ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

the major themes

gender struggles The presence of sex as a theme in Colquhoun’s visual work is first evident in her teenage years. It is apparent in her choice of Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” to illustrate. Probably executed as early as her school days, the suite of unpublished watercolours accompanies a poem that is famously full of repressed Victorian sexuality. In the poem, one sister performs a selfless heroic act to save her sister by deliberately exposing herself to temptation at the hands of the evil goblin men. This struggle between the sexes was to be played out repeatedly in Colquhoun’s work in subsequent years. In her early, naturalistic paintings, Colquhoun’s women are the stronger sex. They accept the dominance of no man. They behave with authority, affirming control over their bodies. It is the men who are vulnerable and found wanting. Susanna and the Elders and Judgment of Paris are two works that date from 1930. Historically, artists have generally accentuated the sexual vulnerability of Susanna’s plight as she attempted to conceal her nakedness. They glory in the voyeuristic aspect of the situation as Paris subjects the goddesses to his judgmental gaze. In Colquhoun’s interpretations, however, she depicts the women as strong, self- confident and independent. The men are weak and powerless in the face of their biological impulses. Similarly, Judith, in Judith Showing the Head of Holofernes (1929), used her sexual attraction to ensnare Holofernes, who was betrayed by his sexual desires and whom she then murdered, enabling her compatriots to rise up and defeat his invading army. Double standards: double images Our society proscribes certain forms of sexual behaviour. One component of this is sexual looking. Both boys and girls are socialised not to permit, or to engage in, sexual looking. These social inhibitions are more forcefully applied to women. In art, a whole culture of power and desire is enshrined in the traditional pictorial transaction in which men observe and women are observed. A strategy that was particularly effective for Colquhoun, as a woman, was to challenge the usual prohibitions on sexual looking. Inspired by what the artist could see of herself as she lay in her bath, in Scylla (1938) she invites the viewer to gaze at her thighs and, as the boat edges its way between the rocky pillars, to imagine her sexual penetration. A further gender-conflating aspect is that the thighs/rocky pillars have also be read as flayed penises. The painting uses a classic surrealist technique – the double image. Tree Anatomy (1942) also employs the double image, in this case the knot hole in a tree trunk becomes a vagina. The picture also contains an important statement 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. In these two works, by deliberately exposing parts that are normally concealed, Colquhoun defeats voyeurism by trumping it with exhibitionism. There is a piquancy in painting those body parts that are essentially private and showing them in a public place, such as an art gallery. The scornful treatment of the male now began to display a more complex form, introducing both an element of cruelty together with a more fundamental questioning of the nature of maleness. This started in a fairly innocuous manner. Between 1936 and 1941 Colquhoun painted a number of pictures of plants and other organic forms in which she emphasised the visual similarity between the natural forms and male genitalia. Pitcher Plant (c.1936) is a very personal view of the Green Man, the male vegetation deity. It is also a work that plays with the opposites of the container and the contained, of female and male. Colquhoun’s pitcher plant is, at once, both penis and vagina dentata. Conjunctio oppositorum has been achieved, but male sexual anxieties have also been reinforced. A powerful demolition of male pride and genital integrity is to be found in Sardine and Eggs (c.1941). To the surrealists, the effectiveness of a double image lay in the way it brought together two apparently unrelated objects, revealing a previously undetected relationship between them. The formal similarities between sardine and penis are immediately obvious, but what makes the conjunction particularly effective is that the image connects two opposites: the firmness of the erect penis and the flaccidity of the dead fish. Further, the visual similarities between eggs and testicles are plain to see. The hidden relationship here, that makes the watercolour more than just a visual pun, is that, alchemically, it fuses the male with the female. Testicles are uniquely male and eggs are uniquely female. Part metaphor, part double-image, part sadistic revenge on the male surrealists’ enthusiasm for dismembering the female body, is there anything less potent than a dead sardine? emasculating the gods Colquhoun was drawn to myths that deal with gender and genital warfare among the gods frequently resulting in, for the male, a bloody ending and, for the female, confirmation of her generative and regenerative powers. The Pine Family (1940) includes references to the myth of the goddess Cybele and her lover, Attis, whose birth, life and demise were characterised by sexual violence, emasculation and castration. It also introduces an aspect of sexuality that is new to her work; the origin of gender differentiation. In a reversal of alchemical fusion, the Gods exerted power through, literally, divide and rule. The lesson of Attis is that male power lies with the male genitals. Remove these, and men become subservient devotees of the goddess. Works such as Loki (1948); In the Garden of Adonis (1945) and Spine of Osiris (1971) also concern myths that involve castration. In the case of Adonis, the goddess Astarte was the author of his castration, although she entrusted the actual act to the victim himself by instilling in him thoughts of self destruction. According to myth, Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Seth. Isis, the sister/wife of Osiris, recovered his missing penis and, by impregnating herself with it took responsibility for both the male and the female roles in the conception of Horus. Colquhoun’s fascination with sexual mutilation endured to the end of her career. The collage Klingsor’s Castle (1981) makes reference to the figure of Klingsor from Wagner’s Parsival who achieved his magical powers at the expense of his sexual powers, by accepting voluntary castration. notes 1. For further information on gods who ‘live out their short seasons seducing and being seduced by goddesses whose vitality is overpowering and in whose presence they play the colourless role of fading gigolos, or partners without clout’, see Casadio, G. The Failing Male God: Emasculation, death and other accidents in the ancient Mediterranean world. Numen, 50: 231-268, 2003.