ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
© All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe 2015-16  All artworks copyright the estate of the artist.

artistic development:

automatism - techniques   There are few artists who have used automatic methods as extensively as Colquhoun or who experimented with them so tirelessly. The range of automatic techniques employed by her includes the following. Decalcomania is the process of randomly applying paint to paper or canvas, then pressing another sheet of paper or canvas over the first. When peeled apart, images found in the blots can be developed. Although the technique is as old as the hills, and known to children everywhere, the first surrealist applications were published in the periodical “Minotaure” in 1936. The great majority of Colquhoun’s automatic works employ decalcomania. Generally a background and horizon have been brushed in, setting the forms in a landscape or urban context. There are a number of oil and watercolour decalcomanias where the ‘peel’ or counterpart still exists. These include Gorgon (1946) . In a small number of instances the counterpart has been reworked into an independent painting.  Alcove II (1948) is the mirror image of Alcove (1946). For none of these ‘pairs’ is there any evidence that the artist regarded the two parts as complementary in any way or as two divided halves of a complete whole. Nor is there any evidence that the ‘halves’ have been exhibited together. Entoptic Graphomania  is a method developed by the surrealists in Bucharest, in which a dot is made at the site of each impurity or difference in colour in a blank sheet of paper, and then lines are drawn between the dots. The connections may be by curved lines or (Colquhoun’s preference) straight lines only. This leads to the most austere kind of geometric abstraction. The word ‘entoptic’ derives from the Greek word meaning ‘within vision’. It refers to images that arise from within the optical system rather than from the outside world (for example, the common experience of ‘floaters’ in the eye). Strictly speaking, therefore, the name is a misnomer. Despite her comments about favouring straight lines, only a few such examples are known. One was published in “Athene”. (1) Torn Veil, a graphomania dating from 1947 incorporates shading that softens the austerity and develops the image. Parsemage or powdering, was developed by Colquhoun to provide another process for discovering images in ‘accidental’ design. Powdered charcoal or chalk is lightly sprinkled over a bowl of water, then paper or canvas is laid briefly on top. Parsemage is a variant of écrémage, or ‘skimming’, initiated by Conroy Maddox, in which an oil based paint or ink was spread on the surface of the water. Sea Mother (c.1950) is a good examples of the technique. According to one acquaintance, the poet James Kirkup, when a bowl of water proved insufficient, she filled the bath and worked on a larger scale. (2) In her fantasy, she had even greater schemes: I would like to extend my automatism of parsemage through skimming off the dead leaves or other debris from a lake by means of an enormous area of sail cloth passed just under the water surface. Or use aircraft to produce a dance and an evanescent sculpture with the vapour-trails of different colours, or with elongated pennants by day and lights by night. (3) Although nowhere in her writings does Colquhoun use this terminology, in the light of her remarks that link automatisms with divination, one wonders whether she made the connection between parsemage and lecanomancy. In this ancient Babylonian divinatory technique, the priest used the patterns made by oil on the surface of water in a bowl to see the future. Sometimes, in place of oil, grain or other foodstuffs were sprinkled on the surface. Lecanomancy is a (pseudo) science, based upon the interpretation of visible signs as omens. An automatic technique such a decalcomania is closer to catoptromancy, which is hallucinatory in the sense that the unknown is in some manner shown or revealed in the mirror, crystal or other suitable surface. Fumage In 1937 Wolfgang Paalen invented fumage, a technique where the artist's surface is waved over a smoky flame without conscious direction. Wispy deposits of carbon are left on the paper or canvas which are then developed or interpreted. The alternative spelling, sfumage, appears to have originated with Salvador Dali. Created from fire, light and carbon, fumage is an elemental technique that relates artistic creation to the creation of all organic matter. Paalen emphasised its magical nature when he wrote of its ability to help him ‘visualise textures that seemed to escape any brushwork, such as rime, phosphorescence of underbrush, the dances of the will-o’-the-wisp and the web of light in the heart of rock-crystal’. (4) cloud figure (c.1947) shows a personage condensing from the smoky residues. Stillomancy was developed by the Romanian surrealist, Dolfi Trost. It consists of a blot or stain produced by dropping ink or paint on paper or canvas that is then folded down the middle. It is, therefore, a variety of decalcomania and produces a form that is symmetrical about the axis of the fold. The earliest of Colquhoun’s stillomancies dates from 1951. Horus (c.1957) is slightly later. The majority, however, are from 1971 and form a series of  nature spirits and Pagan deities. Triton (1971) is a good example. Superautomatism is another method developed by Trost, to describe drawing and painting completely at hazard. He suggested that the deeper layers of the unconscious consist of such uninterpreted and perhaps uninterpretable images. Colquhoun made extensive use of this technique in her drawings between 1947 and the early 1950s. Some are angular but many, with their regular arcs, curves and arabesques, clearly originated with repeated rhythmic gestures. A good example is Depression (c.1947). In Nest Among Leaves (c.1947) Colquhoun developed a representational image from the rhythmic swirls, an outcome rather different to that suggested by Trost.  In curving forms in skein shape (c.1948) the forms that are struggling to escape are decidedly genital. Frottage means, literally, rubbing. Placing a canvas or paper over an uneven surface and rubbing over it with paint, chalk or pencil, uses the same principle as brass rubbing. The resultant markings can then be interpreted in any chosen way. Colquhoun described how one such work came about: At the time of a recent house-removal I lay in bed looking at a plaster wall seamed with cracks. It was the day before I was due to move and I thought – after today I shall no longer see these marvellous cracks, indeed, no one will, because they will be obliterated by redecoration. So, busy as I was, I sprang out of bed, glued some large sheets of tracing- paper together, fastened them to the wall and made a careful tracing of the cracks: this has since become a large mural, Giantesses Undressing to Bathe.  (5) Another work, Autumnal Equinox (c.1949) was inspired by the wood graining of an old door, from which she made a rubbing and then incorporated passages of decalcomania. Collage The surrealist collage (as opposed to, for example, the cubist collage) requires the selection of unconnected images, often from photographs or other illustrative material. It was defined by Ernst, in words that deliberately echoed those of Lautréamont, as ‘a chance encounter of two distant realities on a level foreign to them both’. (6) Colquhoun was in no doubt that collage (and the use of found objects) were automatic techniques. ‘Surely’, she wrote, ‘such objects are found through the use of the automatic faculty’?  (7) Further, she might have added, the juxtaposition of apparently dissimilar objects, which brings out hidden affinities between them, is not far removed from the pursuit of correspondences in occult research. Indeed, the discovery of hidden links is the very stuff of magic. Colquhoun began to use collage regularly in 1960. Bird of Passage (1963) is a typical example. Many of Colquhoun’s writings are collages, to the extent that they make use of her dreams. I Saw Water, for example, is a novel almost entirely composed of material taken from dreams, selected and juxtaposed to form the final narrative. A collage novel, as Warlick noted, is a form of alchemy.  (8) Warlick was writing of Ernst’s novels, which use printed illustrations and woodcuts as their source material, but her argument applies equally well to Colquhoun’s writings. Her remembered dreams form the prima materia with which the work commences. It is taken apart, recombined and fused, not by fire nor by glue but by narrative structure, however loose that may be. Notes 1.  Colquhoun, I. “Children of the Mantic Stain.” Athene 5 no. 2 (1951): 29-34. 2.  Kirkup, J. “I, of all People”. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 1988. 3.  Unpublished manuscript, Tate Gallery Archive, TGA 929/2/155. The manuscript is undated, but from internal evidence is c.1969. 4.   Quoted by Winter, A. “Wolfgang Paalen. Artist and theorist of the avant-garde”. Connecticut: Praeger, 2003, p. 55. 5.  Colquhoun, I. “Children of the Mantic Stain.” Athene 5 no. 2 (1951): 29-34. . 6.  Ernst, M. Inspiration to Order, in “Beyond Painting”. New York: Wittenborn, 1948, pp. 20-25. 7.  Colquhoun, I. “Notes on Automatism. “Melmoth no. 2 (1980): 31-32. 8.  Warlick, M.E. “Max Ernst and Alchemy”. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001, p. 134.
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