Art & Culture

The no-BS guide to psychedelic art history

Instead of starting this piece out the way my teachers would expect me to, by noting the fact that the term “psychedelic” was coined by psychiatrist Osmond Humphry in 1957, making use of the Greek words “psyche” (mind) and “delos” (make visible), we will kick off with a hippie joke. 

How do you know if a hippie has been to your house? 

They’re still there!

Before clicking out, please remember the psychedelic art movement revolves around the love and acceptance we are supposed to give freely, as we are one with everything around us. So, in a sense, you made this joke.

Surrealist inspiration and spiritual ties

The psychedelic art movement resembles the surrealist movement in the sense that they are both conditioned by a prescribed mechanism by which one obtains his inspiration. While the surrealists that preceded the Summer of Love, such as Remedios Varo, Gustav Klimt, Andre Mason and the (even-more) famous Dali were surrendering their creation process to their dreams, the psychedelic art movement revolves around the euphoric and highly hallucinatory states brought by consuming psychedelic drugs.

One would argue that these artistic movements were dependent of important developments in science, whereas the surrealist delved deep into Freud’s theory of the unconscious, the psychedelic artist’s conceptual birth was a direct result of Hoffman’s discovery of the LSD.

Andre Masson – L’ame de Napoleon

Considering the high -ahem- pedestal on which the dream world and sacred inebriants were placed upon by a plethora of civilizations, and how they were closely tied together in Native American cultures, and later, Eastern Mysticism, it becomes easy to see how these artistic movements came to have so much in common. They are both unruled expressions of some of the most spiritual and unapologetically divine experiences, in which we completely surrender what we think we know about our realities. 

This becomes highly obvious when comparing both of their features, which include metaphysical subjects, kaleidoscopical, fractal or paisley patterns, bright and/or highly contrasting colours and extreme depth of details.

Gustav Klimt – Water Serpents II

The psychedelic art ignition

So where did the psychedelic art flame ignite and how did it came to be so representative and mainstream? Although we’d like to think the movement ignited as a sole result of the revolutionary political, social and spiritual sentiments of the time, inspired by the divine experiences LSD consumers had, it was a bit more than that and, ironically, it started more as a business venture for music producer Chet Helms (none other than the one responsible for Janis Joplin – thank you, Chet!).

Mid sixties, the hippies were doing their hippy thing in the “Family Dog” commune, throwing open dances and psychedelic shenanigans events, when they took contact with Helms, which was not a stranger of the movement himself.

Chet Helms at the Avalon Ballroom. Later he would launch Family Dog Productions.

The hippies were having a great time, a small audience and a lot of artists. Chet Helms had the fame and the vision, and be it luck, be it more powerful forces at play, he decided to mobilize everyone and organize some big ticket concerts in California, for which he hired Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley, his Family Dog buddies to create promotional posters. 

Aside from them, he commissioned Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso and Wes Wilson (which, fun fact is the inventor of the most popular psychedelic font, which can be seen on most of these posters).

Original Wes Wilson poster for Grateful Dead

Their trippy poster had a unique feeling to them, summarizing the visual experience of an LSD trip (duh), but elements of Art Nouveau, Dada and Pop Art were also present. All in all, it was a fresh style, really attention grabbing, which aligned perfectly with the altered states of consciousness spree the country was going through.

In consequence, the posters compelled over 100,000 people to flock to California in 1967 to explore the area’s concerts and subculture – this is now known as the Summer of Love and the 5 commissioned artists were now known as the Big Five, who single handedly sparked the Psychedelic Art movement and watched it burn hot. 

Later we see other artists win their rightful spotlight, like Bonnie MacLean and Marijke Koger, who was surnamed the Mother of Psychedelic Art and who was responsible of a couple Beatles cover artworks.  Mati Klarwein paved the way for more psychedelic album covers – his style seems to be influential to the today’s “collage” aesthetic. Karl Ferris dabbled in psychedelic photography and created some album covers for Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana.

Poster by Marijke Koger

In 1974, the US government commissioned Peter Max to create a psychedelic postage stamp, which was a “Preserve the Environment” power move. His stamp was actually use and with a bit of luck, you may find some original ones for sale on Ebay or Etsy. 

Peter Max’s commissioned postage stamp

Internationally, it caught fire – a British studio was responsible with the creation of artwork for some of the most prominent musical artist of the time, such as Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Led Zeppelin, Genesis and many more.

Contemporary psychedelic art

Even if the psychedelic movement is said to have flourished between 1966 and 1972, a quick Google search will tell you that it never (and I mean never) died. Today there is a plethora of psychedelic artist and it makes a lot of sense, since this art was always eye-candy and people never really stopped doing hallucinogenic drugs.

On the contrary, we see a substantial growth in the number of users with the decriminalization of such drugs and the more and more studies on the subject proving they are nothing but a great way to heal mental maladies such as depression, addiction and anxiety.

As a closing, I’ll leave you with some contemporary psychedelic artists worth checking out:

Stay trippy, little hippy! (OK, I’m sorry)