The Artist Who Embraced the Occult and Defied the Surrealists

Belphoebe New
Oct 11, 2019 6:49PM

Portrait of Ithell Colquhoun, 1949. Photo by Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Ithell Colquhoun, Scylla, 1938 . © Samaritans, © Noise Abatement Society & © Spire Healthcare. Courtesy of the Tate.

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.


Early in her career, Colquhoun demonstrated an interest in gender roles that makes her work particularly resonant today. As a student, she produced paintings of biblical scenes such as Judith Showing the Head of Holofernes (1929)—a depictionof the young Israelite widow after she decapitated the Assyrian general—and Susanna and the Elders (1930), in which two elders voyeuristically watch a beautiful woman as she bathes naked in a stream. Both paintings exude female defiance. Colquhoun’s Judith raises Holofernes’s head triumphantly into the air, while her Susanna subverts the male gaze by making no attempt to conceal herself from the predatory old men. It is likely that Colquhoun found inspiration in the works of 17th-century Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who produced empowered versions of both of these stories. Colquhoun’s rebellious and idiosyncratic artistic approach was encapsulated by her art teacher, who once said: ‘‘The only danger in your development is that with your active and curious mind you may be led to run after all strange objects. You go out to gather strawberries and come back with two strange beetles and a spider instead.”

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.

Ithell Colquhoun, Untitled. © Tate. Courtesy of the Tate.

Ithell Colquhoun, Untitled. © Tate. Courtesy of the Tate.

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.

Tarot Card by Ithell Colquhoun. © Tate. Courtesy of the Tate.

As Richard Shillitoe, a Colquhoun expert and editor of Medea’s Charms, a forthcoming book of her selected short writing, explained, “Many Surrealists had an interest in the occult, but very few studied it in the systematic way [Colquhoun] did; [she was] initiated into a number of groups and societies and followed detailed courses of study.” Colquhoun even adopted a magical name, becoming Splendidior Vitro in 1962. The moniker was taken from a poem by the Roman writer Horace celebrating the life-giving benefits of springs and fountains. Colquhoun remained committed to the occult throughout her life. In 1977, she painted a series of tarot cards inspired by her involvement with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Colquhoun’s investment in the occult gives her paintings an esoteric significance. “One of her particular contributions [to art] was her explorations of the occult properties of color and the way in which color can be used in meditative practices,” Shillitoe said. Abstract forms in her work typically reference hermetic color scales or geometric principles, which she believed could help her unlock a higher truth about the universe. She keenly adopted automatism, a technique popular with Surrealists where the process of creating art is given over to the unconscious mind. This included experimentation with techniques such as fumage (painting with smoke from a lighted candle), parsemage (painting by scattering dust from charcoal or chalk water), and decalcomania (blotting paint between surfaces to create mirror images).

Ithell Colquhoun, Untitled . © Tate. Courtesy of the Tate.

For Colquhoun, automatism was less about self discovery and more about spiritual connection. “Whereas the majority of the Surrealists felt that such images or dream-content came from within—their personal unconscious,” Shillitoe elaborated, “Colquhoun believed that they could come from the spirit realm.” Her works acted as rituals and incantations, documenting her attempts to achieve enlightenment and connect with spiritual forces.

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.

Belphoebe New