To describe Alastair as precious is like saying Isadora Duncan accessorised poorly.
The German illustrator, born in 1887, known to his circle as Hanaël and to his passport as Hans-Henning von Voigt, was a singular creation as affected as his art and as artificial as his alias.
In his drawings, Alastair took Aubrey Beardsley’s feverish monochromes as a starting point, investing folds of fabric with as much expressive power as faces or gestures. But the page couldn’t monopolise Alastair’s prodigious gifts. His very life was a production in which he would dance at intimate soirees, dressing his own sets and even providing the musical interludes; he was a good enough pianist to duet with the brilliant cellist Pablo Casals.
Alastair also came with his own costumes. Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio recalls a memorable Parisian scene on the eve of World War I, which found the artist dressed in priestly blue brocade robes performing “gothic dances” around a gilded unicorn. Publisher and poet Caresse Crosby relates of her first meeting with Alastair in 1927, “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!’”
What’s not to like?
One of the most remarkable aspects of Alastair’s improbable existence was how few spectators there were for all this performative fabulousness. He was a one-man chamber opera whose audience was just a handful of like-minded friends, or no-one at all. This wasn’t attention-seeking as we understand it, or a cry for help, or even an act of conscious rebellion; it was the magnificent flowering of rare talents and rarer tastes. He was as he was because he could not be otherwise.
Alastair’s relations with the outside world were at best distant and he maintained his aesthetic autonomy until the end. An associate remembers him in his eighties with powdered white face, bold black eyebrows, black silk shoes poking out from the voluminous trousers of a ruby-red silk suit and “a whiff of perfume from another world”.
There were few to mourn Alastair when he died on this day 40 years ago. Most of his small, exclusive set were dead, and his life and work were so unique that he can’t properly be described as an influence on anyone or anything. Although his model of arch, alien glamour can be seen in the further reaches of 1970s glam rock, this was mere coincidence. In the end Alastair was a symbol of nothing but himself.