Ithell Colquhoun: The Hidden Surrealist Gem
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Ithell Colquhoun: The Hidden Surrealist Gem

Until only recently, the British Surrealist artist, writer and occultist, Ithell Colquhoun (1906-1988) has been an obscure figure within British Surrealism, often outshined by her contemporaries Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning. Tate's 2019 acquistion of Colquhoun's impressive 5,000- piece archive, previously in the possesion of the National Trust, became a pivotal step in recognising the artist's contributions to Surrealism. 

Born in 1906 in India, Colquhoun's interest in the occult and the visual arts were evident at a young age; her school books scribbled with zodiac signs and sybmols relating to plants, animals and planets. She later studied at the Slade School of Art in London, where she balanced her classical arts training with London's occult scene.  It was during her visits to Paris, in 1930s that Colquhoun discovered the philosophical approaches of André Breton and Salvador Dalí, and particularly related to their theories of automatism and chance.  Remaining close to the French surrealists, Colquhoun attended many of their exhibitions.

Ithell Colquhoun, in her Studio in 1936.

While attending the International Surrealism Exhibition in London, held at the New Burlington Galleries in the summer of 1936, Colquhoun witnessed Salvador Dali's famous lecture, during which he almost suffocated wearing a diving suit. Dali, along with René Magritte, continued to be Colquhoun's main stylistic influence, evident in paintings such as Pitcher-plant (c. 1936) and Scylla (1938). In 1939 Colquhoun visited André Breton in Paris, and started working with automatic techniques in her writing and painting, by which time she was at the centre of British Surrealism, contributing to a major show with Ronald Penrose at the Mayor Gallery and writing pieces for 'The London Bulletin', the main publication for Surrealist and avant-garde art in Britain.

Colquhoun remained a passionist Surrealist until her decision to leave the movement in 1940 when  E.L.T. Mesens, the leader of the British Surrealists, demanded she quit her involvement in occultist groups. However, unlike her fellow Surrealists, for Colquhoun automatism was less about self discovery and more about spiritual connection. She was irreversibly drawn to ancient occult traditions focused on exploring the subconscious and seeking to expand awareness of other temporalities. 

As a testament to Colquhoun's distinctive contributions to the Surrealist movement, her works will be shown at Tate Modern's upcoming landmark exhibition Surrealism Beyond Borders (24 February - 29 August 2022). 

Alcove II, 1948, Oil on board, 22.9 cm x 34.3 cm

Explore Ithell Colquhoun's works in our new group exhibition entitled, Song of Songs: Representations of the self, spirituality and states of mind in art - from modernity to the digital age, curated by Rachel Thomas, Head of Exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. 

The international group exhibition takes its name from a painting by Ithell Colquhoun titled Song of Songs (1933). The exhibition considers the role of how the self, the mind, and how spirituality evolves in the creation of abstract painting from its origins to the present digital age. Song of Songs embraces the many philosophical, material and ideological potentials which emerge when exploring the self in art. The exhibition includes a major and important presentation of over 12 master painting works by Ithell Colquhoun. They are hung in conversation with leading and emerging contemporary international artists such as; Linder, Bharti Kher, Anna Weyant, Elaine Hoey, Richard Malone, Grace Weir, Jesse Mockrin, Clare Ormerod, Matthew Stone, Stacey Gillian Abe, Suchitra Mattai. 

In light of gender politics and reviewing the art canon, in association with contemporary artists Ithell Colquhoun’s works reframe the history of surrealism for today's society. Richard Shillitoe, Colquhoun’s biographer comments: “Today, with greater recognition of the importance of women artists, a disenchantment with science and the realisation that magic is not just a source of potent images but can be a genuinely liberating force, there is rising interest in Ithell Colquhoun. The exhibition comes at a moment when many of her writings have recently been reprinted or published for the first time and her astonishing artworks have been included in recent major exhibitions.” 

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"This exhibition, Song of Songs, is a conversation that begins with the pioneering artist, occultist and polymath Ithell Colquhoun and contemporary artists globally.  The conversation starts at a point of spirituality, the notion of the mind, nature and technology in the 21st century. 

Song of Songs is a portal to understanding how we can engage in society and how we can engage our notion of self as transformative, and that we should celebrate that during these times.  I’m excited to show Ithell Colquhoun’s work to have a contemporary dialogue with lots of the artists here today and to show she stakes a claim and a ground within the revision of art history that is as relevant today as it will be in the future. " - Rachel Thomas, Curator, Head of Exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art

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