Category: Psychedelic Art

The Madonna of the Napalm

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Stolen Paper Editions, Mill Valley, California. Offset poster. 1967. 57.5 x 31.5 cm. Sharp's poster depicted U.S. President Johnson, the pro-war Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, and the U.S. backed South Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Cao Kỳ.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Stolen Paper Editions, Mill Valley, California. Offset poster. 1967. 57.5 x 31.5 cm. Sharp's poster depicted U.S. President Johnson, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, the pro-war Australian Prime Minister John Gorton, and the U.S. backed South Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Cao Kỳ.

Back on December 1, 2009 I wrote an illustrated article titled Hey, Hey, LBJ…, an essay concerning U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson as depicted in anti-Vietnam war posters from the 1960s. I self-published my treatise on the occasion of President Obama deploying 30,000 U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan.

While there are obvious differences between the Vietnam and Afghan wars, the parallels are striking. This article revisits the historic posters of the 60s that excoriated President Johnson for escalating the war in Southeast Asia, by examining a specific silkscreen print not included in Hey, Hey, LBJ…, - Martin Sharp’s The Madonna of the Napalm.

Sharp’s poster was created in 1967, and it is a good example of how the alternative culture of the 60s meshed with the antiwar activism of the period, however, an evaluation of the poster brings up unavoidable questions regarding the present day U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm is a biting condemnation, not just of military conflict, but of third world dictators, the compromised political leaders of Western democracies, religious piety distorted by fanaticism, and the overall decrepitude of “liberal” society rendered insane by imperialist war. We have not seen the likes of this poster since the late 1960s, but given the painful similarity between Obama’s Afghan catastrophe and Johnson’s Vietnam disaster, we ought to see such posters proliferate in the near future.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. President Johnson is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. President Johnson is depicted in this poster detail.

To start with, Sharp’s poster is a gem when it comes to psychedelia. His acerbic but fanciful caricatures were drawn with detailed though fluid pen lines, and when combined with vibrant fluorescent orange and black ink, an eye-popping visual was achieved. Moreover, Sharp’s semi-Gothic, neo-Art Nouveau style was the very epitome of psychedelic aesthetics.

One can only imagine the excitement his poster generated when viewed under the “black light” displays that were so popular during the sixties. But this was not simply another day-glo poster from the Aquarian Age, it was an angry political diatribe against the centers of power and fully intended to help incapacitate the war machine. Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm represents a sub-genre rarely mentioned in modern-day coffee-table books dealing with psychedelic prints from the sixties - that of the political protest poster.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Nguyen Cao Kỳ is depicted in this poster detail. Kỳ served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, then served as Vice President until 1971.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Nguyen Cao Kỳ is depicted in this poster detail. Kỳ served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, then served as Vice President until 1971.

The central character in the poster is a depiction of President Johnson as an ancient Byzantine Madonna figure, but there is nothing sacred about this icon, who wears an imposing radiating nimbus made from rifles.

Floating in the heavens behind this demonic sham Madonna are skull-faced, black-winged angels of death. The unholy mother of war clutches a mortar shell in one claw, and a deformed puppet general in the other.

The general, with a glowing halo made from the U.S. flag, is none other than the U.S. backed Nguyen Cao Kỳ, who served as Prime Minister of South Vietnam from 1965 to 1967, and then served as the Vice President until he retired in 1971. Kỳ originally received military training from the French army, who founded the Vietnamese National Army (VNA) to help assist in their colonial control of “French Indochina.” Kỳ served the French well, but in 1954 when they finally departed Vietnam in military defeat, the VNA was reorganized into the American supplied and controlled “Army of the Republic of Vietnam” (ARVN).

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, is depicted in this poster detail.

The background of Sharp’s Madonna of the Napalm presents some interesting character studies. At bottom left one can see Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense for Presidents John F. Kennedy and LBJ, and a primary architect of the U.S. war on Vietnam.

Starting out with the firm belief that the U.S. could win the war militarily, by May 1967 McNamara informed LBJ that the war was “becoming increasingly unpopular as it escalates - causing more American casualties, more fear of its growing into a wider war, more privation of the domestic sector, and more distress at the amount of suffering being visited on the noncombatants in Vietnam, South and North.” Six months later LBJ would remove McNamara from his post.

Contrast McNamara’s remarks to those made in May of 2010 by Obama’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said; “We’re not leaving Afghanistan prematurely, in fact, we’re not ever leaving at all.”

An anthropomorphized kangaroo figure holding a boomerang is depicted in the upper left corner of the poster; the caricature is of John Gorton, the pro-Vietnam war Prime Minister of Australia who governed from January 1968 to March 1971. Under Gorton’s administration around 8,000 Australian soldiers assisted the U.S. by fighting in Vietnam, but Australian public opinion turned against the war - hence the boomerang.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. The pro-war Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, is depicted in this poster detail.

"The Madonna of the Napalm" – Martin Sharp. Offset poster. The Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, is depicted in this poster detail.

On May 1, 1970, over 200,000 people gathered in Melbourne, Australia for a mass protest dubbed the “Vietnam War Moratorium March.” Eventually some 50,000 Australian soldiers would be rotated into the war, around 3,000 would be wounded, and nearly 600 were killed. The last Australian soldiers would finally be withdrawn from Vietnam in 1972.

Since I first published Hey, Hey, LBJ…, on December 1, 2009, there have been numerous developments in Mr. Obama’s ever escalating war. In Dec. 2009 U.S. military fatalities in Afghanistan stood at 947, as of this writing 364 U.S. soldiers have been added to that list, for a total of 1,317 killed.

As our Nobel Peace Prize Laureate President intensifies his war, those casualty rates are rising. There are now around 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan along with 52,000 allied NATO troops. The Afghan war is the longest in U.S. history, The ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan falls on October 7, 2010.

[The Madonna of the Napalm poster image was provided to me by Lincoln Cushing - www.docspopuli.org]

Woodstock Nation Gets Its Museum

The Museum at Bethel Woods, an institution dedicated to the examination of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair held for three days in August of 1969, officially opened on June 2, 2008, on the exact site of the original Woodstock festival. A splendid building of wood and stone that looks much like a fancy mountain lodge resort, the museum sits on a hilltop overlooking the field, once part of Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, where a half-million people gathered for “Three Days of Peace and Music”

I was only fifteen when the Woodstock festival was held, and naturally I dreamt of going, as did all of my friends, but I never made the trek. The event however had enormous impact that reached far beyond those who came together on Yasgur’s farm. The philosophy that was acted out there is perhaps best expressed in a quotation by a musician who performed at the momentous happening, Richie Havens: “Woodstock was not about sex, drugs, and rock & roll. It was about spirituality, about love, about sharing, about helping each other, living in peace and harmony.” The museum aptly uses that quote in its promotional materials, and in part describes its mission with the following words:

“The Museum embodies the key ideals of the era we interpret - peace, respect, cooperation and a connection to the planet we live on and all the people who inhabit it. In addition to preserving and interpreting an era, the museum is actively involved in our community - through education, economic development, and historical preservation - to encourage social responsibility among our visitors and supporters, and to advocate for issues that make Sullivan County, and the world at large, a better place. To borrow from 1960s ideology, everyone has the power to change the world.”

The museum’s permanent collection is divided into three parts, the first traces the earthshaking historic events of the 60s as the chaotic decade led up to the Woodstock festival - correctly placing the concert in the context of immense social upheaval. The second and largest section of the collection focuses on the festival itself - through displays of ephemera, photos, text and audio narratives, as well as interactive media presentations that culminate in a 21-minute film about the festival that includes Jimi Hendrix playing his awe-inspiring rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. The final portion of the museum’s collection covers the legacy of Woodstock, where amongst other things, those who attended the original festival can record their experiences for the institution’s archives.

The museum’s facilities are indeed impressive, and include a main exhibition hall that holds the permanent exhibit - consisting of over 300 photographic murals and text panels, 164 artifacts, five interactive media presentations, and 20 films. The museum’s theater offers seating for 132 people and a 13 by 22 foot screen with multi-channel sound and high-definition video projection. An outdoor theater seats 1,000 for special performances and forums, and starting in 2009 a Site Interpretive Walking Tour will show visitors the noteworthy spots on museum property - such as the location of the original Woodstock stage. A Special Exhibit Gallery where traveling shows from other institutions, collectors, and exhibitors can be placed on view is also part of the museum, together with a sizeable Events Gallery for meetings and receptions. Two large classrooms outfitted with audio-visual equipment are also incorporated into the museum, and naturally there is a museum gift shop.

Woodstock '69 poster by artist, Arnold Skolnick

[ Woodstock Music & Art Fair: 3 Days of Peace & Music. Original promotional poster designed by artist Arnold Skolnick, 1969. The artist’s initial concept had the bird sitting on a flute, but the final poster design placed the bird on a guitar. While popularly regarded as a dove, Skolnick’s actual model was the catbird, which he had been sketching while visiting Shelter Island near Long Island. Skolnick’s celebrated poster has been endlessly replicated, often without permission; for instance, the organizers of the so-called "Woodstock II" festival held in 1994, plagiarized Skolick’s creation without giving him credit or monetary compensation. ]

How accurate a picture of the Woodstock festival can one get from a family-friendly museum trying its best to avoid the controversies associated with the event - which was arguably the culmination of the most radical mass social experiment to have ever occurred in the United States? Two of the hallmarks of the Flower Power generation, “free love” - i.e., sexual liberation and promiscuity, and the use of psychedelic drugs to achieve “expanded consciousness”, will most likely be downplayed by the museum, at least in its public presentations; yet these were driving forces behind hippie - effecting everything from clothing, language, music and art, to personal relationships and political stances. Serious research and scholarship should not be hindered by prevailing political moods, and to thrust aside troublesome facts in order to avoid upsetting the status quo is to rewrite history. Nevertheless, the Museum at Bethel Woods holds promise as an institution devoted to American history and social studies, in particular, the examination of the multi-faceted alternative culture that was hippie. Duly placing an emphasis upon educational resources and scholarship, the museum states:

“Adult learners and scholars can soon come to the museum for seminars and symposia to share their knowledge and add to the body of scholarship in areas of popular culture, mass media, and a variety of other subjects. In the future, the museum will soon provide opportunities for individual research, as well, through an expanded website, library/archive, and access to hours of recorded oral histories and volumes of photographs of the era.”

Nationwide and internationally there are many collections of 60s counterculture artifacts and ephemera held in private and institutional hands that could be brought together or linked in some manner - and the possibility that this might happen through the Museum at Bethel Woods is an exciting prospect. I hope that such relationships are developed and I encourage those with relevant collections and materials to contact the museum with ideas and proposals. The museum is also seeking relics from those who actually attended the Woodstock festival of ’69, as well as written, recorded, or oral histories from participants for possible inclusion in the museum’s permanent collection. All interested parties may contact the museum at: museum@bethelwoodslive.org. Visit the official Museum at Bethel Woods website.

Summer of Love - Take 2

"A Gathering Of The Tribes." Anonymous artist circa 1967. Silkscreen. This day-glow poster depicts a plains Indian coupled with a quote from the great American painter, George Catlin. The poster was based upon a historic photograph of the Sioux warrior named Spotted Eagle, and memorialized the Gathering of the Tribes/Human Be-in held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in January, 1967.

"A Gathering Of The Tribes." Anonymous artist circa 1967. Silkscreen. This day-glow poster depicts a plains Indian coupled with a quote from the great American painter, George Catlin. The poster was based upon a historic photograph of the Sioux warrior named Spotted Eagle, and memorialized the Gathering of the Tribes/Human Be-in held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in January, 1967.

The first day of summer in 2017 was June 20, but the date also marked another occasion, that of the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco, California.

Remarkably enough in 1967 I passed though that Haight Ashbury scene as a wide-eyed, impressionable 14 year old, and what I saw there never left me. In fact the experience was so—you’ll forgive the expression, “mind blowing,” that it changed my life forever. Overall the 60’s experience remains a signpost on my life’s path, one that I intermittently come back to visit without succumbing to the most deadly of all diseases, nostalgia.

That psychedelic poster art played an enormous role in the hippie scene is undeniable, and aside from the incredible music associated with the  movement, it’s the visual art that has left the most lasting impression.

While many are familiar with the posters and handbills that announced acid rock concerts at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom, those works in no way represent the total output of psychedelic artists. Posters were also an influential method of communicating the movement’s ethics, moral principles, and political actions. The new visual language and typography of psychedelic posters promoted everything from anti-materialism and spiritual values to community festivals and antiwar protests.

A good example of this would be one of the rare posters in my collection, A Gathering Of The Tribes, a split-screen serigraph printed in wild day-glow colors that celebrated Native Americans and their traditional way of life as an example for hippies to follow.

"A Gathering Of The Tribes." Detail. Anonymous artist circa 1967. Silkscreen.

"A Gathering Of The Tribes." Detail. Anonymous artist circa 1967. Silkscreen.

I can’t remember if I picked this gem up in Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love or if I acquired it soon thereafter, as the artist unfortunately left no signature or date on the print. Nevertheless, the poster is an outstanding example of psychedelic art and how such works were flavored with social protest and a questioning aesthetic. This particular poster used a 1868 quote by the painter of early Native Americans, George Catlin, as he described his encounters with indigenous tribes. In typical psychedelic fashion, the poster’s typography was psychedelicized and woven into the overall design. The quote reads:

I love the people who have always made me welcome to the best they had. I love the people who are honest without law—who have no jails and no poorhouse. I love a people who keep the commandments without ever having read them or heard them preached from the pulpit. I love a people who love their neighbors as they love themselves. I love a people who worship God without a bible for I believe God loves them also. I love a people who are free from religious animosities. I love a people who live and keep what is their own without lock and keys. I love a people who do the best they can—and oh how I love a people who do not live for the love of money.

Posters like this not only celebrated Native Americans as heroes, they suggested templates for alternative lifestyles and put people in touch with history. It was no small matter for me to have discovered the life and works of George Catlin through this poster, and I’m certain the print touched the lives of many others in equally profound ways.

Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love, the de Young Museum in San Francisco offers The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll. The exhibition, which uses psychedelic posters, light shows, music, fashion, and film to explore the hippie counterculture, runs from April 8, 2017 to August 20, 2017.

Back in July of 2006, I wrote an article titled Art of the Psychedelic Era, an essay inspired by the Tate Modern in London and the Kunsthalle in Vienna having collaborated on mounting the major exhibition, Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era. That same exhibit traveled to America where it ran at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art from May 24, 2007 until September 16, 2007. A brief video of the Whitney’s “Summer of Love” exhibit can be seen on YouTube. In his review of the Whitney exhibit for the New York Times, art critic Holland Cotter offered the following comments regarding the incomplete and depoliticized nature of the show:

“The net effect is less to reveal a depth and variety of creativity than to demonstrate that the main function of alternative art was advertising, that the counterculture started as a commercial venture, which soon became a new mainstream and ended up an Austin Powers joke. Possibly this view represents the show’s critical edge, but if so, it is sharpened at the expense of accuracy. To many people who came of age between 1963 to 1972 political intensity was the defining feature of the period and its most interesting art. It never let up.

(….) Psychedelia and collectivity are back (and already on their way out again). But the revival is highly edited; a surface scraping; artificial, like a bottled fragrance. No one these days is thinking, ‘Turn on, drop out.’ Everyone is thinking, ‘How can I get into the game?’ The Whitney show, maybe without intending to, suggests that this was always true, and makes such an attitude seem inevitable and comprehensible. So, let’s have another ’60s show, an incomprehensible one, messier, stylistically hybrid, filled with different countercultures, and with many kinds of music and art, a show that makes the ‘Summer of Love’ what it really was: a brief interlude in a decade-long winter of creative discontent.”

I generally agreed with Cotter that the Summer of Love exhibit lacked scope and vision, and that other, “messier” exhibitions are in order. However, what’s really called for is not simply more art shows about rebellious times past, but a regeneration of the spirit that motivated the original participants during those exhilarating days. The actual Summer of Love represented not just “a brief interlude,” but a sharp and determined break with a conformist society. Every rule was examined, ignored or tossed by the wayside as people sought to create a more humane and rational way of living… an outlook we are in dire need of today.

Yes there was tragic excess and silliness in spades, and there’s no need to recreate any of that, but in 1967 people believed they could change the world for the better—and they acted accordingly, whereas today we have been gripped by a deep pessimism that is squeezing the life and humanity out of all of us. So yes, Mr. Cotter, “let’s have another ’60s show,” but let’s agree not to have this 21st century festival of life in some high and mighty museum… let’s have it in the streets.

2007 also marked the 40th anniversary of San Francisco’s Summer of Love, and a glimpse of those wild times was presented in a PBS American Experience documentary titled Summer of Love. Theodore Roszak, one of the many participants interviewed in the special, was in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. A mover and shaker in the hippie scene and now a social critic and professor, Roszak summed up the Flower Power movement in the following way:

“I don’t think the Summer of Love left any blueprints behind on how to build a better world. It was much more a showcase for enjoyment, for happiness, for freedom, as people understood it then. But if you probe to the underlying values of displays like that, protests like that, you can perhaps see the seeds of a better social order than the one we’re living in now. If the ideals of the Sixties had prevailed, it would be a world, where people lived gently on the planet without the sense that they have to exploit nature or make war upon nature in order to find basic security. It would be a simpler way of life, less urban, less consumption-oriented, and much more concerned about spiritual values, about companionship, friendship, community.

Community was one of the great words of this period, getting together with other people, solving problems, enjoying one another’s company, sharing ideas, values, insights. And if that’s not what life is all about, if that’s not what the wealth is for, then we are definitely on the wrong path.”

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“Summer of Love - Take 2″ was updated and edited on 6/20/2017

Art of the Psychedelic Era

The UK Tate Gallery has mounted an exhibition titled, Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, an exhibit that, “attempts to uncover this forgotten and repressed aesthetic that continues to exert an increasingly powerful influence on many contemporary artists.” The Tate also developed an adjunct show on the aesthetics of psychedelia for the Kunsthalle in Vienna - both exhibits are running concurrently until September, 2006.

Painting by Abdul Mati Klarwein

[ Detail from Astral Body Asleep, by Abdul Mati Klarwein. Oil on canvas. 1968 ]

Having been a teenager in 1960s Los Angeles, I’m more than a little familiar with the art and culture presented in the groundbreaking Summer of Love exhibit, and I’m happy to see the genre finally receiving acknowledgment and serious examination. Most people associate psychedelic visual art with the Art Nouveau inspired day glow posters that announced Acid Rock concerts - and there’s no doubt psychedelia left a strong imprint on the music of the era. Bands like Country Joe and the Fish and Jefferson Airplane exemplified the sound - but the aesthetic might best be summed up in the Beatle’s 1966 song, Tomorrow Never Knows, “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream, it is not dying. (….) But listen to the color of your dreams, is it not living?” We have a fair record of 60s psychedelic music, but little serious attention has been paid to the visual arts of the period - until the Tate’s landmark examination.

Image by Ernst Fuchs

[ Ernst Fuchs, 1955. This photograph of a painted figure wearing a felt headdress was one of the artist’s early attempts at approximating a peyote experience. ]

I won’t dwell on the thrills and excesses of the Psychedelic movement, that’s simply not within the scope of this web log. That some counter-culturalists advocated the ingesting of mind-altering psychoactive substances like LSD, mescaline, and peyote in order to achieve an “altered” or “expanded consciousness”, while others promoted yoga and meditation to achieve the same end - is not the point of this article. The point is, those seekers broke from mainstream culture, inspiring artists to create a psychedelic aesthetic that would impact the wider society. Psychedelic artists left their mark on graphic design, typography, fashion, fine art - and invented new forms like light shows and “happenings”, the predecessor of performance art. The Tate has produced an excellent catalog book for the exhibit that details all of this and more. I was most excited to learn the exhibit includes works by Ernst Fuchs and Abdul Mati Klarwein, painters I was fascinated by as a teenager, but the exhibit also includes works by Richard Avedon, Robert Indiana, Andy Warhol and a host of others.

Painting by Isaac Abrams

[ Cosmic Orchid - Isaac Abrams, Oil on canvas. 1967. ]

Ernst Fuchs founded the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism with fellow Viennese artists in 1948. Moving away from the radical surrealist idea of art springing from the unconscious mind, Fuchs thematically pursued a visionary mysticism buttressed by a technical virtuosity reminiscent of early Flemish painting. While Fuchs experimented with peyote during the late 1950’s, his hallucinatory artworks were already transcendent and terrifying, filled with luminous beings, mythological creatures, fantastic landscapes and vibrant colors. Needless to say his works both inspired and attracted the attention of those artists who were fashioning the psychedelic art movement of the 1960’s - and the genre is near impossible to imagine without the far-reaching influence of Fuchs.

Abdul Mati Klarwein was taught the painting methods of the old masters by Ernst Fuchs, and Klarwein’s staggering psychedelic images graced the album covers of Miles Davis and Santana - bringing psychedelic aesthetics into the homes of millions. Klarwein counted Jimi Hendrix and Timothy Leary among his close personal friends, with Leary advising the painter he didn’t need psychedelics to create his art. “I painted psychedelically before I took psychedelics,” said Mati, “It’s like what Dali said, I don’t take drugs, I am drugs.” However, Klarwein’s paintings, like those of his fellow psychedelic artists, were spurned by the gallery system of the time. The Tate noted this was because the works “went entirely against the cool, literal tendencies of the period”, which says a lot about the gallery system past and present.

Painting by Alan Atwell

[ Psychedelic Temple - Allen Atwell, Casein on plaster. 1964. An apocalyptic inner landscape painted on the walls, ceiling and adjoining spaces of a room in a New York apartment. Atwell is not included in the exhibit, but his works were typical of the psychedelic style. ]

What we’ve been told about the Psychedelic movement up to this point is generally a load of crap, and it pains me to no end that such a vibrant and original school has been reduced to a handful of cheap, mocking and inaccurate clichés. It’s wonderful that the Tate and Kunsthalle museums are making an effort at sorting out the Psychedelic movement, giving it some context and attempting to make some sense of it all - but voluminous studies are still needed to cover the wide range of psychedelic aesthetic practices and their motivations. In a time of manic consumerism and militarism, we might benefit from considering and understanding psychedelia’s messages concerning universal peace and love. These days, we could all use a bit of “expanded consciousness.”

– // –

UPDATE 4/8/2016: Ernst Fuchs died at the age of 85 on November 9, 2015.

Videographer James Kalm walked through the Summer of Love exhibit at the Whitney with a video camera, and his 10 minute film found at www.youtube.com captures some of the flavor of the show. Most notable in the video are the rooms displaying psychedelic lightshows, and a glimpse of the room-like shrine made from reproductions of paintings by Abdul Mati Klarwein. Kalm also visited New York’s Microcosm Gallery to videotape an exhibit of psychedelic paintings by Isaac Abrams. ]