“Beyond The Pleasuredome: The Lost Occult Works of Burt Shonberg”
During his lifetime, Burt Shonberg was associated with the artist/occultist Marjorie Cameron, who probably introduced him to the mythos of Aleister Crowley and the ceremonial use of peyote. Shonberg later participated in 1960 in the experiments of Dr. Oscar Janiger on the effects of LSD on the creative mind. Shonberg’s art was prominently used in Corman’s classic films “The House of Usher” and “The Premature Burial”.
Exhibition curator and documentarian Brian Chidester notes in his essay for the exhibition catalog:
“That the art of Burt Shonberg was considered anachronistic in the era it was created makes perfect sense. He was a man out of time — both ahead and behind. Stylistically, the works he created during the 1950s and ’60s harkened back to earlier modem art genres, including Cubism and Surrealism, and thus lagged in the periods of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. He was ahead, however, in that his art infused these older modes with an esoteric aspect which became commonplace in California only a decade after his initial breakthrough. Indeed, during Shonberg’s lifetime, there was exactly one public exhibition of his art — at the Gallery Contemporary in West Hollywood in 1967 — and no works were apparently sold. The question of how he escaped notice by nearly everyone is thus what this exhibition seeks to redress.”
Shonberg’s art gained the attention of Roger Corman around 1958 when the latter commissioned Shonberg to create ancestral portraits for his high-profile film version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “House of Usher” (1960) starring Vincent Price. Afterwards, Shonberg contributed his artwork to a second film, “Premature Burial” (1962), also based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe.
“As two artists moving into new modes of expression in our work, our introduction was fortuitous. While Burt’s art hung in cafes throughout Los Angeles, he also had his own spot — the Café Frankenstein in Laguna Beach. His preoccupation with monsters, aliens, the occult and other horror elements in his art resonated with me. Most importantly, I could see he was a major talent exploring new ground in form and color. I knew right away that Burt’s artistic sensibilities would lend much to my new film, so I hired him to create the portraits of the Usher family that adorned the Gothic mansion occupied by Vincent Price’s character in House of Usher.
Burt’s work had a mystical, mysterious quality. It was perfect for capturing the evil inherent in the faces of the Usher family ancestors. I provided Burt with character histories and let his imagination roam free. In his depiction of Vivien Usher, a murderess who died in a madhouse, Burt painted a terrifying image of a woman with blacked out eyes in a haunting color scheme reminiscent of Picasso’s blue period. For Bernard Usher, a jewel thief and drug addict, Burt painted a portrait that seemed to mimic an element of double exposure photography but in a fiery psychedelic red that seemed to burn through the canvas like a Turner on acid.”
— Roger Corman, July 2021. Full text here at Rue Morgue magazine.
The artist had only one exhibition of his art in his lifetime, in 1967 at Gallery Contemporary in Los Angeles, organized by George Grief, the man who brought the Beatles to America.
“Beyond The Pleasuredome: The Lost Occult Works of Burt Shonberg” continues through November 1, 2021. It is accompanied by a catalog, the first ever exclusively devoted to Shonberg’s art, with essay by Brian Chidester, an introduction by Minneapolis Institute of Art curator Robert Cozzolino, a director’s foreword by Steven Intermill of the Buckland, and contributions by Shonberg friend Marshall Berle, screenwriter/former Shonberg roommate Hampton Fancher (“Blade Runner”, “Blade Runner 2049”), and esteemed filmmaker Roger Corman.
The majority of the works in the exhibition were formerly in the collection of George Clayton Johnson, friend to Shonberg and partner in their Laguna Beach (California) coffee house Cafe Frankenstein (1958–1962). George Clayton Johnson was a television screenwriter (Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Kung Fu) and co-author of the novel “Logan’s Run”.
Today, September 8 2021, is in fact the 55th anniversary of the airing of the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap”, which George Clayton Johnson wrote.
The artist himself wrote of his experiences with altered states of consciousness:
“..via various methods, I have experienced a considerable number of altered states of consciousness. Amongst the methods employed to accomplish this was the use of what are termed psychedelic (mind-manifesting) substances. In 1960 I worked with a research project under the direction of a Los Angeles psychiatrist, Dr. Oscar Janiger, who was studying the effects of LSD-25 on the creative process. My participation in the project was that I had to do paintings under the influence of LSD-25.
I came to realize that the significance of art resulting from the psychedelic experience could possibly reach to actual magic and beyond. Also, very interesting discoveries might be communicated through art by capable creative minds that are familiar with the experience and these discoveries could come through any existing form of art. There are, of course, certain things that one experiences in the transcendental state that are not possible to communicate in the usual way, so new types of parables would have to be created to get the message through. These discoveries I refer to could be insights or revelations into various aspects of the world we live in, nature, the mind itself, time, the universe, reality and God.”
— Burt Shonberg, courtesy of burtshonberg.com, reprinted with permission.
Robert Cozzolino is the Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. He presently has an exhibtion touring several museums entitled “SUPERNATURAL AMERICA: THE PARANORMAL IN AMERICAN ART”, which will open next at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville Kentucky October 7 2021. In the introduction for the exhibtion catalog, he writes:
“What does it look like or mean when an artist strives to show their audience the feel and look of expanded consciousness, another world they have seen and been absorbed into? is it even possible with the material tools of paint? Shonberg attempted just that, and the results transport the viewer, rhyme with the work of mediums and those who practiced astral projection, are at home in parallel dimensions to be visited in trips. He came close to presenting what that feels like with the modest tools at hand. And isn’t that what we want of artists? To collaborate with us to shift consciousness and to transport us out of the mundane reality that we face here and now? There is the suggestion in these new worlds that we have the power to change what we know is toxic on ours.
That Shonberg’s work is reappearing at this moment may feel part of a shifted zeitgeist. It has been long clear that status quo or mainstream ways of operating in the world have been miserable failures that do not integrate humanity, ecology, and equity. If the urgent evidence that we need to change — not just in consciousness but in action and devotion — is not obvious from the violence of racism, destruction from a warming world, and illness signaling imbalance with nature, then we truly are doomed. Perhaps the artists who matter most are those who were in tune with other worlds, saw beyond the tangible environment, and had ideas for greater consciousness. Artists who met with perplexed or indifferent reactions from their contemporaries need people who believe in them, despite the odds against their finding a wider audience. Empathetic folks with passion and courage but also with an eye are few and far between. In the folks who are presenting this exhibition, we have them.”
Marshall Berle was Burt Shonberg’s friend and manager during his lifetime (Marshall Berle was also manager to the bands Spirit, Van Halen, and many others). Marshall said:
“Burt Shonberg was more than just an artist, he was a prospector of consciousness who traveled to areas outside of our collective awareness and painted what he saw during those excursions”
Marshall Berle produced and directed a documentary on the artist “Out Here — A film about Burt Shonberg” available here.
A 3D Virtual Exhibtion was produced in collaboration with Kunstmatrix of Berlin to provide an enhanced viewing experience of the works in the exhibition.
"Beyond the Pleasuredome: The Lost Occult World of Burt Shonberg" - 3D virtual exhibition by…
View the Exhibition: "Beyond the Pleasuredome: The Lost Occult World of Burt Shonberg". Created by Stephen Romano. The…