The Sound Of Sirens

sea nymph ebj

Edward Burne Jones, “The Sea Nymph”, 1881

For some time I have been thinking of mermaids. These alluring creatures embody many aspects of the current which animates the Haunted Shoreline, and there is also a strong local connection: the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne Jones lived on this stretch of coastline, at Rottingdean, for the last 18 years of his life, and while residing here he seems to have been rather preoccupied (perhaps even haunted) by sea sirens, which appear in many of his paintings of this period (the wonderfully named blog The Kissed Mouth has an excellent post on this topic).

However, in order to be faithful to the spirit(s) of this adventure, I decided to delay writing about mermaids until such time as the Shoreline itself gave me a sign to proceed. And so it came to pass: I did not, alas, find an actual mermaid washed ashore, but I did find this:

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This is an egg case, probably from a dogfish or ray (anyone able to identify the precise species is invited to get in touch through the comments), but the relevance here comes from the name given to such egg cases in folklore… mermaid’s purses. 

The Shoreline having spoken, I headed into Rottingdean village, to St Margaret’s Church, which has a number of stained glass windows by Burne Jones (more on these in a future post) and memorial stones for the artist and his wife Georgiana set into the church wall:

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I was told that nobody is sure whether Burne Jones is actually buried there- “probably his ashes” said the vicar. What is not in doubt is where he lived: he and his wife purchased two adjoining houses, Prospect Cottage and Aubrey Cottage, opposite the church, and later acquired a third – this last was called Gothic House, but the couple renamed it North End House, apparently in reference to North End Road, Fulham, where they had lived prior to their move to the coast (also, the house is the most northerly of the three). All these buildings still stand:

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Left to right: Prospect Cottage, Aubrey Cottage, North End House

The blue plaque on Prospect Cottage:

ebjplaque

So what it is about mermaids? Of course there is an erotic element, but it is an ambiguous eroticism: the mermaid, after all, is sexually unattainable, for obvious anatomical reasons. As such, she may be the epitome of the goddess/temptress dichotomy: able to drive men mad with a desire that can never be sated. But more than this, she is a liminal creature, simultaneously of both the visible human world and the unknowable occult depths (for previous consideration of liminal creatures- that is, Shoreline creatures, see here and here).

Regular readers will know that Surrealist, rather than pre-Rapaelite, art is the house style here at the Shoreline- there are many reasons for this, among them the fact that Surrealism was explicitly concerned with the threshold between the seen and unseen, the daytime world of waking consciousness and the dark dreamzone of the Unconscious, the land and the sea… the Shoreline. So here I present a few Surrealist mermaids. The first, by Andre Masson, is particularly apposite, as it was produced by the process of automatic drawing, one of the key Surrealist techniques for allowing the contents of the Unconscious to cross the liminal threshold and emerge into daylight:

Sirens 1947 by André Masson 1896-1987

Andre Masson, “Sirens”, 1947

That scoundrel Salvador Dali, meanwhile, painted an idiosyncratic vision of The Little Mermaid for a 1966 edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales, which I haven’t included in this post as it seems such an inferior example of his work, but it can be seen here. Instead I much prefer this, from 1939, in which Dali’s depiction of the mermaid’s dangerous eroticism appears to anticipate future trends in fetishwear:

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Salvador Dali, “Masked Mermaid in Black”, 1939

Finally something from one of the Shoreline’s presiding goddesses, Leonora Carrington – in fact I have posted this painting before, when I mused on the fact that the progression of colours, black-white-red, refers to the three stages of alchemy. But some things bear repeating:

Leonora Carrington, Sueno de Sirenas (Dream of Sirens), 1963

Leonora Carrington, Sueno de Sirenas (Dream of Sirens), 1963

Now returning, like the Fools we are, to where we began- it may be of note that another folkloric name for a dogfish egg case, a mermaid’s purse,  is devil’s purse. For not only can the mermaid torment a man with impossible desire, she may also drag him to his doom. Plunging into the hazardous waters of love, a man may be utterly undone, as Burne Jones’ most famous mermaid image, The Depths of the Sea (1881) illustrates. I leave you to ponder it, and ponder it well.

Depth-sea-L

An Easter Egg

beach_egg2

After the previous post I hadn’t planned to write anything more regarding Easter this year, but the Shoreline had other ideas: during a short, bracing walk on Saltdean beach on Easter Sunday (short and bracing because it was the coldest Easter day ever recorded in the UK), my 8 year old daughter found this impressive greyish pink stone ‘egg’. The biting cold defeated my attempts to photograph it in situ on the beach, but we brought it home to add to the ever-growing Haunted Shoreline Cabinet of Curiosities, and here it is. Not for the first time, an image alone cannot quite do it justice, as the ovoid appearance is accentuated by its remarkable smoothness, but until such time as this blog is available in sensurround format (in glorious Psychedelic Omnivisionof course), you’ll have to take my word for that.

For obvious reasons, eggs are symbols of fertility, but their esoteric symbology goes well beyond that. We have previously considered the egg of Ouroboros, the cosmic serpent, while in alchemical texts the term Philosophic Egg, or similar, is used as a kind of shorthand for the physical vessels (flasks, alembics) within which the alchemical process unfolds: the container within which the Philosopher’s Stone is gestated.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, eggs appear frequently in Surrealist artworks. They are a recurring trope in Dali’s work (see also here), appearing in many of his paintings,  and the Dali Museum-Theatre in Figueres, Spain, is festooned with giant eggs. For the purposes of this post, the Dalinian image which seems to me most relevant is his 1943 painting Geopoliticus Child Watching The Birth of the New Man:

Painted during WWII while Dali was living in the USA, it is commonly interpreted as a representation of the growing strength of the US as a new world power- certainly this seems to fit, although the esoterically-minded will also note the appearance of a World Egg. To what extent Dali was deliberately referencing alchemical imagery is unclear, but it is a device that recurs in his work- indeed here you can see Dali himself, together with his wife and Muse Gala, being ‘birthed’ from a large egg in a typically outlandish piece of… well, let’s just call it performance art. I am unsure of the date of this film but it is clearly a lot later than the painting above- I would guess it is from the late 1960s, well into Dali’s self-promotion period (see my previous thoughts on that here) and, to me at least, of considerably lesser interest, but the near-identical symbolism is nevertheless worth noting.

Two Surrealist artists who were more explicitly informed by alchemy were Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst. In her essay Down Below, Leonora Carrington describes the egg as “..the dividing line between Great and Small, which makes it impossible to see everything at once“. The dividing line– that is, the liminal threshold, akin to my interpretation of the Shoreline.

Here are a couple of striking egg-related works by Leonora Carrington; firstly Ab Eo Quod, from 1956:

ab_eo_quod

The magnificent golden egg is the centrepiece here, but as usual with Leonora, the whole canvas bursts with enigmatic imagery. The Latin inscription on the chair back reads Ab eo, quod nigram caudam habet abstine terrestrium enim decorum est. I am indebted to Susan Aberth’s book Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art for the information that this is excerpted from a 14th century alchemical text known as the Ascensus Nigrum,which by my reckoning translates as the “the ascent of blackness”, presumably a reference to the transmutation of base matter which is the heart of the alchemical process. The inscription itself translates as something along the lines of “Keep away from that with a black tail; this is the beauty of the Earth”. Whatever this may mean, it seems to relate to the bizarre creature that lurks beneath the table, its black, frond-like tail curling around the room.

In The Giantess, or Guardian of the Egg (1947), the egg is, by contrast, rather small..

leonora-carrington_giantess

.. but then, so is everything else in comparison with the towering central figure, which can be readily interpreted as a goddess form, guarding the more usually male-dominated Hermetic mysteries.

Leonora’s sometime lover Max Ernst, meanwhile, was infused and informed by esotericism throughout his life, and this early work of his, The Inner Vision: The Egg (1929) appears to make direct reference to the Philosophic Egg:

the-inner-vision-the-egg-1929

…and the birds preparing to hatch from it are readily recognisable as representations of Loplop, Ernst’s oft-depicted avian familiar and totemic guide. So this image would appear to refer to Ernst’s own creative processes: his inner alchemy.

But returning to where we started- while my daughter was certainly rather proud of her discovery of the stone egg, it would probably be fair to say that, for her, the egg that held the most fascination this Easter was this one:

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As parents out there will be aware, Kinder Surprise eggs are chocolate eggs that contain small plastic toys- often of a pleasingly bizarre nature. By now, my mind whirling with alchemico-surrealist egg images, I was almost as anxious as her to see what would hatch from this particular egg. And once the chocolate shell was breached, this is what we found within:

arctic_fox

I wasn’t immediately sure what it was (although she knew straight away)- but it came with a nametag, in Latin, no less: Vulpes lagopus, and a quick Google confirmed her insistence that it was, therefore, an Arctic fox.

Which, in view of the extreme cold, seemed to make perfect sense.

Portrait of the Artist

The portrait stone
The portrait stone
William Burroughs, 'Portrait of the Artist as a Psychotic Junkie', 1959

William Burroughs, ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Psychotic Junkie’, 1959

As Christmas approaches, it’s perhaps appropriate that a legendary old man, with an unmistakable twinkle in his eye, should appear on the Shoreline. Yes, it’s William Burroughs.

I used to be a big fan of his writing although, at the risk of calling down the wrath of the internet, I’ll admit that after a while I found all those sex-virus addictions and hanged boys a tad repetitive. But my interest was piqued by reading of a new exhibition at the October Gallery, London, that focuses on Burroughs’ visual art, including the pithily titled Portrait of the Artist as a Psychotic Junkie, above.

Burroughs’ visual art often derives from chance events: the spray of paint from a spraygun, the patterns made by shooting firearms at canvases or wooden panels (he was, famously, a gun nut). The results might then be scrutinised for significance, or images Burroughs recognised as familiar- or rather, familiars. There’s an interesting piece about the exhibition here.

It might be stretching a point to claim Burroughs as a Surrealist (although it also might not be) , but clearly this concern with chance as a key to creativity is not so far from Surrealism’s psychic automatism, and more generally its interest in the threshold between the Conscious and Unconscious, waking and dreams, the familiar and the taboo- in other words, all the stuff of the Shoreline.

I’d been thinking of making time to check out this exhibition, and the Shoreline itself seems to be endorsing this idea – the most recent find to wash up from the depths at Saltdean beach is a striking stone likeness of the ‘psychotic junkie’ self-portrait, shown above. And rather topically, one of the other works featured in the October Gallery exhibition is entitled Black Christmas Tree:

William Burroughs, 'Black Christmas Tree', 1988

William Burroughs, ‘Black Christmas Tree’, 1988

And you can watch a short film of Burroughs’ story A Junky’s Christmas, narrated by the man himself, here. I do, of course, wish all readers a more uplifting and convivial festive period than the one depicted there. Season’s greetings to you all.

William-Burroughs-London-1988

Travels in Hypersurreality: Numerology of the Undercliff

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A serious outbreak of Actually Existing Work has kept me from blogging recently, but lo, the winter solstice has arrived, and it happens that this year it marks the start of my festive break from the aforementioned Work. So now that I have time to breathe, let me share with you a strange instance of hyperlinked synchronicity, that follows on from the previous post about the great Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington and the recent visit of English Heretic to the Shoreline.

The story begins in a familiar location- the psycho-alchemical arena of Saltdean beach, nexus of the Haunted Shoreline.

As Andy Sharp noted on the English Heretic blog following his visit here, the beach at Saltdean is reached either by flights of steps from the clifftop, or via a tunnel that passes under the cliff:

Every nekyia needs its hypogeal ramp and the beach at Saltdean is reached by a tunnel cut into the cliffs. The shallow descent through the tunnel gives Haunted Shoreline’s perambulations a magical imperative. The beach is cut off from the mundane. As we left the beach through the tunnel, a sign above the entrance showed the numbers 902.

The photo above shows this sign, with the numbers 902; this sign is positioned directly above the entrance to the tunnel, which is officially named the Undercliff Walk:

undercliff_walk

It acts as a portal – something akin to a wormhole in a sci-fi movie, through which the protagonists will pass and find themselves in some hyperdimensional realm, tangible yet somehow orthogonal to the known space-time continuum. To illustrate this, here is a picture of my daughter, carefully guiding her space cruiser through the undercliff wormhole, and about to emerge onto the beach, the Haunted Shoreline itself:

light_at_end2

Andy and I had already pondered the potential significance of the numbers 902, our musings being based around the extensive symbolism of the number 11 (gematria: 9+0+2=11). But after his visit, I found myself returning to the numbers, and also to the figure of Leonora Carrington, whose work had animated our beachcombing explorations that day and haunted my imagination thereafter. And so, on a whim, I typed “leonora carrington 902” into Google.

And this is what I found- the first result:

gallery902

It’s a page from the website of New York’s famous Metropolitan Art Museum. All the rooms and galleries of the Met are numbered, and Gallery 902 is devoted to… Surrealism.

A curious synchronicity, I thought. But it gets better- it turns out that there is, indeed, a work by Leonora Carrington on display in this gallery, and I was amazed to find that it was the very painting that Andy and I had discussed, her early Self Portrait: 

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Leonora Carrington, ‘Self-Portrait’, 1937-8

This is one of her best known works and the most direct representation of her curious affinity with the hyena, which she regarded as a kind of personal familiar or totem animal.

Amused and perplexed, I fired off an email to Andy to let him know about this peculiar coincidence, through which the Shoreline current had apparently looped back on itself via cyberspace.

And then, seven minutes after sending the email- and I have the screenshots to prove it- what should happen? Why, this very same painting popped up on my screen, in my Facebook feed. (The painting was posted to Facebook by the Leonora Carrington FB account. I do not know who runs this account – Leonora herself died last year, at the age of 94 – but it would appear to be someone with access to a significant archive of her work, as images of paintings, drawings and sculpture are posted throughout the day, every day. I think the account owner may be based in Mexico, where Leonora Carrington lived for most of her life).

And at that point the tingling electric shiver of the Uncanny was well and truly manifest, crackling through and around me.

Now, I do not attach beliefs to such happenstances. I have written before about the absence of belief in the Shoreline method. But even without attaching any certain meaning or value to synchronicities like these, or to the Shoreline current in general,  one can choose to follow a thread and see where it leads.

And so I find myself considering a trip to Mexico.

Mexico is a place I have never visited, but in addition to being Leonora Carrington’s home for most of her life, it featured in a highly significant dream I had early in 2011, many months before I initiated the Shoreline project (or it initiated me, perhaps). This dream was too personal to discuss here, except to mention that it ended with me warding off a snapping dog or fox-like creature..

..dim echoes of Anubis, or Leonora’s hyena.. or maybe this, another of her works, an etching this time:

Leonora Carrington - "Dog, come here into the dark house. Come here, black dog"

Leonora Carrington – “Dog, come here into the dark house. Come here, black dog”

.. and this strange mesh of symbols, resonances and portents leads me on.. ever further along the Shoreline, ever further down the wormhole.

wormhole

Songs of a Spiny Beast

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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:

..an 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.