ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

gouffres amers


Oil on canvas. 28½ x 36in. (71.2 x 91.3cm.) Provenance With the Hamet Gallery, 1961. Glasgow, Hunterian Art Gallery. Exhibited London, Mayor Gallery, 1939, no. 7. London, RSBA, 1940. ?Harrogate, Art Gallery, 1941. ?Batley, Bagshaw Art Gallery, 1941. Penzance, Newlyn Gallery, 1961, no. 12. London, Hamet Gallery, 1971, no. 32. Nottingham, Castle Museum, 1982, no. 92, ill. b/w. Berkeley, California, University Art Museum, 1990, ill. col. The imagery was suggested by Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made: Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea change Into something rich and strange. She wrote that the painting was exhibited at Harrogate in 1941. However, the painting is not listed in the exhibition catalogue. Letters to Colquhoun from the organisers of the show explain why: ‘your principal painting was not hung … the Art Gallery Committee refused to hang it on the grounds that it would cause protests in Harrogate’. The organisers showed insight, if not courage, because Beau Gosse (1939) was hung and caused agitated letters to the local papers. The figure of a naked, bearded man lies, partly propped and partly sprawled, dominating a barren rocky landscape. Commentators have generally seen the painting as a parody of the Surrealist’s obsession with the erotic female and a mocking denial of the metamorphic process that lies at the heart of Surrealist theory but which here leads only to decay. The figure is, indeed, far from erotic, except, perhaps, in a fetishist sense. The male nude, in Colquhoun’s hands, is not the object of desire and liberation that the female nude represented to many male Surrealists. But, surely, this image represents a ritual debasement and is not merely the result of a process of decay. Rather than experiencing putrefaction, the figure has been flayed. The penis is a soft pipe from which issues a feathery flower. This may be a precursor to the portrayal of emanations shown in some of the ‘Diagrams of Love’ series of the following years. The title, generally translated as ‘bitter abyss’ is from a poem, The Albatross, from the Fleurs du Mal collection by Baudelaire. In it, sailors capture an albatross, stripping it of its majesty and freedom, subjecting it to torment and humiliation. In the final stanza, Baudelaire compares the poet to the albatross; once brought to earth, he is humiliated and helpless. This is the bitter abyss to which the poet has been brought. The base of the cliff where it meets the sea on the left of the painting is positioned at the golden section of the vertical side. Gouffres Amers has been the subject of a poem in French by Agnes Claudius, and a short piano piece by Norman Demuth. The identity of Agnes Claudius is uncertain, but she is most likely to be the woman who befriended Mrs Patrick Campbell, the actress, in her later years and who was with her during her final illness. Norman Demuth (1898-1966) was a composer and musicologist. In an article published in Transformation (1943) Demuth cited his composition in the course of a discussion on the potential unintelligibility of a piece of music without knowing the source of the composer’s inspiration. This is one of the Méditerranée series. The ink cartoon is also known. Unusually, it is reversed left/right.