ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

the pine family


Oil on canvas. 18 x 20in. (45.7 x 50.8cm.) Signed and inscribed on the stretcher. Provenance Sotheby’s, 11 Nov. 1981, lot 320. Pruskin Gallery, London. With Whitford and Hughes, London, in 1985. Israel Museum, Jerusalem, gift of Arturo Schwarz. Exhibited London, International Art Centre, 1942, no. 4. Exeter, City Art Gallery, 1972, no. 3. Penzance, Newlyn Gallery, 1976, no. 9. London, Parkin Gallery, 1977, no. 22, as 1941. Milan, Rome and Stockholm, 1980-81. Paris, Galerie 1900-2000, 1982, no. 44, as 1941, ill. b/w. Colchester, The Minories, 1985, no. 22, ill. b/w. London, Blond Fine Art, 1985, no. 39, as 1941. New York, Stony Brook University, 1986. Jerusalem, Israel Museum, 2000-2001, no. 21, as 1941, ill. col. Three truncated bodies lie in parallel; a featureless landscape is visible in the background. Each body is reduced to the torso and the lower limbs, roughly to the knees. Each body has been mutilated, although the figures are recognisably male, female and hermaphrodite. The male and the hermaphrodite have each lost their penis and the female has lost her right leg. Each has the stylised pubic hair seen earlier in Scylla (1938) and Gouffres Amers (1939). Each of these butchered slabs of meat carries a label bearing a cryptic message. The female torso is labelled ‘celle qui boîte’- the one who limps. It has been argued by Chadwick and others that this refers to ‘celle qui advance’ - the one who advances – the epithet applied by André Breton to Gradiva, the hero of Jensen’s novel of that name that was so admired by the surrealists and that had earlier been the subject of an analysis by Sigmund Freud. The name Gradiva translates as ‘splendid in walking’. It was her sprightly walk (and, in particular, the positioning of the right foot in the original relief) that captivated Hanold, the hero of the novel. The surrealists were enchanted by the redemptive power of love and adopted Gradiva as their archetypal muse: a muse who would lead artists and poets in their attempts to glimpse what lies ahead, beyond the real. By amputating her right leg, Colquhoun has converted the muse from one who is splendid in walking to one who limps. As far as one can tell, her genitalia remain intact. The male torso has had his penis neatly severed. He bears the label ‘Atthis’. This is a variant spelling of Attis, who appears in mythology as the consort of Cybele. There are a number of variations of his story. In one variant, Cybele began life as Agdithus, a hermaphrodite god/dess. The gods emasculated Agdithus, who then became known as the female, Cybele. A pomegranate tree grew from Agdithus’ blood; a river nymph ate from the tree, became pregnant and gave birth to Attis, with whom Cybele subsequently fell in love. Attis, however, was betrothed to a king’s daughter. In a jealous rage Cybele caused Attis and the King to go mad and emasculate (or, perhaps, castrate) themselves. Attis later recovered his senses and was about to kill himself when Cybele saved him by changing him into a pine tree. The hermaphrodite torso carries a label ‘the circumcised hermaphrodite’. If this is circumcision, the surgeon needs to go on a training course. S/he, like the male figure, has had the entire penis sliced through and removed. Colquhoun noted that Isadore Ducasse, the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont, the author of Les Chants de Maldoror, had described George Sand, the cross-dressing literary figure of the late 19th century as the circumcised hermaphrodite. ‘Pine’ is French slang for penis. In alchemical writings the herm-aphrodite symbolises the union of opposites. The word itself is a conjunction of Hermes and Aphrodite and represents a union of the masculine and feminine aspects of matter resulting in the creation of a spiritual whole beyond the divisions of gender. The hermaphrodite is the Magical Child, the Two-in-One and is the 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. The painting was completed at a time when Colquhoun was deeply engaged in the exploration of gender, androgyny, spiritual union and alchemical metamorphosis in her art and writings, especially in the ‘Diagrams of Love’ watercolours and poems. However, unlike these other works of the period, which offer the promise of wholeness and redemption, The Pine Family offers only threat and mutilation. This is not a benign or optimistic image. The complete absence of male organs indicate that neither bodily nor spiritual union has occurred. Does one sense a crisis in the artist’s life? The Méditerranée series, with its suggestions of emotional turmoil had only recently been completed. Stylistically, Colquhoun was making the transition from magic realism to a more extensive use of automatism. 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. This was the work that Colquhoun was asked to remove from the Leicester Galleries in 1942 because of its alleged pornographic content. A pencil and watercolour study shows the painting in its final configuration. Extra paper has been glued to the original sheet, allowing it to be rotated anti-clockwise through forty five degrees from an earlier orientation. Two further pencil and watercolour sketches of logs of wood can almost certainly be related to this work, indicating that Colquhoun’s original inspiration was the forest rather than the abattoir. Unlike the slightly later Tree Anatomy (1942), however, the sylvan associations are not positive ones.