- Ithell Colquhoun: Magician Born of NatureOur PickBy Richard Shillitoe
- Ithell Colquhoun: Pioneer Surrealist Artist, Occultist, Writer, and PoetOur PickBy Eric Ratcliffe
Progression of Art
Song of Songs
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.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
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]."
Oil on canvas - Collection of The National Trust, United Kingdom
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."
Oil on board - Collection of Tate Gallery, London, United Kingdom
The Pine Family
As referenced in the title, Colquhoun's painting The Pine Family consists of three felled trunks lying on the grass with blue sky above them. Each stump has a severed part and has been chillingly labeled with a white tag. This decision to label dismembered 'bodies' prophetically mourns the great loss of life experienced during World War II, as though referring to bodies laid out in a morgue. The motif also looks towards the heinous holocaust, when lives were reduced to little more than another assortment of things stolen from the Jewish people. The message seems to be that death is as close to us as life, as well as the fact that we as humans share our design with the other members of the natural kingdom, including trees.
As with many of her works, there is another way to view the image. One could also see the lower half of three bodies as adorned with pubic hair, and they could have been castrated. Even the title of the painting could be a play on words, for Eric Ratcliffe explains as, "...via a remark of Michel Remy, that 'pine' is French slang for penis."
This painting provides a fine example of Colquhoun's early Surrealist style in which she often used her art to make larger statements. Text is used here to relay the artist's message about explorations of gender. The male figure bears the label "Atthis" a mythological figure; the female "celle qui boîte" which when translated means "the one who limps;" and the middle figure, "the circumcised hermaphrodite." A recurring theme of the artist is also present, the study and influence of magic, here in relation to gender. According to Richard Shillitoe, "In alchemical writings the hermaphrodite symbolizes the union of opposites. [...] The hermaphrodite is the Magical Child, the Two-in-One and is a culmination of the Great Work. In Colquhoun's painting, however, the magical child has been mutilated. S/he too has no penis, although to external appearances the female genitalia remain whole."
While a clear understanding of the message may be hard to define, the painting stands once again as a visual manifestation of the artist's struggle to understand gender roles and the power of sexuality. Ratcliffe says that, "the general, though perhaps superficial message seems to be that identity or definition via the potency of any sexual aspect is doomed." For Shillitoe, similarly, "The work may well be, in part, a parody on the male surrealist obsession with sexuality but every-thing hints at personal transition, uncertainty and chaos." The inherent sexuality present in the work was obvious enough that it was considered to be pornographic and was removed from an exhibition in 1942.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel
This was the painting that Coluqhoun hung in replacement of the condemned Pine Family in a 1942 exhibition. As reflected in the title, at first glance the subject of Tree Anatomy is a cross section of the lined innards of a tree. Specifically, it features a section of tree trunk where a large knot has formed an open space that leads the viewer's eye into a dark void. The work however, also provides an important example of the artist's recurring use of the 'double image'. Here the parallel suggestion is that the object is a vagina, which when accepted reveals the artist's belief that nature and femininity are eternally linked. According to Richard Shillitoe, the painting "contains an important statement by the artist of the idea of an intimate and harmonious association between woman and nature. It is an intimate picture of a vegetation deity, a tree goddess."
There is an inherent directness to Colquhoun's work, evident in this painting, in which, even if partially obscured through Surrealist and/or double imagery, the viewer is left to confront female sexuality, in much the same way as in the close up renditions of flowers painted by Georgia O'Keeffe. For Shillitoe the assessment of female sexuality occurs quite literally in this work where, "although, physically, the painting is quite small, the image dominates the picture space. Gazing at that part of a woman's body of which men are most afraid, the viewer is jolted by this subversion of scale and is transformed into a tiny creature experiencing the over life-size image as cavernous and engulfing." In forcing the viewer to directly engage with female genitals as nature and not fetish, Colquhoun re-asserts a balance of power and goes some way to correcting the misguiding male gaze through which female sexuality is wrongly defined.
Oil on panel - Private Collection
An undefined writhing form comprised of nodular patches of blue, green, and yellow floats in the center of Alcove II encased in an abstract hidden cavern of various shades of red and pink. The painting is an important example of one of the many works Colquhoun created in the automatic style of decalcomania in which she applied paint on the canvas only then to place a piece a paper over it, which would at once remove and randomly blot images beneath. While the random and uncontrollable aspect stemming from the impetus of subconscious creation is at the heart of this and Colquhoun's other automatic works, there are also references to recurring themes in her larger body of work. Indeed the surround here is fleshy and womb-like and one may even pose the question if the object within these soft walls is fetal.
This work is the second of two of the same name, the first Alcove having been created in 1946. Richard Shillitoe asserts that the painting may support Colquhoun's long-standing interest in hermaphroditism as, "it must surely have occurred to her that the peeling apart of the part and counterpart of decalcomania into two halves that mirror each other, is analogous to the separation of the genders and the division of the androgyne from the united whole." As for Colquhoun, her fascination with the subject dates back to childhood having once described an early musing on the subject, "If I say that at ten years old I imagined Christ as a hermaphrodite, I shall not be believed. Yet it was so...I fused the red-hearted Jesus with the blue-cloaked Mary and made a god with breasts."
Oil on board - Private Collection
The Lord of Loss in Pleasure, from the suit of Swords Taro pack
Having focused on her writing during the 1950s, and mainly turning to the practice of collage during the 1960s and 70s, this work shows Colquhoun's important, yet brief, return to painting. The work is one of a series of seventy-seven works that the artist designed for a pack of tarot cards and features an orange abstract form set against a bright blue background. As a strong believer in the magic and qualities of revelation inherent in a pack of tarot cards, she was became devoted to completing a pack of her own mainly inspired by non-verbal ideas of the highly spiritual Golden Dawn order. Here we can see clearly that the artist no longer signs her work with her given name, Ithell Colquhoun, but instead includes a magical monogram to assert her authorial identity, that of SV, 'Splendidior Vitro'.
Colquhoun's designs for the collection of cards are in line with the approach she took throughout her career focusing on Surrealist automatic explorations of color and form. Like the Swedish artist Hilma Af Klint, she firmly believed that color and shape was infused with variant meaning. According to Eric Radcliffe she created, "a set of paintings of tarot cards with particular reference to color modes, rendering 'the essence of each card by the non-figurative means of pure color, applied automatically in the manner of the Psychomorphological movement in Surrealism." Whilst ironically it was her refusal to abandon occult practices that led to a great rift being created between Colquhoun and the London Group of British Surrealist artists, these works created late in the artist's career show her profound ability to make visible key Surrealist styles and beliefs.
Enamel on paper - Collection of the National Trust, United Kingdom