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Portraits of Jim Leon by Jean-Paul Valery

Jim Leon

From hyper-erotic surrealism to dreamy fine art, renegade Oz illustrator Jim Leon's work is being rediscovered after decades of obscurity. Nathalie Olah looks back on a life that changed with one acid trip

By 1970, London-based underground magazine Oz had embarked on a voyage of sexual discovery. Libidinous tales had taken the place of angry satire, prompting criticism that the formerly Australian publication had lost sight of its younger readers. In response, editors Richard Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson hatched a cunning plan to hand creative control to a group of prepubescents. The resultant School-kids OZ issue (#28), however, had the less-than-desirable effect of landing all three men in jail.

Fifteen-year-old Vivian Berger’s Rupert-the-Bear parody of a particularly explicit Robert Crumb sketch became infamous as the linchpin of the 26-day obscenity trial that took place the following year. But its notoriety is misleading; the real erotic aesthetic of the magazine’s latter years was far more adult, reaching its apex in the work of an illustrator who was forbidding in his exploration of all our psychological nether-regions.

“It was scary,” Anderson says of Wolverhampton-born Jim Leon’s art. “Humourless, disturbing, uncomfortable.” But these attributes won the “small, pink-faced, mousy-haired” artist covers and opening spreads in some of Oz’s seminal issues. His previous work told, in meticulous detail, stories of bestiality, incest, necrophilia and etheric impregnation. “All the good stuff, basically,” Anderson adds, without laughing. “A real finger-in-the-eye to thought police.”

When he entered into a three-year association with Oz in the summer of 1970, Leon was fresh from a trip to California that saw him work on counterculture magazine the Berkeley Barb, and help found UC Berkeley’s People’s Park, a symbol of leftist politics and free speech that was the scene of a tragic skirmish between protestors and state police (under governor Ronald Reagan).

“He came into our studio on Princedale Road, Ladbroke Grove, looking to get published.” Anderson recalls. “He was very quiet and didn’t push his work on us. He just handed me this scene of an angel, a cottage with a woman standing in the doorway and more of what I would learn were his typical busty women. I had never seen anything like it before and decided to print the image straightaway.”

Leon’s first contribution appeared in the aptly titled Brave New Morning issue, #31. Neville, recently returned from New York, had written a searing article about the decline of the 60s revolution that seemed to fit with Leon’s apocalyptic sensibility. By fusing nudey abandon with scenes of working-class struggle, his work embodied the excitement, and subsequent return to reality, of the waning hippy movement.

It also created a tense, fragmentary quality that was reminiscent of the non-linear structure of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which Leon continued to cite as an influence throughout his early career. In return, he was granted an all-access pass to the Oz community, and soon the magazine and its associates in the underground press were heading to the ICA to witness the artist destroying a papier-mâché sculpture of William Blake’s head.

“It was the era of the ‘happening’ and this whole thing – destroying his idol in public – was Leon’s big ‘happening’,” Anderson says, with an audible titter. Impervious to the prescribed rules of even his avant-garde contemporaries, Leon made work that, despite its provocative and disturbing nature, could often verge on what Anderson calls “kitsch”.

Take for instance a series of pop paintings depicting Rubenesque women on top of fondant fancies and sponge cakes, or the cover and call-to-arms commissioned during the Oz trial of anachronistic cranks marching together in a parade of Disney-level joviality (Anderson cropped out some details in light of the magazine’s legal issues, including an oversized penis entering a gargantuan, glowing vagina). The cover was the most famous in Oz’s history, and the issue (#36) immediately became a collector’s item, going on to become one of the most expensive issues ever sold.

This creative autonomy and total disregard for his critics won Leon favour as a designer and illustrator, and by 1973 he was producing work for the International Times and Rolling Stone. Unbeknown to his newfound colleagues and admirers though, he had a previous life; he spent the 60s living in Lyon, France, with a wife, Monique, with whom he raised two children, before leaving his family for London to pursue his new career.

“We didn’t know about that,” Anderson admits. “Leon was a very shy man who seemed, at times, to be quite depressed.”

It was not just his family that Leon kept under wraps – in France he had developed a whole separate career and following that the Oz editors were oblivious to. He organised gigs and designed posters for Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, and created sets for theatres in Villeurbanne and Paris and backdrops and costumes at the Lyon Opera. Leon also art-directed Jacques Demy’s seminal, Catherine Deneuve-starring Peau d’Ane (Donkey Skin, 1970), the epitome of the gaudy French aesthetic that originated with Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946). He provided a characteristic level of colour and a near-Catholic abundance of gold that combined with the wider theme of incest to create a film as tense and disquieting as the rest of his work.

When, on May 1, 1973, he underwent a mystical experience after taking a generous hit of acid, his career was sailing as meteorically high as his mind. But the upshot of that trip was a return to painting proper and a move away from sexual subject-matter. His final works for Oz (which came to an end with issue #48 in November 1973), included a series of circular erotic drawings, although Anderson’s favourite appeared in issue #40: “A scene of seemingly unrelated figures – a woman with her legs spread and a couple embracing in the corner – wound together by repeated motifs and organic patterns.”

Following his mystical experience – his encounter with what he called the “Goddess of Nature” – Leon replaced his surreal, epic eroticism with New- Age dreamscapes punctuated by crystalline forms, astrological measuring devices and Moorish shrines. He stuck with his new style until his death in 2002, arguably at the expense of any further commercial success.

While the phantasmagorical element tapped a 70s zeitgeist, his post-trip work failed to chime with critics. He was trying to become a fine artist, but was hampered by the very kitschness that had won him favour at Oz.

him favour at Oz. Leon had his champions, though. One unlikely devotee of his later work is former Tate curator/ spokesman Simon Wilson, who, in his early 20s, attended one of Leon’s shows in Lyon, only to find an artist who systematically destroyed the work of others, stole his wife’s purse and disappeared back home to England. A few weeks later they met again at Lyon coffee house and artist hangout Le Caveau and became close friends.

Writing about Leon’s later paintings in a 2005 essay in New Statesman, Wilson described them as depicting the world “as it was, or as it will be, or could be – healed from the ravages of man, a paradise regained, presided over by a few seraphic beings of enigmatic and radiant beauty, or by infinitely mysterious inanimate objects.”

Speaking at his home in south London, which holds the largest collection of Leon’s work outside of France, Wilson elaborates on Anderson’s analysis: “I wouldn’t necessarily describe Leon’s work as ‘kitsch’. He was certainly a pop artist, which was at odds with his subject matter. But Leon was also a visionary, whose later work reminds me of John Martin in its ambition, scale and grandeur.”

At the time that Leon was making a return to fine art, Wilson was busy acquiring Martin’s work for the Tate’s permanent collection. The Victorian painter’s Hollywood-scale scenes of apocalyptic destruction had fallen short of critical acclaim in his own lifetime, but enjoyed a renaissance during the 70s that was amplified by Wilson’s effort. Leon was fated for similar criticism. The pursuit of fine art plunged him into relative obscurity, exacerbated by an increasingly misanthropic side to his personality and an inability to cooperate with clients. He was cut off from the established art world, and as a result, the romantic quality that had once been
so popular appeared misguided. While Wilson lauds the artist’s “anti-materialist” stance in those years, it no doubt had the effect of embittering, as opposed to empowering him as an artist.

“He never owned property. He never had any money. He was, indeed, a kind of holy innocent. He was also impossible, but he was, in some sense, an example to us all,” Wilson wrote in his New Statesman article. Such praise came despite Leon nearly causing an irreparable rift in the Wilsons’ marriage when he turned up unannounced, lived on their sofa for several months and failed to complete a painting that the Tate man had forked out a considerable amount of money for.

By the late 70s, poor and plighted by alcoholism, Leon, still separated from his wife, had moved back home to the West Midlands, justifying his professional failings through notions of bohemianism. He hadn’t spoken to the editors of Oz for some years. Dennis was busy creating his publishing empire, while Neville continued to write and travel and Anderson had embarked on a rehabilitative stint in California. Leon’s work had been buried along with the underground press in the UK, and only a handful of collectors in Lyon considered his work to be of any value.

“The problem with Leon’s late work is it lacked a conceptual element,” Wilson explains. “You can comprehend it in a French context, because of the tradition of surrealism and writers like George Bataille. But in an Anglo-Saxon context his work is all too visceral and instinctual. A painter who’s going to be acquired by museums needs to be painting about painting. The problem really was that Leon was an illustrator.”

In 2012, it is his contribution to the prevailing image of early-70s London, as opposed to art history, that affords him a lasting legacy. Dennis and Anderson continue to stress their desire to see Leon’s work remembered, and Wilson regrets not being able to forge for Leon a canonical home. However, ten years after his death from cancer, with the emergence of image sharing, interest in Leon’s work has been on a recent and unexpected rise. Crystalline structures, shamanistic symbolism and translucent prisms are relevant again thanks to the emergence of CGI artists such as Tabor Robak. While the renewed interest is still partly ironic,
perhaps the time will come soon when we can begin to take seriously the quixotic fixation at the heart of Leon’s late work, with its unbridled belief in the limitless potential of the imagination.

Taken from the November 2012 issue of Dazed & Confused