The Artist Who Embraced the Occult and Defied the Surrealists

Belphoebe New, Artsy, October 19 2019

''British artist  Ithell Colquhoun’s uncanny paintings are full of androgynous gods, murderous goddesses, yoni-like fruit, and disembodied, fleshy parts floating across hallucinatory, dreamlike landscapes. “My life is uneventful, but I sometimes have an interesting dream,” Colquhoun said in 1939. This is a somewhat understated explanation of her work. Active in the  Surrealist  movement, Colquhoun was a contemporary of artists such as  Salvador Dalí and André Breton, but her lifelong involvement with occult groups saw her ostracized from the movement and from the British Surrealist Group in 1940. Colquhoun’s name has been largely omitted from art-historical narratives, but that might soon change. The Tate recently acquired the archive of her work, marking a pivotal step in recognizing Colquhoun’s contributions to Surrealism


In the late 1930s, Colquhoun’s work started to veer away from the figurative. She adopted the Surrealist trope of the double image, most famously in Scylla (1938). In the painting, two pillars resembling human thighs rise up from the seabed. A boat that appears in the middle distance irreverently implies penetration. The amalgamation of genitalia with the natural landscape is a common theme in her work, reflecting her fascination with castration imagery, fertility, and women’s spiritual relationship with the earth.


Another example of this tendency is the nightmarish Gorgon (1946). The title references the Greek myth about three monstrous sisters—including the snake-haired Medusa—who can turn any man who looks at them into stone. In the work, one of the gorgons pries apart her feathered cape to reveal a grotesque interior resembling ovaries, fallopian tubes, and rotten fruit. Here, Colquhoun presents women as fearsome and powerful beings entwined with the transformative powers of the earth, a depiction that Amy Hale describes in her 2012 essay “The Magical Life of Ithell Colquhoun” as “nothing short of radical.” Colquhoun was a passionate Surrealist, but left the movement in 1940 when  E.L.T. Mesens, the leader of the British Surrealists, demanded she quit her involvement in occultist groups. The artist was particularly drawn to strands of hermeticism and alchemy, ancient occult traditions focused on the pursuit of a divine wisdom through the transcendence of human consciousness.


Colquhoun should be remembered as a fearless experimenter, a polymath who created art to forge closer connections to the spirit world, and as a relentless portrayer of female sexuality and power at a time where her male peers tended toward othering and fetishizing women in their works. As female Surrealist artists such as  Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning increasingly gain more recognition from critics and cultural institutions, we should also celebrate Colquhoun as a unique and evocative artist who paved her own way and stood firmly by her principles to create a body of scintillating works.''