Filmmaker Sonia Bible considers Rosaleen Norton “the most persecuted artist in Australian history.” With a new documentary, she’s hoping to set a more accurate record of the life of woman who in the 1940s and 50s scandalized the country with her occult art, and bold sexuality.
“At first I started researching Rosaleen Norton because there was so much drama in her life,” Bible told Hyperallergic. “Her life is a classic story of the anti-hero. Then as I got deeper into the research, I discovered another story. It’s the story of a woman who became a mythological character in her own life.”
Recently funded on Indiegogo, Bible’s film The Witch of Kings Cross, which she’s working on with producer Peter Butt, will record interviews with people who knew Norton, or “Roie” as they called her. Born in New Zealand, Norton arrived in Australia in 1925, and got interested in art at an early age. However, by high school she was getting expelled due to her illustrations of vampires and werewolves that teachers saw as a corrupting influence. She only got more fascinated in the occult and its exploration in art, studying at East Sydney Technical College. Yet the pagan gods, satyrs, and naked human bodies entwined in her work, often in sexual acts, weren’t just shocking to the conservative public, they were prosecuted. At her first exhibition at the University of Melbourne in 1949, her work, including a piece called “Black Magic” showing a woman who looked not dissimilar from Norton wrapped around a panther, was confiscated and she was charged with obscenity.
Although she was later acquitted, the infamy had latched onto her life, and from then on everything about Norton was ravenously sensationalized by the media. Bible places Norton at “the vanguard of the counterculture revolution,” as she got arrested in the 1940s and 50s for her work long before dabbling in occult became a fad of the 1960s and 70s. “She was so ahead of her time, but because her art was religious art, it’s never really been taken seriously by the mainstream art world,” Bible explained.
Norton lived much of her life in Sydney’s Kings Cross, where she became known as the “witch of Kings Cross,” even falsely accused of leading a satanic Black Mass in 1955. Outspoken and easily recognizable with her thinly plucked, peaking eyebrows, her wavy dark hair, and bohemian style of dress, she was also quickly derided as either insane or perverse. When one of her lovers, the English conductor Eugene Goossens, was caught bringing what were considered pornographic materials into the country and his career was wrecked, she was accused of destroying him.
Norton died in 1979, and interest in her work has continued among a subset of admirers who are drawn to her fusion of influences (from Carl Jung to Aleister Crowley), but there has yet to be an in-depth film about her life — Kenneth Anger was at one point was reportedly interested in making a feature that didn’t come to fruition. Now, as Bible describes in the fundraising video for The Witch of Kings Cross, her story is “on the edge of living memory.”
“I think that looking back at Rosaleen Norton and they way that she was persecuted helps us understand ourselves today,” Bible stated. “She put a mirror up to society, and they didn’t like it.”
The Witch of Kings Cross funded on Indiegogo September 7.