Dark Gods

Max Ernst, ‘The Dark Gods’, 1957

Despite being my favourite artist, Max Ernst hasn’t been a major presence on this blog to date (although he has made appearances here and here), and for some time I’ve been thinking that I ought to rectify that. On a recent excursion to Birling Gap I came across this piece of flint:

… which immediately put me in mind of Ernst’s painting The Dark Gods.

The figures in this painting have none of the baroque qualities of, for example, H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, which might be a comparison (godforms embodying deep, primal forces). Ernst’s dark gods depend on simple geometric shapes, almost childlike circles and triangles, to give them life. In this, though, they are ultimately more compelling than the ornate, fantastical beings common to so much ‘fantasy art’. The projection of simple lines and forms onto the formless swirlings of Mystery surely describes the actual creation of the first gods, long ago in our species’ psychic prehistory: attempts to impose some simple structure on the existential darkness into which our ancestors stared as they first developed the double-edged human qualities of self-awareness and consciousness. In addition, if we interpret the figure in the foreground as some kind of priest or shaman, and the face that floats above him as the god he invokes, worships, creates– then it is notable that the god is created in the image of the man who dreams him- another important insight embedded in this deceptively simple painting. There’s a large, hi-res version of this painting here (click on the individual paintings to enlarge them).

Now that Ernst has made his presence felt on the Shoreline, I thought I’d also share an image I’ve been saving for an Ernst-related post, one of a series of collages he produced as illustrations for Leonora Carrington’s The House of Fear. This is more obviously Shoreline-related – and, perhaps, has a more Lovecraftian mien:

You can see more of Ernst’s House of Fear collages at the excellent Tigerloaf blog.

A Helix Of Slime

Freud With A Snail Head (Salvador Dali, 1974)

I was in Paris recently, and while there visited Espace Dali, a collection of Dali’s works housed in the Montmartre district. It is very similar to the exhibition that used to be on show at the rather corny Dali Universe ‘attraction’ in London (which closed in 2010), but I much preferred the style of presentation in Paris, which allows the work to stand on its own merits, rather than trying to turn the whole gallery into an advertising exec’s idea of a ‘surreal space’, as was the case in London. The show features mostly later and lesser-known works, many of which were originally commissioned by the Spanish government (Dali’s support for Franco is well-known, and utterly indefensible) for an illustrated series of literary classics including Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland, and both the Old and New Testament.

Dali is, in some sense, one of this blog’s presiding spirits; another is Sigmund Freud, whom Dali greatly admired. In July 1938, the two men met for the only time. What took place at that meeting will be the subject of a future post, but for the purposes of this one, it is important to know that, even before meeting Freud, Dali had apparently formed (and found great significance in) the idea that the ageing doctor’s head resembled a snail. This idea, and its importance, was confirmed in Dali’s mind by a synchronicity that occurred when he went to meet Freud in London: as he waited for the door to be opened, he noticed a snail on the seat of a bicycle parked outside the house. His subsequent meeting with, and observations of, Freud seem to have then reinforced the idea still further.

The image stayed with him ever after: as late as 1974 he produced Freud With A Snail Head, shown above. Like many of his late works,  it was rolled out as a pricey limited edition run of coloured etchings (the spectre of Salvador’s legendary avarice looms large at Espace Dali), one of which is included in the Paris show. I doubt that anyone has ever claimed that it is among his best work. Nevertheless, it is quite a curio item.

So why a snail? What do snails signify?

Squishy. Slimy. Creatures of the damp and shade… of the undergrowth. Thus: avatars of the Unconscious, the erotic, the hidden. The fleshy ooze of sex and other physical taboos.

The picture below, which can also be seen at Espace Dali, is one of a series of works Dali produced for a 1967 illustrated edition of Casanova:

Here the erotic aspect of the snail is made explicit. The gallery notes allude to this, linking snails to lobsters and other sea creatures- another Dalinian trope. What all these have in common (along with eggs, another frequent Dali motif) is the combination of hard shell and soft, glutinous parts. When you think about it, though, almost any organism above a certain level of evolutionary complexity could be described as a melange of hard bits and squishy bits, so this symbolism might seem rather non-specific. Arguably, however, creatures such as snails and lobsters demonstrate this duality in its simplest and most obvious form, somewhat like living Yin/Yang symbols.

Back in Espace Dali, another of the illustrations for Casanova provides a striking demonstration of Dali’s use of crustacean imagery as erotic metaphor:

It is no coincidence that these hard/soft liminal creatures have also been prominent here on the Shoreline: consider the ammonites, the belemnites, the vampire squid, the cuttlefish (and for good measure the egg).

However, I suggest that it would be wrong to see the snail as simply one of a number of almost interchangeable animal symbols in Dali’s work. One senses that it has a particular significance that sets it apart from the lobsters and their ilk. Here, my speculative delvings into Dali’s psyche lean heavily on the central thesis of Ian Gibson’s 1997 book The Shameful Life of Salavdor Dali, by far the best book on him I have read. Gibson’s meticulous research supports an incredibly detailed chronology of Dali’s life (clarifying, correcting, and where necessary debunking the Dalinian myths)- a valuable enough resource in itself- but the book goes much further than this. It is a kind of psychological detective story based around Gibson’s key idea, which is that Dali was in thrall to shame. He was, Gibson contends, ashamed of his peculiarities, his social awkwardness and shyness as a youth, his emotions, his sexual quirks… he was ashamed of the physical grossness inherent in existing at all.. the bodily fluids and carnal slime… and ashamed yet further by his own fascinations with these things.

As Gibson elucidates, shame involves something doubly hidden: if a person is ashamed of, for example, a particular fetish, the fetish itself may well remain a secret, while the shame attached to it will also be hidden: thus we end up with a double secret. Feelings of shame can thus be associated with complex, multi-layered defences, and for this reason may prove particularly intractable.

Early in Dali’s artistic career, his association with Surrealism, immersion in Freudian theory, and the receptive socio-cultural conditions of the time all enabled him to explore his sexual paranoia and body horror in full public view. The Surrealists held that such explorations were liberating, but even as Dali spilled his darkest fantasies across his canvases, and in so doing secured the celebrity he craved, the hidden shame about what he was revealing tormented him more and more. He was, quite simply, ashamed of himself… ashamed of being Salvador Dali. Over time, and as his fame increased, he coped by retreating into the absurdist, and ultimately tedious, megalomania that became his trademark in later life. In short, he became a brand. He talked about ‘Dali’ in the third person, acknowledging that his public persona was a contrivance- but for him, perhaps, a necessary one.

And it is precisely this burning sense of shame which, I suggest, holds the key to Dali’s use of snail imagery.

As we noted, the snail can be readily interpreted as pertaining to the secret, the erotic, the taboo- and, therefore, the shameful. But Dali’s strange intuition that Freud somehow resembled a snail adds a whole new dimension to the meaning of the creature in the context of Dali’s personal mythos. The young Dali hero-worshipped Freud, attributing to him almost supernatural powers of insight, and believing that Freud’s theories were perhaps the first time in history that humanity had attained to certain insights about itself. Freud had penetrated the veils of normalcy and decency: he knew what lay beneath- the sex, violence, deviance… and, of course, the shame. Dali’s reverence for Freud reflected his view that Freud, in his writings, had exhibited a kind of X-ray vision of the psyche: he had described the problem of shame as it really was, as it afflicted him, Dali.  That Freud reminded him of a snail thus becomes enormously significant: the snail becomes symbolic not only of all the dirty slimy stuff down there in the psychic soil, but also of the knowledge of all this, and its revealing and, by extension, of Dali’s private losing battle with his demons of self-loathing.

In Dali’s highly idiosyncratic personal universe, then, the snail is a symbol of extraordinary resonance and power. And as I wandered Espace Dali and all this fell into place, it occurred to me that my being in Paris afforded me the opportunity to perform a ritual in which the power of the snail- now enshrined in my own personal gnosis through the process of seeing (or perhaps concocting) these connections, this psychic narrative- could be brought into my orbit, its potent energies absorbed into my very being.

And, sure enough, just a couple of minutes’ walk away, I found an establishment where I was able to undertake just such a ritual.

Bon appetit.

Love in a Void

I am indebted to the erudite Dr Champagne, leading occult psychogeographer and English Heretic, for pointing out to me the resemblance between the seed pod found recently on Peacehaven beach, and Dali’s 1929 painting Accommodations Of Desire, reproduced above. The Doc has been an enthusiastic email correspondent and supporter of this blog, and it was a pleasure to meet him in the living flesh at the recent GHostings 7 event at Senate House, London, where we discussed this painting and other matters of mutual interest.

Dali was only 25 when he painted this (strictly speaking, a mixture of painting and collage, as the lion heads are cut from a picture book rather than painted), supposedly commencing work on it after returning home from a walk with Gala, the woman who would become his partner, Muse, and surrogate mother figure, but who at this time was still married to Paul Eluard. Dali knew his infatuation with her was indeed a kind of seed pod: all kinds of future complications were gestating in the fertile ground of amour fou.

The painting is commonly interpreted as a pictorial itemisation of Dali’s anxieties about this future, though one could in fact see it as embodying a ritual practice through which the artist attempts to take possession of his fears and master them by the very act of depicting them- thus giving them form– and then taking charge of these forms (artistically, psychologically, magically) by containment, in the strange white seed-stone-egg vessels of the painting. Either way, it is notable that the title refers to accommodations of desire, rather than of fear. The suggestion is that Dali, who at this time was enamoured of Freudian ideas, suspects that while he fears the oncoming storms, he also desires them. Or, at least, his desires are such that he must accept the turmoil they will inevitably bring.

The desire thus accommodated has something in common with the seed pod and the womb, the vessels of gestation and creation. Desire, after all, is crucially involved in the creation of new life (perhaps not in plants, but the messy drama of the human condition is what concerns us here). More generally, we can say that desire is implicated in manifestation- because desire, in this context, implies absence: a yearning for that which is not here, not manifest. The wish for presence from absence, and the calling forth of that presence.

Yet this is the essence of of any creative act: the summoning and shaping of new forms. Words made flesh.

It was thus entirely fitting that the tagline of the GHostings event was:

An evening of interdisciplinary talks and presentations exploring the desire to materialise what is absent.

The forces of synchronicity continue to crackle around the Shoreline, of course, and the day after my conversation with Dr Champagne, my daughter brought home this picture from school… apparently it shows a lily pond…

Consider the lilies: the synchronistic pond

Jump right in.. the water’s lovely…



The Seed Pod and the Centurion

A large chalky rock doing its best impression of a giant seed pod. This photo was taken on Peacehaven beach, on the same day the Wombstone was found there. At the time I simply filed this picture away for future perusal- once I got around to said perusal, however, I realised it was entirely in keeping with the theme of gestation , as expounded in the Wombstone post. The signs are always there, even if it sometimes takes a while to see them.

The general theme of the Eternal Feminine reminded me that I’d been meaning to write something here about Dorothea Tanning, who reached the end of this perplexing (I speak for myself) earthly adventure a few weeks ago, on January 31st, at the age of 101. She was often described as “the last of the Surrealists”, although she disliked being categorised and would deliberately confound those who attempted it. (To the extent that when an interviewer referred to her as “a woman Surrealist artist”, she responded with the memorable rebuke,”I am not even a woman, let alone a Surrealist”.)


Her most famous painting is one of her earliest: Birthday, from 1942:

This is replete with Surrealist motifs and preoccupations: ambiguous eroticism, the presence of the mythical or fantastic (the curious winged creature in the foreground), and the journey into the unconscious, symbolised by the endless doors (my own subjective response- I have no idea whether this is the “approved” interpretation). These dark fantastical elements pervade her early work, for example The Witch, from 1950:

In the decades since this was painted, the popularity of cheesy ‘fantasy’ art and fiction has perhaps obscured our view of such work, and  I will admit that this particular painting now appears somewhat cliched, although it would not have seemed so at the time. But in any event, as the original Surrealist group fragmented, the artists involved headed into new territories, and Tanning was no exception. From the mid-1950s onwards, her style became more abstract, her canvases filled with amorphous, billowing clouds of colour. When form is discernible, it is often the form of the female body, albeit hinted at rather than clearly depicted, as for example in Ignoti Nulla Cupido, 1960:

For me, these works compare favourably with any of the more celebrated Abstract Expressionism of the period. And there was much more to come: printmaking, sculpture, poetry, and a novel, Chasm, written in her 90s and published in 2004 (and on my ever-lengthening ‘must read’ list). Particularly influential were her soft fabric sculptures of the period 1969-1973. The installation Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202 comprises a group of these:

The objects are poised ambiguously between functional soft furnishings and strange fetishistic representations of the female form. Are these bodies splayed in ecstasy or abjection? Or are they simply navigating everyday life?

As well as all this, she was married to Max Ernst from 1946 until his death in 1976. In accounts of her life, the fact that she was Mrs Ernst is often given far more prominence than any consideration of her own art, and despite her devotion to him she would rue the impact of their union on public and critical perception of her work: aged 90 she chided an interviewer who seemed overly focused on Ernst thus: “He was part of my life for 35 years… but I’ve had 55 others” . Here, I have deliberately written about her work before mentioning Ernst, even though he is my favourite artist. Still, it’s quite a love story- they met in 1942, soon after Ernst (who was married to Peggy Guggenheim at the time) had emigrated to the US. The story goes that they fell in love over a game of chess (the photo below is from much later -note the Ernstian chess pieces):

…and she later wrote of her first impression of him:

The presence of this profound and absolutely impenetrable something – was he carrying some special burden of knowledge beyond the things in books, a heavy Arcanum? – removed him ever so slightly from where he stood, so that his gentleness, his elegance and the whole amalgam of his being spoke of apartness.

Ernst must have felt she saw him as he really was: the above is surely how he experienced himself.

As a couple of Tanning’s obituarists (see links below) noted, at the time of her death her work was (and still is) featured in an exhibition entitled Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There is irony in this- she was disparaging of the term ‘woman artist’ and was fiercely unwilling to present herself as such, or to co-operate with the ‘gender studies’ industry, which took far more interest in her than she did in it. And this was despite the recurring theme of female physicality and sexuality that pervades her work. Her character, like her art, was too individuated to be assimilated by tick-box ideology, and she was scornful of attempts in this direction.

She was equally unimpressed by much of the art she encountered in later years. Asked in 2002 what she thought of contemporary art, she responded:

I can’t answer that without enraging the art world. It’s enough to say that most of it comes straight out of Dada, 1917. I get the impression that the idea is to shock. So many people labouring to outdo Duchamp’s urinal. It isn’t even shocking anymore, just kind of sad.

How right she was.

Read more about her life and work here, worthwhile obituaries here and here, and more idiosyncratic personal memories of her here.

The last word, of course, goes to Dorothea herself. When asked, at the age of 91, “So what have you tried to communicate as an artist? What were your goals, and have you achieved them?” she replied:

I’d be satisfied with having suggested that there is more than meets the eye.