psychedelic artworks, especially those made by the LSD counterculture. This is hardly a coincidence. Hair flowing loose – like the woman’s hair in the previously discussed Job poster – symbolises freedom. Hair is also a symbol of the life-force and the higher powers (Cooper 2013: 77). With this in mind, the popularity of long hair during the hippie era as well as among forerunners such as the adherents of the Lebensreform movement makes perfect sense. Moreover, hair is a distinct feature in an art project where an anonymous artist took LSD and drew eleven self-portraits over nine hours. During the trip the hair in her drawings changed character, e.g. spirals were added to her depictions, and, interestingly enough, her hair grew longer and became flowing and expansive (independent.co.uk).
The psychedelic experience is strongly linked to imagery that is intensely colourful, and psychedelic art often places great emphasis on recreating how colours are perceived behind closed eyelids while in altered states. Fascination with colours was seen already in the late 19th Century when westerners started to experiment with peyote. For example, in his classic 1896 trip report “Remarks on the Effects of the Mescal Button: An Experience with Peyote Extract,” published in The British Medical Journal, Dr S. Weir Mitchell talks of “floating films of colour” and “gorgeous colour-fruits.” Mitchell even stated that, “All the colours I have ever beheld are dull as compared to these” (erowid.com).
In a chapter titled “Of LSD, Eidetic Imagery and Eyeless Sight,” published in his book The Symbolism of Color, the one time leading colour expert Faber Birren discusses how psychedelics can completely alter the way we see colours. Even though Birren comes across as somewhat ignorant when it comes to the counterculture (which he calls a “drug cult”), he was clearly very fascinated by the consciousness expanding effects of acid: “The amazing discovery was made that a fantastic world of color existed within the human psyche. It lay buried as if in a golden cask, and a drop of LSD opened it up and let its magic burst forth. Here the process of vision was reversed – it came from the inside out, not from the outside in”(Birren, 1988: 161-162). It is safe to say that colour is a hugely important aspect of psychedelic art, not least spiritually. In 1912, long before psychedelic art was a recognised artistic genre, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky said that, “Colour is a power which directly influences the soul” (Kandinsky, 1977: 25). Presumably, many psychedelic artists would agree with the painter.
Psychedelic journeys are potentially therapeutic, even life-changing experiences, but the effects of psychedelics are sometimes too emotionally overwhelming. This situation may lead to a difficult experience (a so-called “bad trip”). In such cases psychedelic imagery may be perceived as highly unpleasant with many grotesque visions. However, it should be said that positive psychedelic experiences often include at least some dark elements too. Clearly, the presence of the latter does not make the journey any less valuable. On the contrary, getting through dark passages of a trip may prove to be highly transformative and healing. In fact, the psychedelic experience – just like life itself – contains both darkness and light. This duality is an aspect that has been known and acknowledged all along by writers and researchers in psychedelia. For example, when psychiatrist Humphry Osmond coined the term psychedelic in a correspondence with Aldous Huxley in 1956, Osmond described the psychedelic experience as a state where one may “fathom Hell or soar angelic”. Interestingly, as will be touched upon in a moment, many artists working in the field of visionary art tend to focus mostly on positive psychedelic experiences.
Psychedelic art was established as an artistic genre in the mid to late 1960 (about a decade after the word “psychedelic” was coined). The first book on the style, simply titled Psychedelic Art, was published in 1968. Edited by Robert E.L. Masters and Jean Houston, the book provided important documentation of some of the psychedelic art of the counterculture era and for decades it was the only major work discussing the genre.
When it comes to art that relates to the psychedelic experience, many people have started using the term visionary art. Although visionary art can seem more or less synonymous with psychedelic art, it should be mentioned that there are subtle yet important differences between the two. Visionary art typically places a strong focus on spirituality, and when it comes to artists working in the style today many take inspiration from ayahuasca shamanism. Furthermore, many visionary artists are very skilled painters, which may explain why there is a great emphasis on technical ability within the genre. Psychedelic art on the other hand tends to deal with a wider range of themes and usually comes across as less religious, and may include humorous, absurd or erotic elements. Historically, psychedelic art has involved several different techniques, which are not typically used by visionary artists. In addition to painting and drawing, techniques include collage, video, sculpture and light shows. Considering the differences between these two styles, it is unfortunate that psychedelic art and visionary art are sometimes believed to be one and the same.
A somewhat stern critic of visionary art is Finn McKenna, the son of legendary writer and “bard” Terence McKenna and ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison. In a 2014 interview with Tao Lin of Vice Magazine, Finn McKenna describes the style as being “embarrassingly self-serious.” In addition, he thinks visionary art has an over-emphasis on positivity, and as a consequence the style disregards the duality of darkness and light that is inevitably part of the psychedelic experience. “The scene is severely lacking in the irony, biting humor, and cosmic ridiculousness that Terence articulated,” he says (vice.com).
One of the better-known psychedelic artists working today is the aforementioned Fred Tomaselli. Although some of his artworks may at first seem similar to visionary art, Tomaselli has an approach to psychedelic imagery that is very different from what is found among most visionary artists. According to art critic Ken Johnson, Tomaselli is a kind of pop artist that is toying with clichés of the psychedelic style (dosenation.com). Clearly, very few visionary artists would be described in a similar way. (This is not to say that artists working in the field of visionary art haven’t produced excellent artworks.)
It may seem overly simplistic to lump together a dozen or so motifs and make the claim that they are the building blocks of psychedelic art. Needless to say, I am well aware that art can be much more complex and mysterious than what one may initially think. That said, the fact remains that numerous psychedelic pictures – whether they are contemporary art, graphic art or lowbrow art – contain the motifs and features that were mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Take for instance legendary poster artist Rick Griffin’s front cover illustration of the 1969 album Aoxomoxoa by the Grateful Dead. Originally a concert poster, the artwork is one of the most memorable examples of psychedelic art from the counterculture era. Seen in the image is a warped landscape where its vegetation – which consists of motifs such as mushrooms and trees – is shown in x-ray. (Incidentally, the latter is a feature that was also seen on the cover of The Incredible String Bands’ The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, designed by Dutch design collective The Fool.) The lower part of Griffin’s image features a skull, and right above it is a glowing sun that is being penetrated by what appears to be sperm. The shape of the sun and its variations in colours are made up of concentric circles. One of the strong points of the image is Griffin’s exquisite lettering, which features a so-called ambigram. As is well known among Deadheads, hidden in the words “Grateful Dead” is also the phrase: “We ate the acid.”
Interestingly, most of the motifs seen in psychedelic art of the 2010s are the very same as those used by earlier generations of psychedelic artists. This is evident in Juxtapoz Psychedelic, a book that presents several artists that can be categorised as being psychedelic. For example, Pearl Hsiung often includes concentric circles in her artworks; Oliver Hibert’s paintings feature nudity and mushrooms; and the works of David D’Andrea include motifs such as the eye, non-human animals and skeletons. Incidentally, the latter admits to having a “love for eternal symbols” (Juxtapoz Psychedelic, 2013: 204). Of course one could say that psychedelic art of today is influenced by the counterculture of the 1960s. Undoubtedly, the motifs and features discussed in this piece became firmly embedded in people’s minds during the hippie era, and have stayed that way ever since.
Psychedelic art – how fascinating as it may be – can only ever be a poor imitation of the psychedelic experience. This is not to say that such art is of inferior value. On the contrary, psychedelic pictures may play a hugely important role in a person’s life. If anything, these artworks can be reminders of earlier life-changing visionary journeys, and being in the presence of psychedelic imagery on a daily basis can certainly be of help when it comes to integrating such experiences.
By Henrik Dahl
This article was originally published in The Fenris Wolf 8 (Trapart, 2016).
Henrik Dahl is a journalist and critic specialising in psychedelic culture and art.
Featured image: Yellow by Engin_Akyurt (via Pixabay).
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