Nameless Guests

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It is rare for me to feature something synthetic rather than stone or organic. This was not a deliberate decision from the outset: it’s just that there seems to be truth in them there stones, more than in them plastic gee-gaws. Perhaps this is unsurprising. But here is an exception – this is a small plastic ghost my daughter found washed ashore recently (all the photos of it came out this badly, and then the cat batted it under the oven). Initially I thought it might be some tiny piece of Ghostbusters-related merchandise but, upon Googling, saw that it bore far less resemblance to anything in Ghostbusters than I’d initially imagined. It remains unidentified, one of a number of curious minor characters to wash up on the Shoreline of late.

The remaining oddballs presented here are a succession of stony visages. Together they form a set of quirky, nameless bit-part players. No great deities or demons these: unremarkable creatures in fact, flotsam entities drifting in on the tide of Being.

One could see the first as a frog, the second as a seal…

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… and a friend remarked of the third that it could plausibly represent Makka Pakka reacting to being sacked from In the Night Garden (go here if that reference baffles you). Maybe so – and, in fact, popular childrens’ TV characters may well have the kind of mythic power with which I try to infuse the fruits of my beachcombing. But psycho-alchemical analysis of preschool TV seems a flight of fancy too far, even here.

Only recently did it strike me where I had seen such figures before. It is not so much that there is direct physical resemblance, but they have something of the same mien and aura as the figures in Max Ernst’s Feast of the God.

Max Ersnt, 'Feast of the God', 1948

Max Ernst, ‘Feast of the God’, 1948

And it seems an appropriate time to now assemble this motley crew and present them here, because the phrase feast of the god neatly describes recent events on the Shoreline. Stay tuned: these events will be recounted in upcoming posts, in which the glitter prism gaze of psychedelic omnivision will be turned upon them, and they shall give up their secret meanings.

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An Easter Egg

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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:

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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..

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.. 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:

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…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:

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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.

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.

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.

Strange Weather on Distant Shores

If any of the Shoreline’s small but discerning readership are in the vicinity of Reading, Pennsylvania over the next few weeks, they’ll doubtless want to check out Surrealism in 2012: Toward the World of the Fifth Sun, an exciting-looking event that runs from Jan 6th to Feb 19th at the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts. Read more about it here and here.

Meanwhile the major, heavy-on-the-big-names exhibition Surrealism in Paris continues until Jan 29th at Fondation Beyeler, Basel. I’m still trying to work out a way I might get to this. The exhibition website is well worth a look- I particularly liked this 1935 Man Ray portrait of Max Ernst:

I don’t think I’ve previously seen Ernst looking quite so birdlike- quite so much like Loplop, in other words.