Recently, I read an article by Noah Charney about Davie Bowie and William Boyd’s connection to an obscure American abstract expressionist artist Nat Tate, operating in the mid-twentieth century, who destroyed most of his paintings, ended his own life, and disappeared from the cultural consciousness of the art world entirely. Not long after that, I was introduced to the life and works of Herbert Crowley – an English symbolic painter, musician, sculptor, and comics creator, operating at the turn of the twentieth century – through the book The Temple of Silence: Forgotten Works & Worlds of Herbert Crowley, written by Justin Duerr and edited and published by Josh O’Neill. In particular, Crowley had worked on a comic in the New York Herald called “The Wigglemuch” in 1910: running for fourteen strips, alongside Winsor McCay’s Nemo in Slumberland, before it abruptly ceased. At first, Crowley’s own work – both in comic strips and the avant-garde art scene – seemed up and coming, until he also stopped making art, like Tate had reportedly done, and also wanted his works destroyed towards the end of his life.
The difference between both examples of creators and the scarce accounts of their lives and works is simple enough. While Tate had been the fictional creation of Bowie and the novelist Boyd, along with a few other art scene luminaries, Herbert Crowley and his achievements had been quite real, yet forgotten over time. But Justin Duerr (with his own background in music, art, writing, and a documentarian filmmaker of Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles at the Sundance Film Festival) and Josh O’Neill (as the publisher of the Eisner and Harvey award-winning artist Winsor McCay tribute collection Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream and The Lost Work of Will Eisner) have taken great pains to not only collect and restore Crowley’s works, but to also gather together more information about his life.
It might seem odd that I would compare a lost figure like Herbert Crowley, as presented to the reader by Duerr and O’Neill, to a historical and artistic hoax, but the comparison and contrast is striking to me: not just because of their own tormented artist narratives, or the fact that they attempted to obliterate their own creations, or even how “no one remembers them,” but because of the nature of memory, and memetics. When Bowie and Boyd engineered their hoax, they drew on various characteristics of artists and art, sowing them through their creative narrative to make it all seem plausible, along with playing to the vanity of the art critics and collectors involved. This plausibility happened because of key details that drew on people’s assumptions, or something their particular intended audience had been immersed in, or saw in passing. But Crowley, who was a real person and artist, had been forgotten: much evidence of his work and life removed due to varying circumstances that Duerr outlines in as much detail accompanied by empirical evidence as he can. And yet, when you see samples of Herbert Crowley’s work, it does seem eerily familiar.
I too, as a writer and reader and a generally curious person, am interested in the power of memetic stories: of memes, and mysteries, and things people remember that didn’t exist, and things that have vanished from popular thought but actually happened. And what I find with secrets – arguably being elements that have been lost or hidden and can be discovered or solved – and mysteries – that are questions that are never fully answered – is that the journey to finding what occurred, or rediscovering them, can be as interesting or more interesting than retrieving all of the answers.
In fact, I am more fascinated with possibilities. When I was first introduced to Duerr and O’Neill’s book, I didn’t recognize Herbert Crowley’s name, but the images I saw presented to me in the book’s Kickstarter campaign intrigued me. Some of them, particularly the paintings, had a mandela effect; various arcane and almost occultic connotations stuck with me. Other illustrations seemed surreal and archetypical, even disturbing with supernatural aspects akin to viridian dreams and luminous nightmares. Indeed, in Hannah Means-Shannon’s Saving A Lost Cartoonist’s Surreal World With Josh O’Neill, the book’s editor goes so far as to say with regards to Crowley’s overall art that the artist came to believe that “his art had spiritual purposes – that it could bring balance to himself and his world, that it could combat the forces of evil and foster goodness” and that “Near the end of his life, he seems to have had a sort of nervous breakdown in which he decided that his work was on the wrong side of this struggle,” which was apparently one of the reasons he destroyed most of his art that he could get his hands on.
But what really got to me was this one recurring symbol or figure through some of Crowley’s various works, and the main subject of his comic strips: the Wigglemuch. You can see it (or him, if we consider that “Wiggles” is the Wigglemuch protagonist of his own surreal comics adventures) for yourself.
This being looks like something I could have easily seen in a cartoon somewhere: in an early feat of animation, a vintage comic, or a children’s illustrated text. In fact, I realized that Crowley himself had been doing comics work in the 1910s, and it reminded me of a book I read and wrote an abstract about for the Graphic Novel Collection in the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University called Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969, which had been written and compiled by Dan Nadel. I thought about even consulting it, to see if Nadel had come across Crowley’s work: as Nadel’s book examined lost comics creators or their early works. Remember when I mentioned possibilities. One point that Nadel liked to emphasize in his own book was that many of the strips, and the artists that made them, worked with the comics medium and cartooning while they were still in their early formation. He made a point of also stating that while there are many people who think that comics imitate the medium of film, they were actually both developed concurrently – especially the strips that predate collections and eventual standalone books – and that, back in the day before animation itself existed, or at least as we know it, artists still explored more of what the comics medium could actually do, aside from mimicking a cinematic perspective; long before modern and contemporary creators did the same.
Duerr also puts it as succinctly as possible on page fifty-two of The Temple of Silence, stating with regards to Crowley’s “Wigglemuch” strip and its period of creation that: “This was a sort of golden moment in the history of the comics medium, in which strips were prominently positioned in both high and popular culture. Crowley’s short-lived masterpiece sits right at the nexus of this intersection, with an entirely original approach to visual storytelling and symbolism. It vanished as quickly and mysteriously as it appeared. It is, as Art Spiegelman has said, one of the great ‘roads-not-taken’ in the history of comics.” It does make you wonder what might have happened if the art form had the backing and influence to continue radical experimentation from the turn of the century onward.
As it turns out, Nadel himself had written a section in Art Out of Time about Herbert Crowley, and perhaps the Wigglemuch remained in my memory several years later like a creature from a remembered dream. In fact, according to Duerr, Nadel had been so curious about the very scant information he was able to collect about Crowley in Art Out of Time that he continued to research the artist and his works on his own for some time, and write more articles about what he found, which Duerr consulted in addition to conferring with him.
Duerr likes to talk about the tenuous connections between elements and facts within The Temple of Silence, and with very good reason. He himself, along with his life partner and friends, not only traveled to art galleries in at least three different cities in three different countries, and conferred with some of Crowley’s relations, but Duerr and his partner went so far (in an impressive feat of urban exploration) as to investigate the crumbling ruins of an artist colony’s cottage called the Brocken in New York, rediscovering mouldering personal letters and artwork having to do with – or having been created by – Crowley. While Justin Duerr goes into further detail on his explorations in the book, and more about the experience in his article Strange Passing Strange: Unearthing the Forgotten Works and Worlds of Herbert Crowley, Duerr literally had to piece all of the artist’s life, all evidence of it anyway, together in a narrative format which he accompanies with the pictures of letters, exhibit programs, photographs, other ephemera, and his artwork. And even then, there are still gaps, still some moments lost in time, and pieces missing that could be lost through war, neglect, or houses yet unturned.
I think it helps that Herbert Crowley himself worked and lived in a particular intersection in time. During the aughts and ‘20s of the twentieth century, you have the rise of the comics medium and development of the comics strip, in addition to and beyond political satire, as well as avant-garde art in Europe that made its way to North America, which was especially espoused by his friends in New York and the Brocken artist colony, including his first wife Alice Lewisohn who was a feminist, actress, and philanthropist that opened the New York Neighbourhood Playhouse along with her sister Irene: where Crowley himself actually painted some scenery for at least one of their theatrical productions.
Even before I read The Temple of Silence, I thought about how “The Wigglemuch” and Crowley’s other artistic works have a real Nemo In Slumberland feel … as though depicting a Slumberland lost between the two sleeps of lost and ancient times, or a logic similar to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat; and as it turns out not only were they contemporaries, but Crowley and McCay’s artistic works were even exhibited together at the 1913 Armory Show … with Herriman so far as also being invited to contribute.
Justin Duerr himself makes the importance of this intersection in art history clear on page fifty-two of Temple of Silence when he states: “At the other end of the cultural spectrum, comics of 1910 were also beginning to gain acceptance in the realm of fine art. The 1913 Armory Show, though it did not feature any actual strips, featured the work of many cartoonists. Feininger, Marjorie Organ, Rudolph Dirks, and Crowley himself all featured work in the show, which was largely organized by the cartoonist and painter Walt Kuhn. George Herriman was also invited to participate. Pablo Picasso would not experiment with the comic strip until his 1937 piece The Dream and Lie of Franco, but by the time of the Armory Show he was already becoming interested in the new art form recently born in the American newspaper.”
So while I can talk about how Temple of Silence looks at what can be gleaned of Crowley’s early life and work, even some of his relationships through the ephemera that Duerr provides, I want to particularly focus this article on Crowley’s artwork itself which takes up the second part, and the majority of the book; particularly his strip “The Wigglemuch.”
The world portrayed in “The Wigglemuch” does seem to have something of a Krazy Kat dramatic cycle to it, minus the conflict of multiple characters, and it has different settings almost like Nemo in Slumberland. However, the strip itself surprised me in that instead of being a series of unrelated and standalone episodes like Krazy Kat or Nemo, there is a single continuous story that goes on until its very last unpublished strip. It is reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch and Maurice Sendak coming together and collaborating with Edward Lear and his nonsensical poetics on an AABB rhyme scheme, while attempting to recreate Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Underground. Or the beginnings of Dante’s Inferno with a strange neotenous archetypical proto-cartoon creature as a protagonist in an illuminated manuscript aesthetic.
The former is the best way I can describe my viewing experiences of the strips provided in the book. From their published coloured sequences, to the uncoloured episode, and then the last wordless series of panels into the Underworld, Wiggles himself feels more real – possessing more in the way of exaggerated facial and emotional expression – than the humans as depicted in this world. In fact, aside from the animals of both mundane and mythic variety, the humans in this world resemble toy figurines with stands. In fact, again on page fifty-two of Temple of Silence, Duerr goes as far as to say that “”The world that Wiggles moves through is strange and artificial. The human characters in The Wigglemuch are not human at all, but wooden toys, with round bases where their feet would otherwise be. The New York Times, in a short 1915 piece about Crowley, insightfully described the strip as embodying ‘the illusion of the puppet show, unreal actors acting reality[...] infinitely more interesting than real actors acting unreality.’”
This mood or aesthetic persists through all of the surviving consecutive strips. The entire narrative arc surrounds Wiggles going from being a beast of burden of these artificial humans to getting into inadvertent adventures, battles, and quandaries with his companions, only to get captured again, and offered various different scenarios. There is something quite ludicrous but also dreamlike about this cycle, reminiscent of that which dominates classical cartoons of the static and animated kind to this regard. Perhaps Wiggles is a stand-in for the reader / audience – his neoteny functioning in the reader-identification model that Scott McCloud identifies in his Understanding Comics – observing and being thrown into the ridiculousness of human nature and society as artificial and contrived and completely nonsensical.
Duerr further expands on the idea of the strip adopting the setting of the puppet show, which is not only reminiscent of Crowley’s theatrical setting painting work but also through revealing again that “the theater artist Ellen van Volkenburg, who is credited with coining the word ‘puppeteer,’ was part of Herbert Crowley and Alice Lewisohn’s social circle. The Wigglemuch in fact may have been understood by many of its readers as a comic-strip version of ‘toy theater,’ a popular entertainment medium of the time.” Duerr elaborates on the idea of toy theatre and its intersection into what we know of cartoons and sequential art. “Toy theater consisted of miniature puppet dramas using paper dolls operated from below or behind the ‘stage’ with sticks. Pasteboard backdrops provided the setting for the action, which was often the re-creation of popular operas. This was a form of proto-animation, cheap entertainment usually presented for a small group of friends or family.” This liminal, or transitional, observation only adds to the fact – in my mind at least – that the Wigglemuch looks like it should be, or could have been, animated. It resembles the early prototypical, experimental, and surreal cartoons of early animation and cartoon strips.
The Wigglemuch is eerie in a lot of ways, at least to me. It feels like it is something that should exist in the world – as an animated series or a puppet show. Perhaps, in some ways, it already does. It’s almost akin to “The Man Hoax” of a person that supposedly appeared in the dreams of many people starting in New York of 2006, and a macabre children’s puppet show of Candle Cove seen in the static of a television screen.
And, as such, while I have expressed interest in memetic ideas and stories such as these, Wiggles himself and his numinous kin feel … real, more real than a lot of things, and it makes it all the more unsettling in some ways that he and they had been lost for almost a hundred years with their creator, until fairly recently.
The rest of The Temple of Silence looks at Crowley’s drawings and paintings, and they along with Duerr’s words paint perhaps another kind of picture about Crowley himself. While we still don’t know a lot about many of the professional and personal details in his life, he focused a lot on archetypal symbolism in his work, and was in Carl Jung’s circle as well. In particular, he created paintings of mythical Temples, dreamlike structures of varying kinds. One of these creations is that of the Temple of Silence itself: a tall, detailed, and elaborate series of mandalas shaped like a jungle or a forest with lotus blossoms; some of them open, some still closed. It’s amazing to consider that for all of their detail, they are still opaque. They are still hiding things.
There is much more to read and see in The Temple of Silence: Forgotten Works & Worlds of Herbert Crowley that I’ve only touched on, as well as more breathtaking and uncanny artwork that I didn’t have the opportunity or place to write about or present here (all of which I would suggest you look at in a hard copy version of the book, as it didn’t all fit and translate well into the ebook format that I viewed), but there is a point with which I want to end off.
There is something Scott McCloud says in Understanding Comics about the comics medium in general that really sticks out for me here. He mentions how the comics medium is an “invisible art”; that the combination of words and images influences the reader-viewer’s mind to interlink different scenes in panels together to make a story – also creating sequential art while “hearing” words that are written and silent. In this way, perhaps piecing together Crowley’s life and works is Duerr and O’Neill’s attempt to recreate – for the sake of perpetuity – a Temple of Silence: interlinking seemingly disparate and lost sequences and panels of history and art, of lost voices, in order to reconstruct an artist’s existence.