Rosaleen Norton rose to infamy in the 1950s in Australia, after a series of lurid public scandals in which she was accused of participating in orgies and satanic rituals. She was prosecuted on charges of obscenity and blamed for the downfall of a world-famous conductor. Demonized by the press, her life became fodder for tabloids.
A new documentary called “The Witch of Kings Cross” — named for Norton’s bohemian neighborhood in Sydney — explores the life of the artist and self-professed witch and shows that scandal isn’t really the heart of Norton’s story, despite what her critics might have said. The film, streaming now on Amazon and iTunes, is a portrait of a woman who defied the norms of conventional, predominantly Christian Australia of the era, challenging antiquated perceptions about faith, feminism, sexuality and art.
At a time when women were expected to adhere to traditional roles of wife and mother, Norton was practicing sex magic and studying the works of Aleister Crowley, the notorious English occultist and ceremonial magician.
Sonia Bible, the documentary’s writer and director, points out that Norton has a few lessons for society today, when radical personalities and movements abound, especially online.
“Rosaleen’s story is a cautionary tale to a modern world that is increasingly fearful and reactionary,” said Bible. “Social media and web-based petitions enable people to condemn anything they don’t like and drum up support for it to be banned, without any discussion or consideration of differences in taste or freedom of expression.”
Norton initially experienced negative backlash in 1949, when her first exhibition at the University of Melbourne was raided by the city’s police and several of the paintings were seized and destroyed.
She was acquitted of obscenity charges, but it was the beginning of a campaign of persecution that would last for nearly three decades, targeting Norton for little more than being a threat to the reigning conservative culture. “The Art of Rosaleen Norton,” a book she published in 1952 with her lover Gavin Greenlees containing reproductions of Norton’s art, was banned in New South Wales and in the United States.
In the mid-’50s she began an affair with British composer and conductor Sir Eugene Goossens, but afterward he was caught bringing erotic photographs into Australia from England and his career ended in disgrace.
Born in New Zealand in 1917, Norton immigrated to Australia with her family in 1925. Her passion for the esoteric was evident in her early work. Norton’s paintings often depicted the mystical images she received while practicing trance magic, which uses meditation to transcend the constraints of the physical world and attain higher levels of consciousness.
Heady images of demons, goddesses and otherworldly beings made their way onto Norton’s canvases. The Greek god Pan — half-goat, half man, and the embodiment of the lustier side of nature — appeared prominently in her work. Norton didn’t hide her devotion to the horned deity. Synonymous with the hunt and the wild forces that spark creation, Pan inspired Norton both artistically and spiritually.
Nevill Drury, the late author of “Pan’s Daughter: The Magical World of Rosaleen Norton,” recounted Norton’s thoughts about the god on his website: “As Rosaleen told me in 1977, Pan was very much a deity for the present day, not simply an archetypal figure from antiquity. For her, Pan was the creative force in the universe who protected the natural beauty of the planet and conserved the resources of the environment.”
But her thirst for knowledge didn’t stop there.
“Rosaleen’s practices and philosophies were a lot more than witchcraft,” Bible said, noting that Norton was self-taught in Eastern religions, astrology and the Kabbalah.
“The Witch of Kings Cross” deconstructs the allegations against Norton, but the film spends more time delineating the profile of a woman who lived life on her own terms as both a bohemian and an active occultist.
Interspersed with dramatic re-creations and interviews with many of Norton’s contemporaries are a number of evocative dance scenes, shot in black and white with hints of burlesque, set to Norton’s favorite classical music pieces. In these scenes, viewers of the film find Norton among the deities she worshipped and from which she drew inspiration.
“The dance scenes in the film were my responses as a filmmaker to Rosaleen’s journeys into trance and the gods and goddesses in her work,” Bible explained. “Pan, Lilith and Lucifer are brought to life on a mythical, otherworldly stage, accessed through a portal in a majestic fig tree.”
The images that shocked Australia in the 1950s would be considered tame in art circles today, and Norton’s exploration of witchcraft, far from being taboo, is now part of the mainstream.
Moon circles — based on pagan rituals where groups gather to harness the power of our closest celestial body — can be found at yoga studios and wellness centers across the United States. Prestigious academic institutions including Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offer open courses on witchcraft and magic. Tarot cards, ritual tools and witchcraft conventions are being created by and for women of color.
“The Witch of Kings Cross” is a reminder that these advancements depend on the lives of gifted outliers like Norton.
“Rosaleen was persecuted by authorities for being powerful, sexual and independent,” Bible said. “She was initially labeled a ‘witch’ by the media. This still happens today. We need to ask ourselves: ‘What is so frightening about allowing women to be powerful?’ It might actually lead to a better world, if all societies can let go of that fear.”