- Ithell Colquhoun: Magician Born of NatureOur PickBy Richard Shillitoe
- Ithell Colquhoun: Pioneer Surrealist Artist, Occultist, Writer, and PoetOur PickBy Eric Ratcliffe
Important Art by Ithell Colquhoun
In an early canvas by Ithell Colquhoun, Song of Songs, two naked lovers are locked in a carnival embrace. In classical style, the woman on the left has pale skin and looks provocatively up with breasts exposed whilst the strong man who cradles her has tanned skin. Set in a garden landscape, rich with trees and foliage, the abundance of fruit and wine await by their side. The artist's tonal and muscular style of painting the human figure reveals an uncanny resemblance to early portraits by Lucian Freud. Colquhoun included people in her early paintings, but following failed love affairs and a rapidly growing interest in nature, her future works would become entirely devoid of the figure.
Religion was an important influence throughout Colquhoun's life. While she would quickly move beyond the solely Christian beliefs of her childhood to explore other faiths, the occult, and magical orders, here we see the importance she placed on biblical narratives in some of her earliest works. The painting is a visual manifestation of the Song of Solomon, and while still realistic, there are hints - in the loosening of forms, heightening of palette, and decrease in historical detail - that show the beginnings of a more abstract, or Surrealist influence.
Sexuality, which plays an important thematic role throughout Colquhoun's oeuvre, is overtly present in this early painting. Although the artist will go on to unite and somewhat dissolve the male/female sexual opposition, here we witness the female as a continuing object of erotic desire. In describing this aspect of the work, the artist's biographer Richard Shillitoe states, "The painting emphasizes the poem's sensuality. Two naked lovers embrace in voluptuous luxury." The poem is also rich in sexual symbolism, which she would return to often including for Shillitoe, "the leafless tree in the upper right with its shaped limbs and gash in the trunk placed next to the phallic spear, is an early appearance of Colquhoun's use of tree imagery to suggest sexual organs." This work then can be interpreted as precursor of her future artistic mastery, leaving behind the traditional heterosexual couple at its centre and instead working outwards from the fringes, learning from formations in nature rather than from the behavior of humans.
By 1936, Colquhoun has left any obvious human figure behind and ponders the universal macrocosm by focusing on the microcosm that is flowers and plants. Here the dissection of a Pitcher-plant unites both male and female genitalia, and as such we look towards an ideal of the hermaphrodite, in which opposites alchemically unite rather than stand separately in conflict. At the base of the plant's green leaves that dominate the top half of the painting hangs a closed testicular-looking flower rendered in pale pinks and yellows. The work provides not only an important early example of themes of flowers and vegetation in Colquhoun's art but also marks the beginning of her transition to Surrealist works that she embraced beginning in the mid-1930s. It also provides interesting comparison material with the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe.
The work also serves as an example of Salvador Dalí's early influence on the artist through his labeled "phantasmic pressences" and their shared personification of nature. According to Richard Shillitoe, "it is Colquhoun's earliest double image, and combines the pitcher-plant with male genitalia." The plant then also becomes a vehicle to explore issues of gender and assert feminine strength, a recurring theme for the artist. What could be the male penis and testicles also looks like ovarian tubes and a vaginal passage and as such simultaneously alludes to female genitalia as well as male demonstrating the layered complexities, symbols, and meanings ever present in the work of Colquhoun. For Shillitoe, "Colquhoun's pitcher plant is, at once, both penis and vagina dentata [or vagina with teeth]. Conjunctio oppositorum [or coincidence of opposites] has been achieved, but male sexual fears, of the female genitalia, are here turned onto themselves: this is the penis which devours itself, a phallus dentata [or penis with teeth]."
This painting is Ithell Colquhoun's seminal and most important work. Two large vertical rocks dominate the canvas of Scylla. They rise out of the transparent water to gently touch at the top to form a crevice beneath. The stones are colossal, monumental, and a small white boat bravely moves forth in an attempt to pass through. The painting is so successful because it well situates Colquhoun's work within the movement of Surrealism in the widest sense. At once phallic and feminine, the rocks recall the draped introspective figures of René Magritte, the trussed and bound dolls of Hans Bellmer, and the striking 'surreal' nature photography of Lee Miller and Eileen Agar.
The work provides one of the artist's best examples of a 'double image', and of a transitional and changeable space where the earth meets the sea. In addition to the water scene, as art historian Eric Ratcliffe explains, "A major feature is her uprisen legs as twin rocks, seaweed for public hair. The legs touch at the knees, leaving an opening between them and the pelvic area. A prow of a small boat is seen through the opening bordered by the inner thighs, sailing on the bath water. It is a small phallic symbol questing in the vaginal area." The artist herself acknowledged this interpretation when describing the painting by stating, "It was suggested by what I could see of myself in a bath...it is thus a pictorial pun, or double-image." Interestingly, this starting point is identical to that of Frida Kahlo's when she painted What the Water Gave Me, in the very same year. One can only speculate as to whether either of the two artists knew of the other's work, or to determine otherwise that this is simply an interesting and recurring subject in the depths of the human unconscious.
This work is one of many that incorporates the artist's prevalent theme of gender used by Colquhoun to both assert the strength of women as matriarchs, and simultaneously to draw our attention to the importance of the female artist in the Surrealist movement. Ratcliffe supports such a viewpoint when he states in this work, "...the overall interpretation is the catastrophic potential of the power of the female over the male sex in a symbolic androgynous setting. It accords with the efforts of other women Surrealists at that time to diminish the dominance of male artists portraying the female as a desire image."