A Decadent Parade of Outrageous Fancies: Alastair
(Originally published on the Coilhouse Magazine blog, May 11, 2010.)
Who is Alastair”, mused J. Lewis May in 1936. “No one knows; not even – it is hinted – Alastair himself.”
An artist, composer, dancer, mime, poet, singer and translator, Alastair was a fascinating and elusive personality, and perhaps best known as a gifted illustrator of the fin-de-siecle period.
Officially born of German nobility in 1887 to the family of Von Voigt, and later mysteriously acquiring the title of Baron, Hans Henning Voigt was an enigma. He claimed to be a changeling…the spawn of an illegitimate union between a hot headed Bavarian prince and a pretty Irish lass (and many of his relations later accepted this explanation of his origins). To his delight, “he was referred to as German by English writers, as English by German writers, and as Hungarian by French writers.”
A collector of characters, Alastair had a great gift for friendship despite his bizarre and capricious persona, theatrical behaviors, and perpetual unhappiness. Among those in his inner circle were Harry and Caresse Crosby; Harry, having heard of Alastair, believed him to be “the embodiment of all his fantasies, a creator of the most outrageous fancies”, and hastened to meet with him. Many years later Caresse recalled of the first visit, “He lived in a sort of Fall of usher House, you know, with bleak, hideous trees drooping around the doors and the windows… a blackamoor ushered us into a room where there was a black piano with a single candle burning on it. Soon Alastair himself appeared in the doorway in a white satin suit; he bowed, did a flying split and slid across the polished floor to stop at my feet, where he looked up and said, ‘Ah, Mrs. Crosby!’”
Although clearly influenced by the sinister, serpentine style of Aubrey Beardsley, with echoes of the deliciously unhinged work of Harry Clarke, and a bit of the occult grotesquery of Austin Osman Spare’s art – Alastair’s perversely decadent illustrations are wholly, unmistakably, his own. His strangely attractive beings, with alternately tortured, anguished or menacing countenances, ornately and elegantly attired, skulked and cavorted amongst all manner of plays, novels and short stories. Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928 edition), and Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Chloderlos de Laclos are just a few examples of works that contained examples of Alastair’s menagerie of fever dream fantasies.
Alastair retired in relative obscurity, and there were few to mourn his death in Munich in 1969. A dazzling, melancholy character of his own creation, he was a man of rare and unique tastes, and perhaps a mystery right to the end; but mostly, one would surmise – a man, who, “was as he was because he could not be otherwise.”
All images included in this post are from: Alastair: Illustrator of Decadence (1979) by Victor Arwas, and scanned from my copy of the book.