If you have ever seen Roger Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher and wondered who did those haunting portraits of Roderick Usher’s disreputable ancestors – then wonder no more, for it was the magic realist Los Angeles artist Burt Shonberg (1933-1977).
I have just finished reading a terrific biography, Out There: The Transcendent Life and Art of Burt Shonberg, by author Spencer Kansa, and it’s a real eye-opener, not only about this psychedelic artist, but also about LA bohemia in the 1960s and 1970s.
From the late-1950s until his death in 1977, Shonberg was the premier psychedelic artist of Los Angeles. His surreal murals adorned the facades and interiors of hip coffee-houses and clubs (including his legendary Café Frankenstein in Laguna Beach); which brought him to the attention of actor Mel Welles and his Little Shop of Horrors director Roger Corman.
It was while working on project for the 7 Chefs restaurant on Sunset Boulevard that Shonberg was hired by Corman to create the ancestral portraits that hang in the Usher mansion in his 1960 Gothic horror. Corman felt Burt’s work had a ‘mystical, mysterious quality that would be perfect to capture the evil inherent in the faces of the ancestors’ – and he gave the artist a series of character histories to interpret.
‘He captured their tormented spirits and the spirit of the film perfectly,’ said Corman in a later interview; while art director Daniel Haller, who oversaw the artist’s progress, said, ‘he was unique and produced such great work for us’.
Shonberg conceived five family portraits and two pieces that Vincent Price’s aesthete character, Roderick Usher, paints – a colourful figure and a landscape featuring the Usher mansion.
According to Kansa, the blacked-out eyes in the Vivien Usher painting were eerily similar to a self portrait created by Shonburg’s lover, Marjorie Cameron, entitled The Black Egg.
Cameron’s story is also somewhat amazing, and the subject of another Kansa-penned biography, Wormwood Star. The occult artist – who later appeared in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide – introduced Shonburg to the teachings of Aleister Crowley and to the mind-warping properties of peyote; which helped inform his unique artistic style, as did his participation in Dr Oscar Janiger’s ground-breaking study into the effects of LSD on the creative process.
For the depiction of Bernard Usher, Shonberg used his friend Ray Shevin as his model. Shevin was an adherent of George Gurdjieff, the Sufi-inspired mystic who developed the Fourth Way system to help people became fully conscious to every unfolding moment in their lives. Meanwhile, Francis Usher is a self portrait, but there’s no info as to who the subjects were for Anthony Usher or Captain David Usher.
Being an art connoisseur and a champion of young artists, Vincent Price was intrigued to meet Shonberg, who was later invited to the set, where the two of them had a long conversation about art.
In the fiery climax of the film, the family portraits appear to perish in the flames. However, Shonberg’s paintings survived as they had been sprayed by a flame retardant beforehand.
Now this is where things get interesting. According to Kansa’s book, Vincent was said to have been given the portrait of David Usher, while Corman took two others, including the Usher mansion paintings. Unfortunately, they were stolen from Corman’s office at Amco Studios, shortly afterwards, a theft that still stings to this day (according to Corman).
The whereabouts of all the other pieces is today unknown – and that includes the one that Vincent took because, according to his estate, no Shonberg paintings were ever recorded in his collection. So did he ever have possession of it – even for a brief time? And will the missing paintings ever be found again? Only time will tell.
Shonberg’s association with Corman didn’t end with Usher. He was later employed to create several new canvases for 1963’s The Premature Burial. Like Roderick Usher, Ray Milland’s aristocrat, Guy Carrell, enjoys dabbling in painting, and the two share similar techniques – probably due to their individual torments (Guy suffers from taphephobia, the fear of being buried alive, while Roderick suffers acute sensibilities).
One of the pieces is entitled Sin Consummations Devoutly to be Wished, which Guy keeps in his tomb. In this piece, Baphomet looms over a grisly hell-scape, where condemned souls are nailed to crosses; beheaded by guillotines; burnt at the stake; and over flaming cauldrons. It’s a powerful piece, that could very well have been influenced by Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, but Kansa doesn’t say what happened to the piece after filming wrapped on the production.
As for Shonberg (who died in 1977, aged 44), his life story was a heady fusion of ‘magical inspiration, psychedelic experience and artistic production’, all the while ‘walking the thin and dangerous between dimensions’.
His artwork was all about beckoning us onward into the realm of our dreams, and Kansa’s book goes along way into helping us understand Shonberg’s artistic mindset. I so recommend you get your mitts on this and also Wormwood Star.