ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

rivières tièdes


Oil on board. 36 x 24in. (91.1 x 61.2cm.) Signed, inscribed and dated verso. Provenance Southampton Art Gallery from the Parkin Gallery, 1979. Exhibited London, Mayor Gallery, 1939, no. 6. Northampton, Art Gallery, 1939. Harrogate, Art Gallery, 1941, no. 20. Penzance, Newlyn Gallery, 1961, no. 13. London, Hamet Gallery, 1971, no. 31. London, Leva Gallery, 1974, no. 12. Penzance, Newlyn Gallery, 1976, no. 4. London, Parkin Gallery, 1977, no. 19. Touring, Scottish Arts Council, 1985, ill. b/w Leeds, City Art Gallery, 1986, no. 184, ill. b/w p. 184. Berkeley, California, University Art Museum, 1990, ill. col. Literature Stich, 1990. Remy, 1999, p. 204. Caws, 2004, ill. col. p. 26. Robinson, 2005, pp. 282-283, ill. col. Ratcliffe, 2007, ill. b/w pl. 36. One of the Méditerranée series. The title is generally translated as ‘Tepid Waters’. It comes from the poem Summer Sadness by Stephane Mallarmé. The poem records the poets’ sadness at the end of an affair. Mais ta chevelure est une rivière tiède Où noyer sans frissons l’âme qui nous obsède A literal translation might be: But your hair’s a tepid river, A place to drown the soul that haunts us Colquhoun published her own translation in 1947. In her version the relevant lines are: Yet in your warm hair golden, downward-flowing, I find Nirvana and leave you unknowing An austere building, with two bell towers, stands in isolation on a stepped platform in an anonymous location. It is devoid of life or activity, except for four rivulets of coloured fluid. Each one seeps out from beneath a closed door, runs down the steps and mingles on the forecourt. The horizon is set at the golden section of the height of the painting. The architectural features of the façade have not been laid out with geometrical precision and project to different vanishing points. It is unlikely that this reflects a lack of concern with precise draftsmanship. It is more likely to be the deliberate introduction of subtle distortions akin to those that de Chirico used in his paintings of deserted Italian city squares. It associates disquiet with urban environments. Stich correctly identifies the building as a church. She comments that, although the building itself stands erect, it no longer represents a sanctuary of hope and faith. She sees the image, in part, as a reflection of the Surrealist antagonism towards the church but also suggests that it alludes to the church’s questionable association with fascist repression, especially in Spain during the civil war. The Leeds catalogue entry also makes the fascist association, alleging that the rivulets are in the colours of the Spanish flag. These proposals are in keeping with the one that was discussed earlier in relation to Marlowe's Faust (1931), that it contains a commentary on the rise of the national socialists in Germany. Remy comments upon the tension that can exist between the interior and exterior of an object - in this case the church. A secret is clearly lurking inside the closed building but we are barred from knowing it directly. Only the seeping rivulets, which suggest blood and body fluids, offer a clue to the nature of the secret. Robinson suggests that the isolated building is a metaphor for the 'hut of reeds' a sanctuary for women to make contact with 'the night side’ of their own nature. The allusion is to menstruation and the quotation is from Divination, a short prose text published in Osmazone some years later in 1983 and not written until 1949. It is certainly possible that Colquhoun had the political situation in Spain in mind, although the colours of the rivulets: white, red, blue and yellow, cannot be used as supporting evidence. The Spanish flag is bi- coloured: red and yellow. It has no white or blue. Further, there is no independent evidence that that she took any interest in the political struggles in Spain, although many of the continental surrealists did. Toni del Renzio, who fought in Spain, might provide a link, but Colquhoun and he did not meet until months after the painting had been finished. The other possibility is Francesc d’Assís Galí, the Spanish artist and exile who arrived in London sometime during 1939, but their relationship does not appear to have started before 1940.. It is surely more likely that, because all the colours have clearly under-stood hermetic meanings, the work reflects her life-long interest in alchemy and the gendered cosmos. This proposal explains the colours and does not require an otherwise unrecorded interest in Spanish politics. Alchemically, red, the colour of elemental fire, represents the male principle. Here it is paired with yellow, the standard alchemical colour for philosophic sulphur. Similarly, blue, the colour of elemental water, signifies the female principle and is paired here with white, the colour of philosophic mercury, the female principle of the alchemists. Philosophic mercury and philo-sophic sulphur are to be under-stood as spiritual substances rather than physical ones. They represent the gendered metals which have been purified and which have to be united in order to create the philosopher’s stone. The two rivulets that represent the hermetic and alchemic female principle meet after they descend the steps, as do the rivulets that represent the male principle. The male and female philosophic prin-ciples then come together in the foreground. This is the secret of which Remy is half aware: the Great Work, spiritual perfection, conjunctio. Perhaps Colquhoun was also making an oblique reference to the Tridentine Mass, which contains the phrase: Vidi aquam egredientem de temple. This translates as: I saw water coming from the Temple and was later used as the epigraph to her novel I Saw Water. The origin of the rivulets in a church indicates that the source of all matter is spiritual and all matter has a spiritual content. Regarding the actual building, it is the Église de la Miséricorde, (also known as the Église du Couvent because it adjoins a former Franciscan convent), I’ile Rousse, Corsica which Colquhoun had drawn from different vantage points the year before (Church Exterior, Corsica I, and Church Exterior, Corsica II). Colquhoun may have been drawn to it because the architecture itself contains the idea of the conjunction of gender opposites. The tall towers topped by spiked domes can be read as phallic columns surmounted by breasts and nipples. The same association between gender and architecture occurs elsewhere in her work. It can be seen clearly, for example, in two watercolours of the Tekke of Um-Haram (1951) and in early architectural studies of ca. 1926, made during her student days. It is not known which of the Méditerranée series was the last one to be painted, but if it was this work, the following anecdote applies. In an interview with The Cornishman in 1965), Colquhoun recalled that her usual supplier of gesso panels was unable to obtain one for her so that she could complete the series. The supplier recommended that she contact the only other person they knew who used the same type of panel – Winston Churchill, a well-known politician of the time – who duly obliged.