ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
© All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe 2015-16  All artworks copyright the estate of the artist.

artistic development:

surrealism Surrealism had clear philosophical underpinnings that held special appeal for Colquhoun. Within the theoretical framework elaborated by André Breton, inspirations from poetry, psychoanalytic theory, trances and the study of dreams were used to challenge accepted notions of reality. Believing that the contradictions between the conscious and the unconscious could be resolved by such methods, surrealism aimed at a higher consciousness. For her part, during her youth, Colquhoun had acquired a wide range and depth of occult lore, as evidenced by her 1930 article “The Prose of Alchemy” (1).  Similarly, her essay “Explanation of a Design for a Painting on Silk”, (2) which dates from 1934, shows considerable knowledge of the Qabalah. In the “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” (3) Breton had made explicit links between alchemy and surrealism.  His ‘union of opposites’ would have been a familiar idea to a woman steeped in alchemy since her schooldays. An important alchemical motto is conjunctio oppositorum: the conjunction of opposites. In 1936, Colquhoun attended the International Surrealist exhibition held at the New Burlington Galleries in London. She was present at the famous lecture given by Salvador Dali during which, dressed in a diving suit, he nearly suffocated. At that time, in the mid 1930s, he was fully engaged with his so called paranoiac- critical method. That is, of painting an image in a highly realistic manner but which retained sufficient ambiguity for it to be read in entirely different ways. For a while, Dali continued to be Colquhoun’s main stylistic influence and she produced a small number of paintings with a classical Dalinian double image. The earliest is Pitcher-plant (c.1936). Others include Scylla (1938) and, a little later, Sardine and Eggs (c.1941) and Tree Anatomy (1942). For the most part, however, her compositions are straightforward. Once again, a flurry of creative activity resulted in fourteen oil paintings and two carved objects for a joint show with Roland Penrose, held at the Mayor Gallery, London, in 1939. This exhibition was a watershed in Colquhoun's development, coming at the crucial time when she was making the transition from realism to surrealism. She has written that all the works on show shared erotic themes. (4) Seven of the fourteen paintings on show constitute the Méditerranée series. Although they are united by a meticulous painterly technique, they are all different in subject matter; it is not immediately obvious in what sense they constitute a series, or in what sense many of them are erotic, except, perhaps by the personal associations of the artist. Several of the works deal with space and enclosure, offering the viewer an architecture that is at once both familiar and unsettling. They represent a development of the interest in absence already evident in her earlier Mediterranean work. Examples include Rivières Tièdes (1939); Interior (1939) and Le Phare (1939). In similar vein, L’Ancre (1939) and L'Helice (1939) present displaced industrial artefacts in featureless environments. Devoid of people, the viewer enters these paintings as the sole spectator and human presence. The idea of solitude in a natural setting has been a powerful and enticing one since the early Renaissance, but solitude in a built environment speaks of isolation and alienation. These works possess disquieting qualities to which the emptiness is a contributory factor. They are symbols of our walled-in existence and the restrictions of our consciousness which has lost touch with nature. Although she ceased formal associations with the Surrealist Group in London in 1940, the break was not a painless one. The events have been chronicled by Ray and, in greater detail, by Remy. (5)  The aftermath, complicated by her relationship with Toni del Renzio, whom she married in 1943 and divorced in 1947, has been discussed by Levy. (6) She continued, however, to regard herself as a surrealist all her life. Notes 1.  Colquhoun, I. “The Prose of Alchemy.” The Quest 21 no. 3 (1930): 294-303. 2.  Unpublished manuscript, Tate Gallery Archive (TGA 929/2/1/23). 3.  See André Breton, “Manifestos of Surrealism”, trans. R. Seaver and H. R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967). The Second Manifesto was originally published in 1929, 4.  Colquhoun, I. “Women in Art.” Oxford Art Journal 4 no. 1 (1981): 65. 5.  Ray, P.C. 1971. “The Surrealist Movement in England”. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.      Remy, M. 1999. Surrealism in Britain. Aldershot: Ashgate. 6. Levy, S. 2005. “The del Renzio Affair: A leadership struggle in wartime surrealism.” Papers of Surrealism, issue 3. Available here.
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