Touched by the hand of Ithell: my fascination with a forgotten surrealist | Tradition

I am a travelling entertainer. I spent many years in secondhand bookshops in shabby sidestreets, filling the sick-stomach void between station and present with palliative chance, panning for gold. Someplace on the finish of the final millennium, a couple of measly kilos purchased me a signed first version of the Irish travelogue The Crying of the Wind (1954), just because I favored the accompanying archaeological etchings of its creator, one Ithell Colquhoun. Greater than 20 years later, it’s £300 unendorsed on eBay, I obtained to jot down the introductions to the 2016 reprint, and a lifelong fascination with this most mysterious of pan-disciplinary artist-writer-mystic noticed me requested to be an unworthy speaker on the launch of an exhibition pairing her work with work on the market by comparable up to date artists at Unit London, Music of Songs. Colquhoun and I, it appears, are trapped in the identical cramped Ford Fiesta on Google’s algorithmic roundabout, and I very a lot doubt she is in any respect comfortable about it. However who was Ithell Colquhoun, what impressed the fecund fleshy kinds and prehistoric undulations of her work, and the way is she creeping again into the collective consciousness?

Amy Hale, creator of the latest Colquhoun research, Genius of the Fern Cherished Gully, explains: “Traditionally, surrealism has been completely dominated by huge male personalities. Ladies had been considered both muses or monsters who might have been artists on the aspect, however they’ll now not be relegated to these roles. Self-promotion takes swagger and bravado. Colquhoun was fairly horrible at it.”

Most mysterious … Colquhoun’s Gorgon, 1946. {Photograph}: © Samaritans, The Noise Abatement Society and Spire Healthcare Group

She’s proper. Your coronary heart goes out to her. The Crying of the Wind depicts a girl in retreat from life – at one level it alludes elliptically to Colquhoun’s cut up from the Italian surrealist Toni del Renzio by way of a lone comment that her wedding ceremony ring has outlasted her marriage – and but her story is advised as if robotically, landscapes and apparently random observations doing all of the heavy lifting. And Colquhoun’s paintings isn’t figuratively specific, illustrating as an alternative the complexities of our interior psychological turbulence. For Music of Songs’ curator, Rachael Thomas, it’s telling that Colquhoun’s will copyrighted her works to the Samaritans, and psychological well being charities are the partial beneficiaries of any Unit London gross sales.

Born in India to a British navy household in 1906, Colquhoun splices features of an adopted Celtic identification with surrealist methods. The Indo-Caribbean multidisciplinary artist Suchitra Mattai, who reveals 5 collages in Music of Songs, agrees that such cross-cultural pollination provokes an nearly unintentional surrealism. “I exploit imagery from Indian folktales, reminiscence and oral tales handed right down to me from my Guyanese Indian household. I research the patterns and palettes of Indian miniatures and textiles however am steeped in up to date themes of gender and postcolonialism. For me the ‘unintentional surrealism’ emerges by way of a juxtaposition of disparate supplies. I reconcile my layered previous by way of seemingly harmonic compositions. My Indian, Guyanese, Canadian and American identities create a mashup of oddities rising from reminiscence, fable and historical past and parallel Ithell’s transnational experiences.”

In retreat … Colquhoun in 1949.
In retreat … Colquhoun prepares to attend a celebration in 1949. {Photograph}: Reg Speller/Getty Pictures

Clare Ormerod’s textiles shadow the occult abstractions of Colquhoun’s work. Years after she had turn into conscious of Colquhoun she found the artist had visited her husband’s ancestral house, Huntington Citadel in Eire’s County Carlow, the cellar of which homes an historical sacred properly devoted to St Brigid, the Catholic church’s cannibalisation of the Celtic goddess of the identical identify. “Within the 70s my husband’s great-aunt, Oliva Robertson, initiated Ithell Colquhoun as a priestess of the Fellowship of Isis, the divine female faith that’s primarily based within the fortress dungeons.”

This type of info can cloud Colquhoun for me. I’m not a non secular individual – I’m not even satisfied that I exist, not to mention any gods or goddesses – however generally it feels as if the as soon as forgotten trickster surrealist is organising my existence from the good past. It seems the schoolboy me, for instance, delivered newspapers to the Birmingham surrealist Emmy Bridgwater, the third celebration in Colquhoun’s failed marriage; I’ve walked the west London suburbs and west Cornwall moors the place Colquhoun lived, arriving at guarded conversations with suspicious personalities related to her; and solely final Sunday, as I sat in a crowd of lower than 50 in a chapel in west Wales watching the final ever dwell efficiency by the folks veteran Meic Stephens, a girl leaned ahead to introduce herself as Katell Keineg, the singer because of carry out with me at Music of Songs’ opening, 218 miles and 5 days away.

The polymath Linder Sterling’s sacred not-safe-for-work collages profanely recast Colquhoun’s collisionary assemblages, and channel a punk aesthetic Mojo readers will recognise from her work on seminal 70s sleeves just like the Buzzcocks’ Orgasm Addict. Sterling playfully calls the acquainted Colquhoun coincidences I’ve skilled “the Hand of Ithell”.

She notes: “I discovered a big stash of Well being and Effectivity magazines in a bookshop in Penzance. The naturist magazines all dated from the final years of Colquhoun’s life. Coincidence? Or the Hand of Ithell at work?” To me these odd intersections present that, regardless of having been with us all these years, we’re all of a sudden noticing Ithell Colquhoun all over the place. Her time is now.

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