Guardians of the Secret

* “Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly be-smoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbours, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavoured to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last came to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, until you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but alas, deceptive idea would dart you through: — It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale — It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements — It’s a blasted heath –It’s a Hyperborean winter scene — It’s the breaking up of the ice-bound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. Thatonce found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

In fact, the artist’s design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject .The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with it’s three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.”
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Scottish steel and Irish fire that’s the sword that I desire.
— Hugh MacDiarmid

Guardians of the Secret (GS for short) was painted in the summer of 1943 and was one of a succession of paintings where Jackson Pollock used the surrealist method of tapping the unconscious to liberate the creative psyche and by so doing paint in a more direct and spontaneous manner. GS hangs in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It is a relatively big painting (48 x 75ins.) but much smaller than the massive “drip” paintings for which Pollock is famous. GS and its sister paintings of the inter-war period marked a metamorphosis in Pollock’s work when he began to shed the influences of Picasso, Miro, Orozco, El Greco and Native American Indian Art. GS is a frenzy of strokes, daubs and sinuous lines texturizing and masking ephemeral animal and human derived forms all buzzing and abounding and hovering in and around three vertical rectangular plains curated by two overpowering totemic deities and a pointy eared hound in prone position directly under the white “slab” rectangle where the viewer’s gaze is entranced to go.

In her book on Pollock, Ellen Landau offers this interpretation of the two totemic figures in GS: the totemic figure on the right of the white “slab” is a bearded, crown-bedecked “king” seemingly ejaculating semen which clearly indicates its gender while the figure on the left is a heavy bosomed headless woman in flowing gown and again the gender of this figure is unequivocally clear. This is a condensation of Ellen Landau’s reading of the two figures. I believe it to be grand speculation, but to speculate further and in mirth I’ll give my reading. The figure on the right is Ishmael the survivor and narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick, with his white mask and harpoon/staff in left hand while the figure on the left which has a skull hovering over its skeletal frame, something like traditional skeleton figures from Mexico, represents death or Captain Ahab’s watery end. I’ll cut back to Ellen Landau here, who concludes that the floating white “skull” form is in fact a horse-faced mask. I would refer to Ishmael’s description of Queequeg in chapter10 of Moby Dick: “Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of George Washington’s head… Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed”.

As for the other forms that inhabit the space between the two totemic sentinels, they are a menagerie from Pollock’s fertile psyche that he has left dreamily obscure. The head and shoulders that appear in thick white line above the suspended dark body of a “whale” shape in the white slab conjures up the image of Yojo ( Queequeg’s little wooden hunch back idol ), which Ishmael describes as “exactly the color of a three days’ old Congo baby”. The churning, milky white (no pun intended) slab seems to me to represent the sea and the battleground between Captain Ahab and the white whale at the end of Moby Dick. In the sea or slab it’s possible to make out among stick iconography three mast-like perpendiculars and the dark whale form hanging above them. In fact, more than one fishlike form careers around in the creamy brine.

Below the slab lies a pointy eared dog which critics have said represents Pollock’s pet or a dog from Egyptian mythology, but in chapter 42 of Moby Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale”, we find a dog and a few lines are worth quoting from Ishmael’s reverie at the beginning of this chapter. “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me”. Further into the same chapter, Ishmael remarks, “to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they would send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity”.

The glyphs surrounding the white dog could be construed as a salute to former Pollock mentor John Graham who signed the date on his own paintings in this fashion and the large 0 and small 3 might be a reference to ozone. I was hookedby GS thirty years ago and still am, for its frenetic portrayal of psychic energy and its dancing iconography, which underwent a final explosive metamorphosis in the famous drippaintings of the late forties and early fifties.

Pollock, like many of his generation, was enraptured by the beautiful rhythmic prose in Moby Dick and it seems likely that his artist’s sensibility would have picked out chapters like “The Whiteness of the Whale” and “The Spouter Inn” to contemplate and marvel over. Pollock wasn’t known for intellectual verbosity, but he possessed a rare instinctive intelligence and self belief in his role as a ground breaking artist which for short periods offset a psychosis incurred from an itinerant childhood and parental break-up. In teenage-hood this traumatic background manifested itself in heavy drinking and, in later life, acute alcoholism and notorious displays of verbal and physical belligerence.

Pollock’s vision at this time might be best summed up in these phrases: “I paint myself, I paint from inside, I paint the inside, I paint from the subconscious, I dip into the soul, I connect to the child in me, I paint what I am”. Pollock declared at one time, the only other creative thing happening in his time in America was jazz. As the jazz of Charlie Parker caught the mood of a vibrant young country with a short history and an arts culture still in thrall to Europe, so too did Pollock in a revelatory brute beauty transcribed with immense psychic and physical energy onto his “new world icons”. Pollock’s later canvases of exploding coloured ribbons and threads were in fact intimate ongoing self portraits of a Promethean artist trying to escape the chains of an acute psychogenic illness, not dissimilar in searing insight to Van Gogh’s self portraits. New creativity for a new age: saxophone notes played faster than the speed of light with painting that came from the same psychic wellspring but in both cases this seething big city energy osmosis had it’s umbilical cord stretching through time and space to ancient cultures in Africa, Ireland and Scotland respectively.

Robert Motherwell, artist and contemporary of Pollock’s, in an interview remembers Pollock in this way: “I thought and still think of him essentially as Celtic characterised by a lyricism in which the labyrinthine line, the effusion of feeling, the formal complexity and the supremacy of instinct is typically Celtic. It’s enough to think of the wood engravings of ancient Ireland”.

If Motherwell had thought also of Celtic metalwork and jewellery and the illuminated manuscripts of Christian monks in their knotted mysteries he would have come closer to the enigma that is Pollock .The Celtic Knot which was the anima of Celtic culture in visual and metaphysical terms still has it’s instrumental seers in the modern flux and the exile from the mother culture, if we look at the works of James Joyce or Dylan Thomas or more contemporary stream dippers such as Van Morrison and his soul brothers Jim Morrison and Tim Buckley. The “knot” of the Celtic psyche, through conquest and long oppression, both from a new religion and a new invader sank into the all-conquering profane, but while the visual arts almost died out, the oral tradition survived through music, poetry and story telling, even if the language form was that of the Anglo Saxon invader.

Pollock is the Celtic artist transported to another time as lightning post, all feeling instrument, all-American shape shifter, a radar screen chronicling the psychic energy of the ancients swimming in the ethereal blue unconscious. It is little wonder he was so drawn to Native American Indian art and ritual, for his cracked spirit must have seen something of home there. Pollock unravelled the knot unknowingly and it unravelled him in the end. What we see in Pollock’s art is the unfathomable mystery of life or the mystery of the collective consciousness that inhabits the spirit through a million years of breathing.

In ancient Ireland Pollock would have been a faith or inspired /ecstatic one, hence poet or prophet, in later Christian times called a fili, one having the divine power of second sight. Pollock was a seer and this gift or two edged sword he could handle when he was painting, but when he had to deal with the mundane and the harsh spotlight of fame he was like a fawn to the slaughter. He desired fame and fortune as a royal badge to wear on his spiritual quest as king of artists and de-throner of Picasso but his cracked soul sank into an alcoholic haze and his muse turned into an ever-present harpy pecking at him until the end. In The Muse The Harpy and The Burial Mound a weighty tome about Minoan Culture, Professor Richard M. Furey of Coleraine University, recalls the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey: “for every drop of inspiration the Muse doth lay in the mouth of the poet so much closer the rocky, sirens’ songs seek entrance into his doom”.

Pollock, when asked about the meaning of GS, replied: “John Graham will know what it means”. As both men are dead the secret goes with them but my reading of GS only returns the reader to another leviathan work of art in which the clearest delineation* of Guardians of the Secret was clairvoyantly penned by one Herman Melville, ninety-odd years before Pollock laid brush to this mystery.



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