Renate & Storm: Two Bewitching & Overlooked Mid-20th Century Artists
My first article for Musings was about Rosaleen Norton, a fascinating nonconformist Australian artist who was persecuted by government authorities for her work. This article will exist in the same vein, as I wanted to delve into two of my favourite lesser-known artists who are deserving of more attention. Renate Druks and Storm de Hirsch were and remain startlingly relevant, complex and experimental artists from the mid 20th century. Museums and galleries must prioritize and dedicate ample resources to researching, uncovering and displaying the work of artists who, despite having tremendous influence, remain relatively obscure. In doing so, we may uncover glaring gaps within art history, and discover how the many tentacles of influence and inspiration throughout various artistic mediums and movements are closely intertwined.
Renate Druks (1921 – 2007)
“Renate’s gift is a heightened mood which communicates itself to others. She creates a state of natural intoxication.”
-- Anaïs Nin on Renate Druks, taken from an excerpt of her diary
“Life sets you traps. It’s your job to escape them, if only by means of the imagination...”
-- Renate Druks
Renate with her cat next to one of her paintings. Undated.
ⓒ The Ranch, Monatuk. Source.
Renate Druks was a Viennese painter and filmmaker who took part in the mid-century experimental counterculture and art scene in Los Angeles. Born in Austria, Druks, who was Jewish, had to flee her country of origin during World War Two. She ended up in LA, and then eventually Malibu, where she was best known for throwing elaborate costume parties and inspiring various works of art by her star-studded circle of friends (which included Marjorie Cameron, who deserves her own article!). Her home became a kind of electric mecca and creative space for actors, poets, artists, beatniks and bohemians.
Beauty and the Beast, Renate Druks, 1953.
ⓒ The Ranch, Monatuk. Source.
Renate's enigmatic past, eccentric personality and tumultuous personal life was the inspiration for two short novels (Collages and Portrait in Three Dimensions) by Anaïs Nin. One of her infamous costume parties called "Come As Your Madness” prompted Kenneth Anger to make Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (in which Renate made a guest appearance as Lilith). Renate’s glittery reputation as a magician of all things beautiful and mysterious overshadowed her own work that reflected a highly distinctive artistic style that she developed during a three-year stint in Mexico.
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, dir. Kenneth Anger, 1954.
Renate appears at around 11:15. ⓒ Kenneth Anger. Source.
Her paintings, in which women and cats occupy peculiar and mystical dreamscapes, has yet to be properly acknowledged within surrealist and feminist canons. Her work was not commercially successful, but she continued to paint for the rest of her life nonetheless. According to Max Levai, who has extensively exhibited her work and is the owner of an international art consultancy firm and “The Ranch” (which is equal parts a historic working ranch and contemporary art space), “her seductresses, cats, theatre references, and occult symbology reveal a critical extension of Surrealism and presage a feminist art history—surfacing like a missing link between Leonara Carrington and Leonor Fini.”
Spring Fever, Renate Druks, 1979.
ⓒ Joshua White, Dazed Digital. Source.
Filmmaker and biographer Lisa Janssen uncovered the ways in which fragments of Renate’s artistic world— her paintings, theatrical parties, persona, and films— permeated the counterculture film scene in LA. A few of Renate’s paintings can be found online (through the articles I referenced), but there is no definitive website or accessible archive of her body of work, life story, films and famous themed parties.
2. Storm de Hirsch (1912 – 2000)
“I don’t want to put any labels on my films... I never impose on you; you need to find what you have to find.”
-- Storm de Hirsch
Storm de Hirsch in 1964.
ⓒ Anthology Film Archives. Source.
Storm de Hirsch was an experimental filmmaker, painter and poet who was a key figure in the 1960s avant-garde film scene in New York City. She was one of the founding members of the Film-Makers Cooperative, which is a non-profit organization established in 1961 that is dedicated to the education, distribution, circulation and exhibition of alternative, non-commercial, underground avant-garde film and media. Storm has and continues to be largely overlooked by historians and underground film circles, despite being an early pioneer of experimental cinema. Storm invented some of the earliest forms of the Super 8. She would physically cut, gouge, paint and etch directly onto the film and sound tape.
Trailer for Mythology of the Soul, a collection of 15 short films
by Storm de Hirsch. ⓒ Storm de Hirsch, Re:Voir. Source.
According to the Museum of Computer Art, Storm’s work “influences and anticipates the work of many later and current video artists.” Her work explores thematic elements of the unseen- ritual, alternative states of consciousness, beauty, dreams and the manipulation of the senses. Between 1962 and 1975, she created "Cine-Sonnets" that combined her poetic voice with film. Erratic and energetic camera movements, bursts of colour, references to the occult and pagan sounds communicate Storm’s poetic voice, which has been described as shamanistic.
Geometrics of the Kabbalah, Storm de Hirsch, 1975.
ⓒ Storm de Hirsch, Experimental Cinema. Source.
My personal favourite is Peyote Queen (1965). The kaleidoscopic short film is emblematic of her creativity, as it was created without a camera and entirely from Storm’s hands-on tampering with raw film. Toronto-based scholar and filmmaker Stephen Broomer describes the film as combining “beauty and brutality” through its use of “erotic photography, pastel colours and violent gestures.” Despite lacking proper recognition within the underground film canon, Storm’s innovation earned her the respect of her peers. Jonas Mekas, the “godfather of American avant-garde cinema,” also described Peyote Queen as being one of his favourites, calling it a film that is filled with “beauty and excitement.”
Film stills from Peyote Queen, 1965.
ⓒ Storm de Hirsch, Film Makers Cooperative. Source.
Unfortunately, much like Renate, Storm lacks a robust digital archive. Her poetry and films are available online for purchase, but there is no archive of her work that is not behind a paywall. Renate and Storm are just two of many artists whose work and cultural significance remain severely neglected. It is the responsibility of museum professionals to attempt to repair these missing links and finally give artists who have slipped through the cracks the attention they deserve.