I Celebrate Myself, and Erase Myself

I Celebrate Myself, and Erase Myself

Sarah Rose Sharp
Facebook icon Share via Facebook Twitter icon Share via Twitter

In its broadest sense, a temple is a place devoted to a specific and elevated purpose, one not necessarily limited to the spiritual. Maybe it’s fair to say that what I’ve needed lately are secular temples, houses where I can refocus my capacity for reflection, which has been eroded by an economy hinging upon attention as a commodity. In this world, the time and space set aside for the rigorous and uninterrupted contemplation of almost anything have shrunk, and as this happens, this kind of time and space have taken on an intensity verging on the spiritual. The indispensable conveniences of modernity—the internet, smartphones, social media—feel to me like a never-ending series of false idols standing in opposition to this intensity.

It was with this mind-set that I stumbled upon the long-hidden temples of illustrator and spiritual seeker Herbert Crowley. Philadelphia artist and scholar Justin Duerr’s monograph The Temple of Silence: The Forgotten Works and Worlds of Herbert Crowley (Beehive Books, 2019) compiles much of Crowley’s extant work, including drawings, comics, and sculptures, and presents his detailed personal history. Duerr’s nineteen-inch-tall book reproduces a number of Crowley’s meticulously hand-drawn temples, including the Temple of Love, Temple of Mysteries, the Temple of Silence, and a two-page spread dedicated to the Temple of Dreams. This last image is featured on the book’s cover, which replicates, in some small measure, the experience of encountering Crowley for the first time. A keyhole cut-out in the sleeve that protects the cover only teases a glimpse of the Temple of Dreams, but as you slip the book from the sleeve, you are treated to a full vision of Crowley’s lush drawing.

Through Duerr’s essays on Crowley’s life and work, a picture emerges of Crowley as a Forrest Gump–like character, always standing at the elbow of those destined for greater legacies. Crowley’s work was critically lauded in its time, until the artist defied all predictions of breaking big by removing himself from his professional milieu and eventually destroying most of his own work. This final gesture of privacy underscored his vision of art as a divine practice and feels unrecognizable in our current social climate, which dictates that no act should go unobserved—“Pics or it didn’t happen.” Crowley’s defiance speaks to the integrity of an artistic process that today is threatened by a professional obligation to constantly document creativity on social media instead of letting it incubate in (torturous, rapturous) isolation—in a temple of silence, if you like.

Despite Crowley’s theatrics, the book undermines the myth of the artist as a lone genius, a figure for whom only privacy can ensure artistic purity. While the devotees who inhabit a temple might practice in hermetic solitude, dedicated followers sustain their existences. From the meticulous biography laid out through Duerr’s research, it is clear that Crowley’s existence—to say nothing of his work—was significant to a number of his contemporaries, who worked hard to facilitate the career that Crowley seemed determined to torpedo. In that spirit, The Temple of Silence is more than an account of an unrecognized genius; it’s also an account of the community that enabled it.

Crowley was born in 1873 into the British upper-middle class, the ninth child in a large family, and under other circumstances he could certainly have been relegated to a background player. But “Bertie,” as his mother called him, distinguished himself early on with an array of talents, including drawing, painting, and singing. He trained formally as an opera singer, and while his fledgling opera career had taken him as far as Toronto by the 1890s, his life as a performer was cut short by debilitating stage fright—a fear that would later factor into his career as an artist. This setback prompted him to rekindle an interest in sketching and painting that became a lifeline through his otherwise-unmoored twenties, which he spent in aimless migration between the homes of his supportive older siblings, who did their best to incorporate him into their own efforts to step out into the world, offering lifestyles to which he always proved ill-suited.

Following the turn of the twentieth century, Crowley broke free of a particularly disastrous attempt to work as an overseer for United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, and eventually found himself in New York City, underdressed for the weather and basically penniless. It was there that he fell in with fellow artist John Frederick Mowbray-Clarke, who would become one of Crowley’s most ardent evangelists. The two lived together, encouraged each other in their experimental sculpture work, and remained inseparable even as Mowbray-Clarke took up a position teaching art at the Finch School, a private secondary school–cum–baccalaureate women’s college on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he met and eventually married fellow instructor Mary Helena Bothwell Horgan in 1907. The 1910 census lists Crowley as a boarder in the Mowbray-Clarkes’ New York City home, and Helena was known to joke that when she married John, she gained a second husband in the bargain.

Crowley had always participated in the occasional art show or salon, but it was during his time at the Mowbray-Clarkes that his work entered the public eye, in the form of a short-lived Sunday serial comic called The Wiggle-Much, which ran in The New York Herald from March through June of 1910. The Wiggle-Much follows the exploits of its much-beleaguered titular character, a little white balloon of a creature, or a sentient dumpling, or a sort of kangaroo-mouse with round ears, a round face, and big oval eyes on two springy legs. The Wiggle-Much is only one of the bizarre creatures in Crowley’s menagerie of hybrid species, but it is special because of its expressive features: it is given no voice to protest or celebrate the myriad whims of fate to which it is subjected. It is uprooted from its free-range pastoral existence by two irresponsible young men with nets, ridden into armored conflict by an army of tin soldiers, and even kidnapped by a wizard, who subjects it to a range of mystical science experiments. Though it is endlessly made a pawn in the machinations of humanoid characters, the Wiggle-Much’s only true penchant seems to be for sweet potatoes and turnips and perhaps a little peace.

Crowley’s relationship with the Mowbray-Clarkes was one of the most sustaining and influential of his life. They parlayed their respective teaching positions at the Finch School into a kind of art-and-spiritualist movement that found its locus around their country home, in upstate New York, dubbed “the Brocken” by Helena. As the Mowbray-Clarkes expanded their artistic social circle there, Crowley begged money from his sister to build a little studio outpost on the property, nicknamed the Tissup, which kept a roof over his itinerant head.

The Brocken evolved into a hub for experimental art and philosophy among the New York art crowd and its wealthy benefactors, particularly Irene and Alice Lewisohn. Alice and the Mowbray-Clarkes played key roles in the organization and funding of the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, which continues today as the Armory Show. Under their aegis, the 1913 exhibition featured the fine-art stylings of a number of contemporary comics artists, including Walt Kuhn, Marjorie Organ, Rudolph Dirks—whose comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids was a cited influence of Pablo Picasso, another participant in the show—as well as Crowley himself. It was through the Mowbray-Clarkes that Crowley met the Lewisohns, but it took sixteen years of their acquaintance before he married Alice, who became his devotee and patron.

Duerr’s book represents this fertile period in Crowley’s career. The twelve published installments of The Wiggle-Much, as well as two incomplete drafts, form the book’s centerpiece, but they are sandwiched between a wealth of images spanning Crowley’s career as an artist, designer, and sculptor. The book includes reproductions of his stand-alone images, set designs, photos of plaster and clay sculptures, and the elaborate, beguiling drawings in the Temple series.

The series seems to be Crowley’s attempt to geolocate the metaphysical, spiritual, and moral concerns with which he was privately obsessed and that could not find their way into his comic strips. The temples are elaborate houses of worship, often surrounded by lavish gardens, which are depicted as symmetrical and neat, suggesting careful tending, though they are scrupulously absent of occupants or worshippers. Crowley worried himself to the brink of ill health over each detail of these gothic, darkly whimsical drawings, with their obsessive backfill, shading, and proliferation of botanical nuance. Despite his feverish efforts to complete one of the drawings, the Temple of Dreams, for the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (it was praised by John Mowbray-Clarke as “the most remarkable pen & ink design that I believe has even been done”), he was unable to realize his vision in time. The original drawing, now lost, was intended to feature an embedded diamond chip among the spires that rise above the tiered garden. Crowley substituted two other works for inclusion but later destroyed them both, perhaps as a gesture of regret about failing to complete the Temple of Dreams in time. All that remains of the Temple of Dreams is a work-in-progress version from his scrapbook, which is currently in a private collection in Zurich.

The sheer energy of Crowley’s imagined worlds, not to mention the appealing, childlike countenances of his cast of creatures and characters, puts his work in the company of Henry Darger’s “Vivian girls” narratives, though Crowley rendered his creations with a tighter hand and more obsessive eye. The maudlin and gothic aspects of the work, as well as his meticulous pen-and-ink detailing, precede the wildly popular stylings of beloved cult illustrator Edward Gorey. Crowley’s run in the Herald was even printed alongside another lauded surrealist comic, Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay.

Still, something held Crowley at a remove from the contemporary cultural consciousness, in spite of the Mowbray-Clarkes’ and Lewisohns’ fervent efforts to promote his work. In reading the assemblage of historical materials presented by Duerr, one senses that what held Crowley back might have been Crowley himself—his chief inhibitions were the excruciating pace of his production and not having the social temperament to promote his own work. One can only wonder why Crowley was so intensely antisocial, especially during an era when people worshipped at the altar of Greek-revival Stoicism and Henry David Thoreau. Perhaps the stage fright that had crippled his opera career also infected his career as an artist. Perhaps Crowley’s inability to finish The Wiggle-Much was not for lack of public anticipation but because he could not bring himself to continuously produce according to a weekly timetable. By 1936, around the time of his second marriage (to perfumer Wilhelmina Seilaz), the artist seemed to be suffering a full-blown existential crisis that culminated in his destroying the majority of his remaining work. He died suddenly, in late 1937, at the age of sixty-
four. Whatever conversation he had had with himself is unknowable.

Initially, Crowley’s work and rejection of an audience filled me with fascination about and nostalgia for a time when one’s inner life was kept more to oneself. They are evidence of the richness that is lost when every occurrence is given an immediate audience. The worlds Crowley cultivated are fiercely private in their realization, articulated so completely that they communicate meaning without needing to make much sense to the viewer. I am reminded that, as artists and writers, we are never alone but always in the presence of the ongoing conversation we are having with ourselves. Crowley merely did what any one of us is free to do by deleting our profiles: he dismantled the fame engine that asks an artist to trade solitude for sustenance. Crowley seemed always to prioritize the relationship between himself, his art, and the community that sustained his practice, rather than between his art and an audience. There is a palpable tension around his efforts to bring his art to market and the compromises that act entailed—especially when those compromises contradicted his belief that art has the ability to communicate a cosmic truth. In the end, by attempting to erase himself from the cultural record, Crowley proved that his highest allegiance was ultimately not to his work’s success but to the Temple of Silence in which he could pursue that work in peace.

More Reads

A Review of Antiquity

Rosa Boshier González

A Review of Crazy Like a Fox and Cloudland Revisited

Daniel Elkind

A Review of Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other

Deb Olin Unferth