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Ithell Colquhoun

British Painter, Poet, and Novelist

Ithell Colquhoun Photo
Movement: Surrealism

Born: October 9, 1906 - Shillong, India

Died: April 11, 1988 - Lamorna, United Kingdom

"I started painting at the age of four or five; in fact I cannot remember a time when I was not painting."

Summary of Ithell Colquhoun

Ithell Colquhoun sees the divine design of nature infused through all living things. Rock formations, tree stumps, and vegetables transform to become human limbs and body parts. The artist had a lifelong love for water and an interest in the depths of meaning found at the site of liminal spaces. Early in her career she included doorways, windows, and staircases in her paintings, and sometimes depicted the human figure. Later, as Colquhoun's work reached maturity, she looked entirely to nature; she rejected figuration and repeated earthy subjects such as volcanoes, caves, and rock pools. She paradoxically explored themes of ambiguity, instability, and union.
With strong alchemical leanings, Colquhoun sought to combine the land and sea, fluid and solid matter, and the male and the female. She was particularly influenced by Salvador Dalí's "phantasmic presences", and her enlarged images of flora spark interesting comparisons with those of Georgia O'Keeffe. Almost entirely self-taught, the artist spent years working in London where she became associated with the Surrealists, but by whom she was also labeled dissident due to her strong beliefs in the occult. Colquhoun settled in remote Cornwall where she could find suitable inspiration in nature and move away from people.

Key Ideas

The artist created a new language of female sexuality that did not privilege desire and erotic fantasies of the femme enfant as in the work of the male Surrealists. In her explorations, always with a starting point in nature and often introducing humor and parody, Colquhoun considered a more mature and maternal sexuality, and as such spoke directly to realistic and long-standing female experience.
Not only a painter and visual artist, Colquhoun was also a prolific and well acclaimed writer. She published a sell-out novel, two travelogues, many short stories, poems, journal articles, and a series of theoretical texts. She wrote "The Mantic Stain" in October 1949 and as such was one of only a few women to contribute a rigorous and revealing theoretical text to Surrealism, thus in turn adding to the intellectual legacy of the movement.
There were few Surrealists who used automatic techniques as extensively as Ithell Colquhoun. She not only experimented with decalcomania (paint blotting), collage, and frottage (creating surface rubbings) like other artists associated with the group, but she also invented her own technique of 'parsemage' whereby she made images by sprinkling powder, either pigment or broken charcoal onto the surface of water and then placed a sheet of paper on top. This was a technique then adopted by other artists and accordingly added to the list of possible 'automatic' processes invented and disseminated by Surrealist practitioners.
Colquhoun was an authority on the occult and on magical practice. She felt great affinity for the female contribution to the occult headed by Moina Mathers and Helena Blavatsky and endeavored to continue the tradition. The artist believed in the great powers of Hecate, the earth goddess, and as such supported fertility cults, rites performed to encourage crops to grow (fittingly she was photographed caressing sheaves of wheat by Man Ray in 1932), and associated herself with mountains, hollows, and wild places as an inspiration to other artists interested in similar esoteric themes.
Ithell Colquhoun Photo

Margaret Ithell Colquhoun was born in Shillong, Assam, India where her British father Henry Colquhoun was stationed for his government job with the Indian Civil Service. While her father continued to live in India until his retirement in 1921, early in her life, sometime between the age of one and three years old, Colquhoun returned home to England with her mother and younger brother.

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