Songs of a Spiny Beast


Last Sunday, your correspondent was delighted to welcome Andy Sharp of English Heretic to the Shoreline, and to give him an unguided tour of the psycho-alchemical arena that is Saltdean beach. Andy’s poetic and insightful account of his visit can be read here. We were favoured by good weather and a spectacular sunset; the moon and sun visible simultaneously, giving the whole scene an appropriately Hermetic feel – see Andy’s piece for the photographic evidence- and as he mentions there, there is some video and audio documentation from the day that we intend to re-arrange and make available in some form. More on that in due course. For now, I simply present the fruit of the Shoreline, as washed up from the depths on the day.

A few days before Andy’s visit, I had bought Susan Aberth’s book Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art . Despite reading the box of strange delights that is Leonora Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet a couple of years ago, I had only recently come to realise that Leonora’s use of alchemical texts and imagery, and the otherworldly ritualistic atmosphere that pervades much of her work, make her one of the most magical (in every sense) of all the Surrealists, and very much a person of interest as far as the Shoreline current is concerned – perhaps most explicitly so in her relatively late triptych painting Took My Way Down, Like A Messenger, To The Deep:

Leonora Carrington, ‘Took My Way Down, Like A Messenger, To The Deep’, 1977

Here, as on the Shoreline, the sea becomes the Unconscious, and the creative process involves descent to deep oceanic regions to  gaze upon the jewelled corals of the psychic substrata and converse with their totemic denizens.

Andy and I had discussed Leonora Carrington’s work a number of times in the run-up to his visit, his recent encounter with the hyena caves at Kirkdale having reminded him of her emphasis on the hyena as her personal mythic emblem. As we left for the beach I suggested that if we scoured the beach the right way, carefully applying psychedelic omnivisionwe might be presented with some evidence of her recent strong presence on the Shoreline.

We found a number of interesting artefacts and assemblages, but for me the most Haunted, the most alive, was the piece of spiny crab shell pictured above – it struck both of us as carrying a strong impression of the work of Leonora Carrington: in a general sense it is reminiscent of the strange head-dresses worn by many of her figures  (and there is indeed the hint of a face in the darker area in the centre), but I knew there was a specific painting somehow echoed in this object. Later, searching through Susan Aberth’s book at home, I found it:

Leonora Carrington, ‘Plain Chant’, 1947

Aberth’s book has little to say about this particular work, nor did online research reveal much, except that it was sold by Sotheby’s in 2002, the sale catalogue describing it as follows: early work by Leonora Carrington entitled Plain Chant. Revealing the artist’s childhood Catholic upbringing, this painting is a mischievous play on plainchant, the official melodic chanting of the Christian liturgy. Far from the usual music-making heavenly host depicted in Christian art, here is a multitude of open-mouthed, hybrid entities united in creating a sound that, one suspects, challenges notions of the sacred.

“A mischievous play on plainchant..”… hmmm… the implication seems to be that the painting is basically just a naughty joke: rebellious young Leonora, sticking her tongue out at stuffy old Christian orthodoxy. But the painting is so much more than that. Here is the artist as mythmaker – here is conjuration: the host of totemic animals and mythic beings are the representatives of the sacred, not some pastiche thereof – a fabulous menagerie of the psyche, and thus of the imaginal cosmos.

And the chanted incantations pouring from their mouths are, one senses, a strange ululation of many different resonances and overtones- the music of the Spheres in vocal form.

And the songs that swell on the Shoreline- the sonic ebb and flow of sea, and stone, and wind- are of similar quality.

2 responses to “Songs of a Spiny Beast

  1. Pingback: Travels in Hypersurreality: Numerology of the Undercliff | The Haunted Shoreline

  2. Pingback: Last Rites: An Unbroken Circle | The Haunted Shoreline

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