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Seaside Surrealism

July 3, 2007

Leeds is about as far inland as it’s possible to get in the U.K., but nevertheless its art gallery has some good examples of what I’ve been patiently trying to get scholars of Modernism to recognise — and celebrate — as Seaside Surrealism.

Seaside Surrealism is what happened in Britain, in place of any real fully fledged Surrealism.  The phrase comes from the writings of Paul Nash during his time in Swanage, where he painted curious seascapes and beaches strewn with alien wreckage, and chanced upon found natural objects (rocks and shells) that show nature joining in with the artist’s aleatoric games. 

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In these paintings the sea stands, obviously, for a margin, a border — but one that is less rigid than a dry land borderline, given the bits and pieces, the aesthetically  reusable fragments washed up on the shoreline.  Coupled with the suggestion of psychological or oneiric drift that the sea allows for, the seaside becomes an obvious setting for Surrealist work of art to announce itself.  Nash was joined in Swanage by Eileen Agar, who discovered beached objects, splendid or silly, such as the self-descriptively titled Bum Thumb Rock.  Perhaps the true usefulness of the seaside here is not found in the ocean’s sense of menace, or generosity.  Rather, I think it is found in the combination of either of these things with the general silliness that a seaside setting encourages (which I discussed in passing during my own seaside stay a couple of weeks ago). 

Elsewhere, Ben Nicholson’s stay in St Ives resulted in wood reliefs made up of forms abstracted from the town’s seascapes, while Edward Wadsworth’s later paintings look seawards in hope of a utopia achieved through abstraction.  The British poet David Gascoyne, who was an official Surrealist (by the age of 16), sets his short poems, writhing with colliding forms and thoughts, by the sea; Dylan Thomas, who flirted with Surrealism in the thirties, kept his community of oddities in Under Milk Wood at home in a Welsh seaside village, where the blind Captain Cat is directed by dreams that he is still at sea.  Drifting still further, Samuel Beckett’s radio play Embers, produced for the BBC, is actually a collaboration with Desmond Briscoe, who made the seaside sounds reshaped into an electronic drone that accompany Beckett’s words.

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The contribution of British artists and writers to the Surrealist movement is generally regarded as being peripheral, which is perhaps true, but that would be a bad reason to disregard it completely.  Surrealism proper is, after all, an art of the periphery, or more specifically, the collapsing of borderlines to the point that the peripheral becomes principal, and the incidental and atmospheric move inwards to the centre of things.  Nash’s painting “Harbour and Room” depicts the invasion of a domestic living space by the harbour; exteriority imposes on interiority, which is as good a model as any for the Modernist artist’s sensorially receptive consciousness. 

Taking in, in this fashion, is the precise opposite movement of pushing outwards, which is the first movement of imperialism.  The rhetoric of Daily Mail refugee-loathing journalists, who crassly visualise the immigration issue for their readership by describing hoards of foreigners appearing “on our shores”, shows that the British coastline still gives a hyper-sensitive reading of the island’s collective consciousness.  It’s sad that this self-assertive island mentality should take precedence over seaside silliness, which is the more constructive mood.  This was the point behind my unpopular song “On Margate Sands”, which is due for a re-recording next week.  In this song, titled after T.S. Eliot, I rather optimistically envisaged the scores of immigrants arriving at Margate, as described in the Mail, simply being able and allowed to enjoy the family fun and ruined playful splendour of an old seaside town.  I think that’s a reasonable thing to imagine.

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