Ithell Colquhoun is quickly gaining a reputation as not only the lost British female Surrealist, but also as a writer, poet and esoteric theorist. This short essay will offer just the briefest glimpse into some of the more challenging and bold aspects of her work: sex and her depiction of the magical creation of the hermaphrodite .
Ithell Colquhoun’s the treatment of sex and gender was nothing short of radical to begin with. Some of her earliest pieces explore Biblical and classical stories featuring powerful women, and there is good reason to believe that she may have found inspiration in the Italian Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi, a student of Caravaggio, who bravely depicted scenes of female violence and also violence against women. In 1929, Ithell tied for first place in the Slade Summer Composition with Judith Showing the Head of Holofernes, which may have been an homage to a similarly titled piece by Gentileschi, as most likely was her 1930 composition entitled Susanna and the Elders. By the late 1930s, however, Ithell progressed into much bolder depictions of the male form. Several of her pieces from the 1930s deal both metaphorically and quite literally with male genitalia, such as Double Coconut (1936) and Sardine and Eggs (1940/41). Castration and male impotency was also an early theme in a number of important works, such as Gouffres Amers (1939) Cucumber (1939) and The Pine Family(1940) These may have a reference to the myth of the fallen and resurrected god made so popular by the work of James Frazier, but it was most likely not an overall comment on her view of men, it may represent studies of an archetype. In fact, The Pine Family depicts a castrated male, female and hermaphrodite where all genitalia have been removed. Often, though, Ithell’s depiction of sex was positive and inviting. Visual metaphors of sexuality inundate her work, and even the simplest sketch of a cheese plate or a spoon in a glass can easily take on a very explicit character. Colquhouns’ celebrated piece Scylla (1938) features a view of a woman’s knees in the bath with a small boat gliding not so innocently between them.
Ithell was fixated on the notion of the hermaphrodite as symbol of the completion of the magician’s ‘Great Work’. This was achieved through the union of the perfected male and female and the creation of an enlightened new being which transcends gender duality . She expressed this theme in her poetry as well as in her alchemical surrealist novel Goose of Hermogenes, which was published in 1963 but which she started in the 1930s. The poem ‘Union Pacific’ is the best example of the fullness of her conception of the Hermaphrodite, but she expressed it visually as well and the peak of this effort appears to have been in the 1940s. A 1940-1941 series titled Alchemical Figures include individual studies labeled Androgyne and Homunculus I and II which, among several others, refer to her interest in this concept. The images were all based in the visual and symbolic language of alchemical and Kabbalistic imagery.
Perhaps the most radical of her hermaphroditic pieces were never designed for exhibition or public consumption. In her archives there are a number of studies of figures, some human, some angelic, in a variety of very sexually explicit positions. Although these studies are undated, most likely they derive from the 1940s based on color schemes that she was using, and the similarity of some of these pieces to named works from that period. It is possible that this was to be a series to illustrate the poem ‘Union Pacific’, similar to the illustrated poetic sequences Diagrams of Love and Alchemical Figures which as projects were never fully realized. Some of these pairings were very obviously inspired by Japanese erotica as they are stylistically very similar. Given her early interest in Japanese graphics, it is likely that she was using Japanese erotica as a template for her own work, but some sketches found alongside more finished pieces also indicate that she was probably also using life models for these particular compositions.
The positions of the couples in these sketches seem to have been taken from a number of sources, and Colquhoun had even made a sketch sheet of sexual positions as a guideline. Some pieces feature the couple in the tantric yab yum position where the couple is face to face, but other positions may have been more fanciful and may represent an attempt to fit sexual positions into specific magical forms. For instance, one piece looks as though Ithell is trying to represent the conjoined man and woman in the form of two interlocking triangles creating a hexagram. For the most part the color scheme of these small watercolors is, again, drawn from Kaballistic and alchemical symbolism, and feature a scarlet figure uniting with a blue figure. This would not have been an uncommon fixation for esoteric practitioners of the 1940s, but for a woman to be portraying such explicit sexual acts even if they were for her own study would certainly have been quite out of the ordinary. What is perhaps even more radical, however, is that Colquhoun at least experimented with the idea that these polarities and the exchange of these masculine and feminine currents did not need to be enacted by a man and a woman. At least one of these compositions feature two women in the scarlet and blue pairing. There were also sketches of male wrestlers wound around each other which complement some of the positions found in her other experimental pieces. That is such an early stage she would even consider that gender was not a centralized in the body is quite a remarkable concept.
Ithell’s interest in sex and sexuality was a lifelong project and took many forms. This very short consideration should at least provide an idea of her revolutionary approach to the subject on both an artistic and, perhaps, philosophical level.
About Amy Hale
Amy Hale is the author of The Supersensual Life of Ithell Colquhoun to be published by Francis Boutle in 2011. For Francis Boutle Publishers she co-edited Inside Merlin’s Cave – A Cornish Arthurian Reader 1000-2000 and wrote a history of the Cornish revival in The Wheel – an anthology of modern poetry in Cornish 1850–1980.
> Email Francis Boutle Publishers for more information about the forthcoming book: The Supersensual Life of Ithell Colquhoun
> See details of Inside Merlin’s Cave - A Cornish Arthurian Reader 1000-2000
> See details of the exhibition and talk: Alchemy of Granite: Sacred Landscapes of Ithell Colquhoun