Saturday, 18 October 2014

From Dada and Surrealism to Psychedelia

King Kong and the Birdman: SEX!, Surrealism, Sharp psychedelia and the confrontational continuum

Abstract: Australian artist Martin Sharp produced a suite of psychedelic posters whilst resident in London during 1966-8. Two of these – Max “the Birdman” Ernst and SEX! – reflect an in-depth knowledge of Dada and Surrealism, with special reference to Max Ernst, alchemy and the themes of anarchy, desire and freedom of expression. The posters are meaningfully confrontational, exposing the darker side of the Sixties sexual revolution. Their central motifs comprise a sado-masochistic image from Ernst’s 1934 collage novel Une Semaine de Bonté, and a photograph of King Kong abducting a semi-naked native woman. As a counter to the depictions of barbarity and sexual depravity contained therein, Sharp's July 1967 poster Plant a Flower Child, produced around the same time, reflects male perceptions of female beauty and sexuality during the Summer of Love. The confrontational nature of the Sixties counterculture movement, as expressed in Sharp’s work, draws from the similar actions of the proponents of Dada and Surrealism during the 1920s.


Australian artist Martin Sharp (1942-2013) was a keen student of history and possessed a profound knowledge of art history, according to Surrealist James Gleeson who interviewed during 1979 for the National Gallery of Australia (Gleeson 1979). This connection with the past was manifest in motifs oft repeated through painting, drawing, collage, photomontage and print. Sharp noted in the Gleeson interview that he made use of this wide-ranging knowledge to create "a fairly elaborate sort of maze" which would provide an ongoing challenge for those seeking a deeper understanding of his work.

Sharp's art was - on the surface - lyrical, joyful, accessible, full of colour, intense in its detail, and ambiguous. According to fellow artist and critic Elwyn Lynn, he was adept in the production of parodies and the plundering of past styles (Lynn 1977). This latter skill was acquired, in part, from Sharp's high school art teacher and mentor Justin O'Brien (1917-1996), who during the 1950s developed a colourful, medieval style centred around Biblical themes. Sharp from an early age knew of, and was greatly influenced by, modern art movements such as Impressionism, German Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism. A sometime quiet, introverted individual, he was also attuned to the changing times, and embraced them. His art reflects this and was, by its very nature Modern, though allocating it to specific categories such as Pop or Op is not easily done. Sharp brought to his work a deeply entrenched respect for the past and, like many artists of the time and since, did not readily accept labeling. Neither did he adhere to any single philosophy, group or movement. He was reverential towards fin de sicele artists such as Vincent van Gogh and the later proponents of Dada and Surrealism, including Georgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Jean Miro and Marcel Duchamp. This reverence was not constrained, for he revealed a willingness to apply wit and humour to their work in the form of juxtaposed collages, many of which were produced around 1970 and featured in both London and Sydney exhibitions and his Art Book (Sharp 1972). Sharp’s Still Life (Marilyn) of 1973 was typical in combining the iconic work of tortured artist Vincent Van Gogh (Sunflowers) with modern enfant terrible Andy Warhol's dayglo sex goddess Marilyn Monroe.

Martin Sharp, 'Still life: (Marilyn)' 1973, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Collection: National Gallery of Australia.

Martin Sharp expressed a special affinity with key elements of Dada and Surrealism such as the absurd, satire, desire and revolution, with the latter in the sense of revolt against those revolting aspects of contemporary society and culture. This was manifest, for example, in his art direction of the Sydney and London editions of counterculture magazine OZ between 1963-73. Therein he and his co-editors pushed the artistic and literary boundaries set by a generally conservative post-war society. Beyond that, one of his most direct references to Surrealism was the psychedelic poster Max "The Birdman" Ernst, issued by Big O Posters of London during the second half of 1967, at the height of what is now generally referred to as the Swinging Sixties.

  Martin Sharp and Max Ernst, Max "The Birdman" Ernst, offset lithograph in blue, pink and black on silver foil on card, 20 x 30 inches, Big O Posters, London, 1967. 

A pink Loplop

The rather strange Max "The Birdman" Ernst poster - hereinafter referred to simply as Birdman - was both psychedelic and surreal. If a label is to be attached at all to it, then perhaps surrealadelic best describes this combination of modern and past influences. The poster was simple in its execution: Sharp took an image - engraved plate 141 - from Max Ernst's 1934 surrealistic collage novel Une Semaine de Bonté (Ernst 1934, Sharp 1967). He then blew it up, coloured it dayglo pink and blue and had it printed on bright silver foil to enhance the impact when posted on the street, stuck on a bedroom wall, offered for sale in a print shop or displayed at a concert venue and subject to fluorescence-inducing blue light. Sharp noted in the aforementioned Gleeson interview that he felt the foil gave the work an illusory, mythical aspect, with the mirror-like surface containing often disjointed and disconnected elements. Typical of psychedelic art, the content was eclectic, colourful, often incomprehensible, but nevertheless of interest to the viewer, whether they be an ordinary person in the street, a user of hallucinogenic drugs, or a fellow artist or student of art history able to elicit a deeper understanding of the work upon viewing, and thereby enter into the maze of motifs and meaning contained therein.

Birdman was primarily a homage to the German artist Max Ernst (1891-1976). It was not connected with any specific event such as a concert, exhibition or meeting, as was common during this period. It was purely the whim of the artist. Sharp's use of the original collage engraving was unaltered apart from the addition of the aforementioned dayglo colour and a large, flowery penned title below the reproduction, referring to Ernst somewhat quizzically as "The Birdman." The image defies any superficial interpretation - as does the novel from which it was taken. Ernst never provided one, just as Sharp's application of pink highlight to beak, eyes, body and bird's nest is erratic, emphatic, inexplicable and ultimately engaging. Then, as now, the work presents the viewer with a disturbing mystery. 

Birdman was one of a small group of psychedelic posters produced by Sharp in a relatively brief period during 1967-8, the majority of which featured artists of choice or pop icons of the day, such as Bob Dylan, Donovan, Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo and Jimi Hendrix. The posters are filled with art historical references, though never present as antiquated curios. The Hendrix poster, for example, makes use of a photograph by Linda Eastman and references American post-war splatter artist Jackson Pollock, whilst remaining uniquely Sharp in its modernity and fearless utilisation of recent and contemporary imagery. Themes of sex, drugs and rock n' roll permeate throughout the poster series and are very much reflective of the changing times. Sharp was both tuned in and turned on. He did not drop out, as Timothy Leary recommended, but worked intensely at his craft, allowing a myriad of visual, intellectual and chemical stimulants and influences to take effect.

Max Ernst, [Unnamed], Une Semaine de Bonté (A Week of Kindness), Paris, 1934, steel engraving, plate 141.

The subject of the Birdman poster was gross, intense and sado-masochistic, in the Surrealist tradition. Primarily the work of Ernst, it featured his alter ego Loplop - a bird-headed man - with a naked woman balanced awkwardly on his knee, her left hand on the ground and right leg suspended by a dagger driven through the foot. The pose implies carnality or rape, with the body of the woman - painted pink by Sharp - pulled tightly against the crutch of the menacing birdman, who stares off to the right, wary of pursuit or interruption to his barbarity. A single bird's nest containing two eggs lies at Loplop's feet, suggestive of a fertilisation rite and the impending birth of further nightmarish monstrosities.

The image is disturbing due to its oddness and the violence being perpetrated upon the faceless, naked female. The unsolved crimes of Jack the Ripper come to mind, as they did to Sharp's fellow Australian artist Brett Whiteley who, whilst resident in London between 1960-7, produced a series of macabre works based around the subject of Dr. John Christie, a modern day equivalent. The Ernst collage engraving is an image which readily elicits a negative emotional response. It predates the horror of modern cinematic fantasy such the 1958 B-movie The Fly, wherein a man's body is fused with the head of an insect and vice versa. Both abominations are untimely subject to tragic outcomes. Birdman also references the photograph of the inside of the Central Office of Surrealist Research, Paris, taken during 1924 by Man Ray. Fourteen of the movement's practitioners are lined up for the camera, whilst above and behind them on the wall is a white plaster torso of a woman - an angel falling from the sky - which is almost identical to that seen in the Birdman poster, though with feet crossed and arms and head absent from view (Mundy 2001).

Man Ray, The Central Office of Surreal Research, Paris, 1924, photograph.

In Ernst's original collage engraving the single leg has been cut off at the knee and pasted back on at a right angle to facilitate the insertion of the dagger in the foot. The whole work is suggestive of nothing less than the iconographic nailing of the feet of Christ on the cross at Calvary. This is not surprising given the strict Catholic up-bringing of the young Max Ernst, who went on to reject his faith as an act of rebellion against a domineering father.

Ernst was an active participant in the development of the philosophy and artistic practice of what is now generally referred to as Surrealism, both during his time as part of the Cologne Dada group in the 1910s and later in Europe and the United States as a colleague of Andre Breton, the writer, artist and so-called Pope of Surrealism. Himself a student of art history, Ernst was initially at the forefront of the painterly application of surrealistic principles, though the exuberant, outlandish exhibitionist Salvador Dali was to take over this role from the late 1930s when, for example, he dressed in a deep-sea diver's suit as part of the 1936 London International Exhibition of Surrealist Art. Martin Sharp was never overtly a student of the Dali school of visceral, surrealistic imagery - unlike compatriot James Gleeson - preferring instead to reference the German Expressionists and earlier Dadaists / Surrealists including Ernst, de Chirico, Miro and Duchamp. Ink drawings such as one of his series of Binkies Burgers advertisements from 1966, which appeared in the January 1967 issue of Sydney OZ, nevertheless bring to mind works by Dali such as The Lugubrious Game and The First Days of Spring, both from 1929.

 Martin Sharp, What is a Binkie?, OZ magazine, Sydney, January 1967.

The surreal nature of such works is obvious, though masonic and alchemical illustrations from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as J. Bowring's First Degree Board 1819, are also relevant in this instance, arising out of Sharp's ongoing rifling through old and antiquated texts in search of inspiration and collage elements, much in the manner of Ernst before him (Roob 2001). His attraction to the strangeness and oddity of such illustrations foreshadowed entry into the world of the Surrealists, at a time when the movement's end was being pronounced following the death of Breton in Paris on 28 September 1966. Surrealism was not dead, and artists such as Martin Sharp were both paying homage to it and breathing life back into it.

surrealism and Surrealism

Martin Sharp arrived in London around June 1966 ready to swing, having spent the previous five years in Sydney developing his prodigious talent as art director for OZ magazine and cartoonist with mainstream and student newspapers and periodicals such as The Bulletin, Sydney Morning Herald, The Arty Wild Oat, Honi Soit and Tharunka. Working in a variety of media including pen, watercolour and oil, alongside sculpture and, on occasion, film, his first one-man-show in Sydney during 1965 revealed the extraordinary range of his talent, alongside a satirical wit bred of Australian larrikinism, and an obvious connection with the prevailing zeitgeist. His oil painting Seven Minutes to Four, for example, was a precursor to the psychedelia he was to produce upon arrival in London the following year.

 Martin Sharp, Seven Minutes to Four, oil on board, 1965.

 This extraordinary work was created prior to Sharp's discovery and use of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and cannabis, and at a time when the word psychedelic was unknown to the artist and barely known to the world at large. The painting initially reminds one of the work of Jean Miro from the 1920s in its erratic detail, and also of the British surrealist Conroy Maddox whose brightly coloured collages and abstractions from the 1930s owe much to Max Ernst and the German Expressionists. Seven Minutes to Four is also nothing less than a precursor to the surreal collage artwork and animations of Terry Gilliam which became so much a part of the television comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus at the end of the 1960s and during the early 1970s. Sharp came first, and this 1965 work's dazzling colour, crazed intensity, use of disembodied heads, eyes and hand, and background of interspersed lines of colour and dots, was an obvious Pop art piece which referenced Ernst and the aforementioned surreal landscapes by Miro and Maddox, whilst foreshadowing psychedelia.

Sharp was a Dadaist / Surrealist in his attitude to life - anarchic, irreverent, anti-establishment and a fan of the absurd. This was seen to abundance in his work for Sydney OZ, wherein his line drawings, cartoons and collage are critical of authority and the status quo. They are also erotic, witty and embedded with the kind of humour any decent cartoonist is able to elicit. His ability to quickly reflect and comment upon current events is seen in his drawing of a bare-breasted Mona Lisa which graced the cover of Sydney OZ number 11 of July 1964.

 Martin Sharp, Bare-breasted Mona Lisa, OZ magazine, Sydney, July 1964. Cover based on original collage drawing.

This naughty piece of modern art arose out of a story in the Sydney newspapers regarding the invention of the "topless skirt" and its modelling by a well-known, local stripper (Thoms 2012). Sharp's ink drawing was very much contemporary, following in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp's mustachioed, ready-made Mona Lisa L.H.O.O.Q. from 1919. In applying his pen to one of the most beautiful of all female portraits, Sharp was straying from Duchamp's definition of a ready-made as "a point of indifference" i.e. something that was neither attractive because of its beauty, nor repulsive as a result of ugliness. The OZ cover is a thing of beauty, eliciting a reaction which is the very antithesis of indifference. Sharp repeated reference to Leonardo da Vinci's master work in April 1967 on the cover of London OZ magazine number three. One side comprised a psychedelic, reefer smoking Mona Lisa and 3 page fold-out collage poster dealing with issues of female beauty, including direct reference to Surrealists such as Andre Breton. The rear side featured a complex drawing of surrealist motifs representing the feminine - disembodied eyes on sticks, mouths and lips, and a very modern polished fingernail on a background of wavy lines - all printed in the most vivid dayglo pink and bluish-purple. 

Martin Sharp, What beautiful eyes she has, OZ magazine, London, April 1967. Poster on rear of cover.

The upper central large image of an eye with lid uplifted by pink fingernail references the iconic scene from the 1928 Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andelou, wherein a razor blade is applied to the exposed eyeball of a young woman. Sharp herein combines surrealism and psychedelia with a typical late Sixties humour and youthful energy. He also makes frequent reference to the work of Max Ernst during this period. For example, the cover of London OZ number 9, February 1968, presented a plate from his first collage novel of 1929, La femme 100 têtes (The Hundred Headless Woman), partially coloured in bright orange to highlight what appeared to be a UFO attacking a town and killing humans (Ernst 1929). This was one of Sharp's abiding interests at the time and the theme of that particular issue of OZ, which he edited.

Max Ernst, Et les images s'abaisseront jusqu'au sol (And the images will be lowered to the ground), La femme 100 têtes (The Hundred Headless Woman), Paris, 1929.

Martin Sharp and Max Ernst, cover, OZ magazine, number 9, February 1968.

 Within OZ magazine number 23 of August 1969, a number of additional plates were reproduced from La femme 100 têtes. Since the 1910s Ernst had written about and developed the art of collage to a degree wherein it became integral to his work. Sharp was a fan of collage from childhood, encouraged by a mother adept in the technique who passed her love for it on to a talented son. According to James Gleeson - who donated a copy of Une Semaine de Bonté to the National Gallery of Australia in 1979, the same year he interviewed Sharp - collage was in the blood. Sharp later stated in regards to the technique that "the art is not in the physical process of putting the images together, but is in the selection, and combination of them into new contexts" (Slutzkin and Haynes 1979). The use of collage undoubtedly attracted him to artists such as Ernst, whilst Sharp's Aussie contempt for authority was a natural fit with the anarchic aspects of Dada and Surrealism as proffered by both Guillaume Apollinaire and Andre Breton (Bohn 1977).

Apollinaire's original surrealism of 1903 - defined as the human ability to create something that does not exist in nature - emphasised surprise as the motive force of modernity, with imagination, truth, novelty and invention also featuring. In addition he highlighted the importance of humour in seeking out the ridiculous or the irrational, in provocation, and in cultivation of the scandalous and absurd. The work of de Chirico was cited as a prime application of this by an artist. Sharp's lyrical, witty style owes much to the foundation set by Apollinaire, who unfortunately suffered an early death in 1918 arising out of wounds received in battle on the Western Front.

Breton's Surrealism from 1924 looked towards the artistic and literary expression of dreams and the subconscious. It was similar to Apollinaire's surrealism only in the use of the word - now capitalised as a movement - and recognition of the importance of de Chirico. Breton also sought - unsuccessfully - to develop a political arm of the movement. Sharp was aware of both schools of thought, and found himself likewise drawn to de Chirico, with his reworking over four decades of that artist's Song of Love from 1914 evidence of this. He first painted a version in 1973 and completed it just prior to his death in 2013 when it was publically exhibited under the title Graceland, having previously been labelled Love Me Tender, with both titles referencing the singer Elvis Presley.

Martin Sharp, Graceland (Love me tender), reprise of Giorgio de Chirico's Song of Love, oil, acrylic, crayon and ink on canvas, 1973-2013.

Whilst de Chirico was adopted by, and later joined, the Dadaists / Surrealists, Max Ernst was one of their own from the outset and a key player in the development of the two movements. As noted by Warlick, "The imagery in Une Semaine de Bonté clearly mirrors contemporary Surrealist themes of violence, sexuality, and the struggles of the individual against institutions that inhibit personal freedom" (Warlick 1987). This statement can easily be applied to the Sixties, as evidenced by the violence of war in Vietnam, racial tension in the United States, the Cold War, political revolution in France and South America, the sexual revolution taking place in western societies, and efforts by the younger generation to break free from the shackles of the conservatism of the fifties and restraints imposed by the threat of the atomic bomb and yet another world war.

It is understandable that Martin Sharp should find an affinity with the artistic and literary expression of Dada and Surrealism, evolving as both did in Europe from the horror of World War I and the turmoil of the immediate post-war period. In seeking meaning and rebelling against those in authority who drove them down a hellish path towards the slaughter of Gallipoli and the Western Front, artists and writers turned to spirituality, the occult, sexuality, drugs, the esoteric and the hermetic as antidotes to their trauma. In many cases they also adopted the role of alchemist in seeking to transform the rotten, sulphurous stench of war and defeat into a new golden age of artistic and personal freedom through democracy, anarchy, artistic expression and self-fulfilment.

Artist as alchemist

Collage represents ... the alchemy of the visual image (Max Ernst 1937)

Alchemy was a significant element in the art of a number of the Surrealists, but most especially Max Ernst (Warlick 2001). Part of his German heritage, it's philosophical underpinnings sat well with a personal aesthetic. To a lesser degree, elements of alchemy are evident in the work of Martin Sharp, with, for example, his preference for elemental gold and silver foil on card as the foundation for many of his psychedelic posters during 1967-8. Another is the presence of an antique sun symbol on the upper left corner of his famous Blowing in the Mind poster featuring Bob Dylan. The most substantial manifestation of his interest in the esoteric is the set of 22 tarot card designs which illustrate the reverse side of the foldout cover of OZ London magazine number 4, from June 1967. 


Martin Sharp, Tarot Cards, OZ London magazine, June 1967. Rear of foldout cover.

This little known panorama is a complex set of drawings and collage, produced at a time when Sharp was at his most productive. Each of the cards is a unique turn on a traditional tarot motif, though with the artist's distinct application of psychedelia and art historical references. For example, the first card of the major arcana - The Magician - features the central image from William Blake's famous watercolour painting Ancient of Days (God as an Architect) of 1794, along with a typical surrealistic and esoteric all-seeing eye, amidst a background of psychedelic flourishes. A group of Surrealist artists led by Breton, and separately by Dali alone, had earlier created sets of tarot cards. Their use is also frequently referred to in Surrealist texts and accounts of their activities (Perks 2005). The Ernst collage used by Sharp in Birdman of a woman suspended by a dagger is a variation on tarot card number XXII - The Hanging Man - wherein a person is suspended by one foot from a gibbet.

Beginning with Sharp's presentation of Mary Poppins as The High Priestess through to highly detailed drawings and collage of the moon, sun, lovers and the devil, the set of cards reveal the incredible intensity of the artist's work during this period and how easily the psychedelic mixed with the surreal and the esoteric. Beyond this, alchemy is yet another element in the maze that is Martin Sharp's art.

Interest in tarot card reading and the art of the cards was revived during the 1960s in association with the pop cultural renaissance. This saw the adoption of occult iconography and practices alongside the widespread dissemination of the writings of English magician Alistair Crowley. The Surrealist interest in automatism and the attainment of trance states led them from the 1920s to engage in readings and séances as sources of inspiration, whilst also eliciting an interest in astrology. The foundation of such practice was described by Surrealist artist and bibliophile Kurt Seligmann in his classic text from 1948, The History of Magic and the Occult (Seligmann 1948). Therein he noted the core belief that "in nature there is no accident - that every happening in the universe is caused by a pre-existing law." Accordingly he suggested that tarot cards mixed at random do not yield haphazard results, but a suit of figures bound magically to the diviner and to the inquirer. Seligmann noted that there are people specially gifted with premonition - diviners - able to stimulate abnormal sensibility, open the doors of perception and enliven the imagination. The striking tarot images could be used to discover the future by intuition - through prophetic images drawn from the vaults of the subconscious. Tarot cards and psychedelics could reveal the divine and expose the subconscious in those with little or no latent abilities in that regard. This was the key to the promise of drugs such as LSD - an opening of the doors of perception and unlocking of latent abilities. It delivered on this promise to many, including, for a period, Martin Sharp.

The predeterminism which lay at the heart of magic, alchemy and the occult empowered the individual to set their own path in life and influence that of those around them. Crowley's catch cry of "Do what though whilt" resonated with the Sixties generation as they experimented with alternative lifestyles and non-traditional behaviours. The pursuit of peace and love was nothing less than a search for the meaning of life, and would lead often beyond the physical into the realm of the spiritual and the metaphysical.

It was believed that tarot card reading could stimulate the imagination, promote an auto-hypnotic state and awaken images of the subconscious. Just as Max Ernst used collage and other artistic devices to such an end, so too, in theory, could the tarot cards be used to heighten hallucinogenic faculties and spark visions in the mind's eye. Such practices were therefore of interest to the hippie movement and other groups within the burgeoning Sixties counterculture, in tandem with the use of drugs such as LSD and Eastern meditation practices, all of which took individuals down a similar path. Martin Sharp, as both participant and artist, was able to illustrate this journey and its various stages. The resultant works of art by him were often categorised under the catch-all term psychedelia. During an earlier period such practices were cast as alchemy.

The alchemical process, supposedly dating from Egyptian times and the legendary Thoth / Hermes - Grand Master of alchemists and inventor of magic - but in fact of more recent 4th century AD origin, was repopularised in Europe during the 17th century and given explanation through text and engraved images. It is based on the two materia prima, and their transformation from earth to precious metal through the following elemental sequences:

sulphur - warm - Sun - king (male) - active - gold

mercury - cold - Moon - queen (feminine) - passive - silver

The traditional image of the alchemist - a modern version of Merlin the magician of Arthurian legend - is of an old and rather hagged man in a long robe, with a long beard and able to cure ills such as plague and pestilence through the application of arcane chemistry and ancient texts. The central figure of Faust in German director F.W. Murnau's classic film of the same name from 1927 is one such representation, as also is Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books. These rather superficial representations bely the extreme complexity of process and diverse imagery associated with alchemy. The structure and content of Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonté, though largely impenetrable, specifically reflects, and makes reference to, the aforementioned alchemical elements. A detailed analysis of this is to be found in Max Ernst and alchemy: a magician in search of myth (Warlick 2001).

At its core, alchemy involves matter being destroyed and the disparate elements recombined - fused by fire - with a new form created. A good example of its application is the mythical transformation of lead into gold, which is traditionally presented as the alchemist's ultimate goal. That process mirrors the production of collage, in which original artworks such as engraved images are 'destroyed' and reused in combination to form entirely new work. Max Ernst applied and refined this process within his painting, drawing, sculpture and collage novels from the 1910s through to this death in 1976. Martin Sharp continued the tradition, most forcefully with issue 16 of London OZ from November 1968. Titled The Magic Theatre, it consisted entirely of collage, apart from a painted cover. The work was immediately recognised by art critic Robert Hughes as a landmark in graphic design and magazine production, though the often incomprehensible nature of the collage content meant that it was the issue of OZ which sold the least number of copies. Sharp used as his elements prints from old books and magazines, photographs, and text which were expertly - with precision or roughly - cut and pasted, adding paint and ink to complement the final product.

Just as Ernst's collage engravings in Une Semaine de Bonté are exquisite works in which the mechanics of construction are to all intents and purposes invisible, so too the work of Sharp is often seamless, or of such complexity that it presents as a unified whole. An example is the cover for Cream's 1967 album Disraeli Gears, in which the collage comprises a mixture of photographs by Robert Whitaker and original dayglo painting by Sharp.

 Martin Sharp, Disraeli Gears, album cover, Polydor, London, 1967. Photographs by Robert Whitaker. 

In the completed work Sharp has surrounded the three Mount Rushmore-like head shots of the band members - Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton - with his typically psychedelic motifs of bubbles, swirling lines, lighting bolts and flowers. A de Chirico boulevard of ancient columns with peacocks is seem buried within the lower central part of the image, flanked by a broken stopwatch, a bicycle wheel, horses galloping, a brass tap, a cabinet of daffodils, opposing feathered wings and various artworks. This album cover has since attained status as an icon of psychedelic art and of the Sixties in general. It successfully brings together the often warm, colourful, internal world of the hallucinogenic drug experience with that of the band's like-minded music. The rear cover is primarily a photomontage, once again featuring the band members, various heads, an all seeing eye and flower motifs drawn in the style of Middle Eastern art.

Martin Sharp was an artist who frequently re-used imagery and motifs, both within the framework of collage and more generally in his painting and drawing. Ernst's birdman from Une Semaine de Bonté appeared at least one other time in Sharp's oeuvre, though in a slightly different form. Within the movie Performance, filmed during 1968 and released in 1970, one of the characters enters a garden outhouse and on the wall is a painted version of Loplop and the inverted woman with the dagger through her foot. This work by Sharp in oil and acrylic was produced whilst employed as a set designer on the film. Other paintings and collage by him appear throughout as background to the action, representing the work and artistic leanings of the artist portrayed by actress Anita Pallenberg. 

 Martin Sharp, Loplop and inverted woman [film frame], Performance, [1968] 1970.

In the space of twelve months, from the time of creating the Birdman poster during the second half of 1967, through to the end of the following year when he worked on Performance, Sharp's colour palette changed dramatically, from the use of bright, vibrant dayglo such as pink, orange, purple and blue, through to a more varied one of flat green, orange, blue, red and yellow. Like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the 1860s, he had gone back to the brightly coloured and varied palette of the Renaissance painters and the more recent Vincent van Gogh, with Loplop once again transformed. The transformation from psychedelic to modern with a touch of Pop was subtle but pronounced. Of course this was not the last time that image of Loplop was made use of, with the rock band The Mars Volta poster and t-shirt campaign from 2004 being a more recent example.

 The Mars Volta, concert poster, 13 May 2004, The Wiltern LG Theatre, Los Angeles.

Therein Ernst's image is known as Footstab, with no reference given to him as creator of the original work. This reflects that artist's own failure to attribute sources, though such is often the nature of collage in that it can appropriate anonymous elements in creating something new. Loplop's adoption by The Mars Volta remains as inexplicable as the original work itself.

Martin Sharp, the temporary Aussie expatriate based in London between 1966-8, was all the while soaking up the artistic traditions of Europe and applying them in a flurry of activity. His experiences in England and visits to museums and galleries on the continent sustained his voracious appetite for the artistic past. These traditions were not his own, but like Australians before and since, he was taking the best, and worst, of what he saw and putting it to use. His art was therefore eclectic, evolving, referential and reverential, but most of all of its time. Psychedelia was not Dada or Surrealism, though they were both the materia prima and Sharp, the alchemist, was transforming them into silver and gold for a new generation. And Max Ernst's birdman was not the only surrealist icon being appropriated by Sharp during 1967. King Kong was another.

King Kong and the Birdman

"King Kong is a mix of the surrealistic ingredients of the erotic, the exotic, and the unconscious." (Rony 1996)

Martin Sharp's Birdman poster is a companion piece to another issued during 1967. Simply labelled SEX!, or King Kong, it features an image of a native woman being dragged away by an ape in the form of the cinematic King Kong - or rather, a man dressed in a gorilla outfit, and all contained within a keyhole frame of ivy leaves and flowers, printed - like the Birdman poster - in dayglo pink, blue and black on silver foil.

Martin Sharp, SEX!, BOP2, Big O Posters, London, 1967.

What was Sharp aiming to represent with these two posters? They are the least known of his work from the period, straying from the contemporary themes of peace and love, and the least purely psychedelic?

The King Kong poster is confronting rather than comforting, with its image of a semi-naked, terrified native woman and brightly coloured capitalised SEX! titling suggestive of an advertisement for a brothel or depiction of sex slavery. Similarly, the Birdman poster - though beautiful in colouring and design - is confronting in its grotesqueness and treatment of the woman. On one level we know that Sharp's intention with his posters was always to be noticed. Therefore, they were big, bright and never visually timid. Beyond that, and with no specific comments by the artist regarding the background to these two works, we can only speculate as to their origins and intention. This lack of specific reference by Sharp is telling in itself, reflecting on both questions asked of him during his lifetime, and of his own willingness to discuss the darker aspects of his psyche. Perhaps they represent the harsh reality of the bad trip, as against the swirling, joyous beauty of Disraeli Gears and Blowing in the Mind.

Gorillas in the lust

The tradition of large, male gorillas abducting women to satisfy their lust dates from the mid nineteenth century when the animals were first scientifically described and stuffed specimens displayed in European museums (Zgorniak 2006). Apes did not abduct and rape women, though the gorilla as a metaphor for the bestiality and craven sexuality of the human male was readily adopted and entered the public's consciousness early on, through stories, illustrations and, later, film. When, in 1859, French sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet produced a plaster cast entitled Gorilla Abducting a Young Negress, the work was declared obscene and he faced hostility from the authorities and fellow artists, though one commentator saw it as a metaphorical protest against male brutality.  We cannot see the face of the woman - just as we could not see it in the Ernst engraving - but her hands reveal the intensity of the struggle for freedom from this muscular and brutish animal. Even when Fremiet received a Medal of Honour at the 1887 Paris Salon for a similarly-themed large plaster group entitled Gorilla from Gabon, the work, though subsequently purchased for the national collection, was hidden away, as the portrayal of a large gorilla carrying away a naked native woman was still deemed inappropriate and offensive.

Emmanuel Fremiet, Gorilla from Gabon, 1887, plaster, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Nantes.

In a similar manner the same can be said to apply to Sharp's SEX! poster, for it remains little known. Perhaps envisaged as a commentary on the sexism of the society in which he moved, Sharp's King Kong is not a typical work and presents a rather horrific scene to the casual viewer. The sexual revolution of the 1960s was very much about liberating sexuality and the sex act from the constraints imposed upon it by conservative and religious forces. However it also proved to be mostly about men and sex - about taking advantage of the ease of availability of the new contraceptive pill and the widespread use of mind altering drugs, and engaging in unrestrained sexual activities more often and with a greater number of mostly female partners. Sharp was aware of this - his habits at the time were libertine - and of the simmering brutality which often lies just below the surface of male sexuality and the sex drive. With his friend Germaine Greer a few years away from writing her landmark feminist text The Female Eunich in a room downstairs from his own within the Pheasantry apartment building in King's Street, London, the role of women as sex objects was very much to the fore in the swinging London of 1967. With the mantra of 'Peace and Love' being promulgated throughout Western society and especially amongst the younger generation, the boundaries between love and sex blurred. Love was a panacea; a cure-all for the ills of the world, and on 25 June 1967, in the first live, satellite transmission to be broadcast around the globe, the Beatles sang All you need is love and promoted their landmark album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to an audience of suitably garbed hippies.

Sharp loved woman, and women loved him. As art director for OZ magazine and in his work with Big O Posters he was able to express some of his own passions and sexuality through drawings, collage and posters such as Plant a Flower Child from OZ issue 5, July 1967. This work consisted of photographs by fellow-Australian Robert Whitaker of two semi-naked young women with the hippie symbol of flowers in their hair - the idyllic flower children. Sharp's photographic collage - or photomontage - was then printed as a large poster in yellow or fluorescent pink and purple. It was a joyous work expressing the themes of peace and love then being promulgated by the hippie movement through texts, art, musical concerts and public events such as the Legalise Cannabis rally held in Hyde Park London on 16 July 1967.

 Martin Sharp, Plant a Flower Child, OZ magazine, issue 5, July 1967. Poster. Photographs by Robert Whitaker.

Sex and sexuality were not topics ignored by the Dadaists and Surrealists, following on widespread dissemination during the 1920s of the ground-breaking work in this field by psychologist Sigmund Freud. The 2001 Tate Modern gallery exhibition Surrealism: Desire Unbound provides ample evidence for the role of sex and eroticism in the development of Dada and Surrealism during the twentieth century (Mundy 2001). The Surrealists saw women as superior and inspirational. This led them into inevitable conflict within a prevailing pre-feminist, largely misogynistic environment - a conflict they philosophically, if not practically, sought to address. The rampant sexuality and profligate liaisons of various members of the group, including Ernst, was similarly complex and pre-emptive of the free love movement of the Sixties.

Desire and love were key elements of Surrealist philosophy, with desire identified as the true voice of the inner self and expression of the sexual instinct. The Surrealists sought the liberation of love, desire and sexual expression, both in their lives and through their art. They talked and wrote about such things, in a prevailing puritanical and censorial societal context. In 1945 Breton wrote of his vision "of a non-repressive social order where desires are given free reign.... based on a positive vision of the harmony between man and nature, which reflected feminine rather than masculine values." This carried through to the countercultural revolution experienced in the western world during the 1960s, with the so-called Sexual Revolution an important element of that. The Surrealist belief in the power and importance of liberty and love was replaced by Peace and Love, expressed in words, music, art, text and action.

Desire was definitely unbound as Sharp and his generation sought freedom of expression and raised consciousness. Unfortunately the bright, psychedelic colours, drug-induced highs and proclamations of peace and love masked the often damaging effects on individual psyche of such freedoms. Bad trips, broken and fraught relationships, psychological scarring and trauma occurred throughout this period, and not just after the darkness of Altamont in 1989 which overshadowed the lightness of the Woodstock generation from late 1965 through 1968 (Green 1989). Within the space of a few months during the middle of 1967 Martin Sharp produced both King Kong (SEX!) and Plant a Flower Child as expressions of this dichotomy.

The 1933 movie King Kong was not the first presentation of the theme of bestial love and lust to the public, though it is undoubtedly the most well-known. It is also often cited as an example of Surrealist cinema, and the one that "most powerfully combines Darwinian and surrealist motifs ... with their mutual focus on the Pacific as a place of exoticism, primitiveness, taboo and entanglement" (Creed 2009). Charles Darwin's theory of evolution took God out of the equation and replaced it with science and chaos, or chance. Originally published in 1859 - the same year as Fremiet's sculpture - it speculated on the evolutionary merging of ape with human. The Surrealists loved this, however the religious establishment did not, as it stripped away much of the latter's traditional control over the individual on their path to salvation. Though Sharp's art teacher and mentor Justin O'Brien worked in the field of religious art and iconography, only later in life, and following the trauma of the Luna Park ghost train fire in 1977, did he openly reveal a personal spirituality. During the Sixties Sharp was critical of the church's prudery and hypocrisy, and largely dismissive of religion. His silvered Big O poster from early 1968 Live Give Love, featuring the section of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel work where God reaches out and touches the hand of man, is perhaps indicative of the change to come and the development of a deeper spirituality arising out of experiences in London between 1966-9.

Sharp's poster SEX! is certainly irreligious, as is the film King Kong, with its tale of heathen sacrifice and bestial love. As a piece of Hollywood exploitative fantasy, the movie's labelling as Surrealist cinema appears itself irrational and surreal. Frenchman Jean Andre Levy (Jean Ferry) pointed out the connection in 1934 - a year after its release - within the pages of Surrealist magazine Minotaur. Therein he presented eight examples of absurdity within the narrative structure of the film. Matthews and others have since noted that King Kong is a movie-going experience where "rational considerations cease to curb imagination's activity" and absurdity - the surreal nature of parts - does nothing to inhibit suspension of disbelief or enjoyment (Matthews 1971 & 1979, Thoms 1973, Richardson 2006, Anon. 2007, Harper & Stone 2007, Dean 2009, Kilmer 2014). SEX!, with an inscription attributing the work to "King Kong and Martin Sharp", was, despite the ominous central image, both a comment on the decade's fascination with the movie and the big ape, alongside a recognition of its long-held status as Surrealist icon. This is little known amongst a general public who view the film as nothing more than a Hollywood blockbuster and classic of the genre. They would likely scoff at any avant garde label attached to it.

 King Kong, 1933. A studio-produced collage of a fantastical scene which never appeared in the film, with Kong towering over the skyscrapers of New York city and Fay Wray in his hand.

According to Rony, "Kong is a cinematic visualisation of the male beast which the Surrealists so longed to unleash" (Rony 1996).  It is here that we see the connection between Merian C. Cooper's King Kong, Max Ernst's Birdman collage engraving and the two Martin Sharp posters, SEX! and Birdman, wherein the beast is unleashed in the most horrific and sexualised manner. Brutal, animalistic and erotic are labels which are easily applied to the novel Une Semaine de bonte, from whence the Birdman collage originated, to the film King Kong and to the posters.

One of the triggers for Sharp's SEX! may have been a rather innocuous photographic shoot published in the English fashion magazine Elle on 31 August 1967. It featured a host of models watching the movie on a portable screen and playing with a small ape doll. Sharp was dating a number of models at the time and the surreal, absurd aspect of the images present ed in full colour on the magazine's pages would not have been lost upon the Australian.

Left to right: two mini dresses in black velour with iridescent print, softly gathered under yoke, by Pierre Cardin. Green, purple and pink crepe blouson style dresses with top stitched detailing and sundress necklines, by Patou. Elle magazine, 31 August 1967. Source: Les Belles et la bête 1967, Sweet Jane blog, 20 September 2014.

 Silver, pleated lurex gauze dress with asymmetrical hemline decorated in crystal beading, by Pierre Cardin, Elle magazine, 31 August 1967. Source: Les Belles et la bête 1967, Sweet Jane blog, 20 September 2014.

 The stilted, unnatural postures of the women dressed in the latest London and Paris Pop fashion, gazing intensely at one image of the smiling monster and another of him bound in chains, ferociously trying to escape, puts to rest the tradition of the ape carrying off the defenceless female. Kong is now emasculated; trapped in the silver screen, harmless and merely a vision of terror, not an actuality. In the post-atomic age of the genetic aberration Godzilla, King Kong is transformed into a relic of the past, an antique, a monster who no longer horrifies but instead presents as a rather pathetic figure.

The adoption of King Kong as a pop icon was captured for all time on the San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane's live recording from 1968, Bless its pointed little head, which opens with the closing dialogue from the film and the classic line: "It was beauty killed the beast", followed by the chaos of the band's drug-related song 3/5 of a mile in 10 seconds! Their album Surrealist Pillow charted in 1967 and brought the term surreal to a new, younger audience, whilst their adoption of psychedelic imagery in sound, words, clothes, art and light shows formed a perfect backdrop to an in-concert screening of the brutal death of Kong, falling from the Empire State building at the moment of realisation of lost love.

Sex was a significant part of the Swinging London scene during the years 1966-8, and Martin Sharp was an active participant. The poster SEX! was a public expression of that, in the manner which an audacious Aussie in London at that time dared produce, though much more explicit images can be seen on any newsagent's stand. It is salacious in its presentation, with the voluptuous and bare-breasted native woman in the pink of heat, vulnerable and fearful of the man in the gorilla outfit spiriting her away. The framing keyhole device transforms the viewer into a Peeping Tom, whilst the capitalised lettering of SEX! in blue on silver leaves no doubt as to what is happening here. The poster is neither subtle nor seductive, but erotic and aggressive. It is an in-your-face piece of Pop psychedelia in the tradition of Lichtenstein's WHAAM!

Max Ernst had added to "the sexualised nature of surrealist art" and once again Sharp was following on the master of collage in bringing a number of disparate elements together - Kong, keyhole, ivy, dayglo colour - to create something original, new, uncanny and inexplicable. Yet SEX! was also, like the Birdman poster, a throwaway, purchased at the local markets for £1 or through mail order and never intended for an art gallery or museum. A piece of ephemera to be stuck on a billboard or bedroom wall, it was cheap, tacky and superficial in its aim to attract attention through colour and gaudy content. Beyond that, a closer investigation reveals a debt to Max Ernst and the Surrealists, and a surprising intensity derived from the use of historic and iconic elements. Alchemy is at work here. And when we peek through the keyhole and see the beast carry off the woman, or wonder at the bird man's abhorrent treatment of the naked female torso, we are drawn into Martin Sharp's complex world of psychedelia and artistic tradition. Enjoy the trip.



Max "The Birdman" Ernst - versions and variants

Sorting out the various printings of the Max "The Birdman" Ernst poster is no easy task, due to both its rarity and the number of known minor variants. Also, no comprehensive catalogue of Big O posters has yet been published, despite the publication of a preliminary listing. The Birdman poster was allocated the Big O catalogue number BOP6, which indicates that it was printed during the latter part of 1967 following on the appearance of three other Martin Sharp posters - Blowing in the Mind (BO1), Legalise Cannabis (BOP1) and SEX! (BOP2). The vast majority of the Birdman posters are printed on the silver foil-coated card that was a favourite with the artist and widely used for his initial suite of Big O posters during 1967 and the first half of 1968. The most significant variations so far identified are in the area of the printer’s inscriptions to be found on the bottom of the poster, outside the edge of the design. Known variations include the following:

# 1 - Original print, 1967+. Offset lithograph in pink, blue and black on silver foil on card. No printer’s inscription along the bottom of the poster. A copy sold at Maggs Brothers in 2013. This may have been an early proof, or from the initial print run undertaken prior to the setting up of Big O posters in September 1967. Or it may be a later bootleg. It seems that Big O Posters did not use a purely personal inscription, with reference to 'Printed in England', until after 1971 - refer the King Kong section below.  

Copy of variant # 2, sold by Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney. Inscribed: Printed by T.S.R. for Big O Posters Ltd. 49 Kensington, High Street, London W8. 01-937261314. Listed as printed on foil paper.

# 2 - Printed by T.S.R. for Big O Posters Ltd 49 Kensington High Street London W8 01-93725134. Printer’s inscription along the bottom left of poster. Collection: State Library of New South Wales. American distributor's inscription in ink on the reverse. Copy also sold by Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney. This is most likely a version from later 1967 as a February 1968 advertisement for Big O posters in OZ magazine of that date - the first such advertisement - refers to that specific address for the company. This continued through to July 1971 at the latest, by which time the address had changed (refer variant #6 below). However, this poster inscription also makes reference to printing by an external firm, which was not typical for Big O posters. We do know that firms such as David Joel of London printed the Big O poster Sunshine Superman during 1968 when the demand for posters overwhelmed the ability of the firm to supply them, and T.S.R. also printed Sharp's Roundhouse UFO poster for Osiris Productions in 1967.

# 3 - Printed by C.G. Colour Printers, Gloucester. Inscription at bottom right of the poster. Sold by Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney, 2008. No mention of Big O posters is made on this variant, or subsequent variants by this firm (#4 - #5 below). If this were a bootleg it would not normally feature the name of the printer, therefore the reason for its appearance is a mystery. It may have been that Big O failed to pay its bills and C.G. Colour decided to reprint and sell copies of its own volition in order to cover costs. C.G. Colour Printers operated during the 1960s and 1970s. They were wound up and liquidated early in 1979 (The London Gazette, 11 January 1979, 465). In 1964 they printed the cover of the landmark LP John Lee Hooker Sings the Blues. At various times they were based in Stroud and Bristol.

 # 4 - C.G. Colour Printers, Stroud, Gloucester. Inscription along bottom right of poster. Sold at auction, Bonhams, 15 December 2010. A variant of #3.

# 5 - Printed by C.G. Colour Printers Ltd., Gloucester. Inscription along bottom right of poster. Sold at auction, Bonhams, October 2011. A variant of #3.

# 6 -  Printed by C.G. Colour Printers Ltd., Goodridge Ave., Bristol Rd., Gloucester. Inscription along bottom left of poster. A variant of #3. Reproduced in part above.
# 7 - C.G. Colour Printers Ltd., Bristol, Great Britain. Inscription along bottom right of poster. Collection: Zurich University of the Arts – Museum of Design. Dated 1972. A variant of #3.

# 8 - BOP6 Max Ernst by Max Ernst & Martin Sharp Published by Big O Posters Ltd 219 Eversleigh Rd London SW11 5UY 012283392 Printed in England. The inscription is printed along the bottom edge from left to right. Collection: Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This is the most common, and perhaps final version of the poster, though the precise printing date is unknown. A number of Big O posters printed during 1967 did not bear any printer's inscription or catalogue number, and the latter was subject to change (e.g. Legalise Cannabis, Blowing in the Mind). The addition of the text "Printed in England" in this instance is also suggestive of a later, possibly 1970s printing, as Big O extended its operations into the United States and fought off bootleg copies which were flooding the market. The address is also indicative of a later printing. A July 1971 advertisement in OZ magazine, London, refers to this address.

# 9 - Modern reprint 2011. No imprint along the bottom edge. Printed on foiled paper.

SEX! - versions and variants. 

Only two basic versions of SEX! are known - one without an inscription and one with, the former being the earliest version and sold by Big O up until at least 1971. Variants also exist in regard to the inks used, with one version known in simple black and blue. This poster was allocated the catalogue number BOP2 from 1967-8, however appears not to have been noted on the poster until after 1971.

# 1 - Martin Sharp and King Kong, SEX!, offset lithograph in blue, pink and black ink on silver foil on card, 20 x 30 inches / 50 x 76 cm, 1967. No inscription along the bottom of the poster. A copy sold at Maggs Brothers in 2013. This may have been an early proof, or from the initial print run prior to the setting up of Big O posters in September 1967.

Some internet reproductions appear with a darker blue, more metallic ink, however this may be due to a lighting effect, and not necessarily represent a variant print.

 # 2 - BOP2 Sex by Martin Sharp and King Kong Published by Big O Posters Ltd 219 Eversleigh Rd London SW11 5UY 012283392 Printed in England. Offset lithograph in blue, pink and black ink on silver foil on card, 20 x 30 inches / 50 x 76 cm, Big O Posters, London, circa 1972.This is the most common version of the poster (reproduced above). Reprints on foil paper from this version are known.

# 3 -  BOP2 Sex by Martin Sharp and King Kong Published by Big O Posters Ltd 219 Eversleigh Rd London SW11 5UY 012283392 Printed in England. offset lithograph in blue and black ink on silver foil on card, 20 x 30 inches / 50 x 76 cm, circa 1972. This poster is rare and may have been a printer's proof or variant run. No date - refer #3 above.


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Last updated: 23 November 2020

Michael Organ