ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

pitcher plant

c. 1936

Oil on canvas. 7¾ x 5¾in. (20 x 15cm.) Provenance NT. This small painting links the flower paintings of the early-mid 1930s with the more overtly surrealist works that were to come. It is Colquhoun’s earliest double image, and combines the pitcher-plant with male genitalia. Stand close to the painting and the pitcher plant with a flanking pair of corms is clearly visible. Step back, however, and we realize that we have been examining male genitalia as glimpsed through shadowy under-growth (the left testicle hanging lower than the right, as is anatomically correct). This 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. Anatomically, the vagina is the container and the penis is the contained. Botanically, the pitcher is a container but here it forms the phallus. Pitcher plants are carnivorous, capturing flies and insects which crawl into the pitcher and are unable to escape. The reason why they cannot escape, but are fated to drown in a pool of digestive juices, is that the passage of the pitcher is lined with downward-pointing hairs which prevent withdrawal. Colquhoun’s pitcher plant is, at once, penis and vagina dentata. Conjunctio oppositorum 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. The interplay of contained/container and penis/vagina, together with the idea of a predatory vagina dentata (a female counterbalance, perhaps, to the male surrealists’ usage of mantis imagery) marks this work as an important new departure in Colquhoun’s continuing fascination with sexuality. Two pencil sketches and the cartoon are known. Update The interpretation offered above is very plausible – but, sadly, it is also wrong. A correspondent from Australia, Jay Cruikshank, points out that the “plant” is not a pitcher plant, but an insect. Close examination of the painting and its associated studies confirms Jay’s analysis. Whilst the image is unquestionably a double image of male genitals, the penis is a wasp and the tentacles a pair of hanging fruit, most probably pears. A whole new layer of interpretation suggests itself: rather than the symbolism of the voracious container as a body double for the penis, future readings of the painting must now focus upon the symbolism of the stinging insect.