Ithell Colquhoun, Surrealism and the Occult

I finished reading Amy Hale’s excellent biography of Ithell Colquhoun a couple of weeks ago (Hale, A (2020) Genius of the Fern Loved Gully: The Super Sensual Life of Ithell Colquhoun Strange Attractor Press, London: England). It was more information about Colquhoun in one big hit than I’d got in months of sorting through bits and pieces about her from various sources. Hale has split the book into 3 sections that work very well at bringing together the major influences in Colquhoun’s work; Surrealism, Celticism and the Occult. It’s an interesting comparison to George Watson MacGregor-Reid and the piece I’m trying to put together on him; his life influences were Egalitarianism, Celticism and the Esoteric (I say ‘esoteric’ rather than ‘occult’ as I feel that he ended up with more of a universal spiritual approach than specifically sticking with occultism.)

It always seemed strange to me that Colquhoun was apparently ousted from the British Surrealist Movement for her occult studies, especially considering Andre Breton’s esoteric-leanings. Immediately on finishing Hale’s book I read Choucha, N. (1991) Surrealism and the Occult, Destiny Books, Rochester: USA which was useful in giving context into how occultism was interacting with the art world around the end of the 19thC into the 20thC.

The Surrealist Manifesto was penned in 1924 by André Breton, widely recognised as the leader of the Surrealist Movement. He was very interested in the esoteric and explicitly reveals as much in his manifesto, as in this ‘mock dictionary entry’:

SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state by which one proposes to express, either verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner, the true function of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of all control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral preoccupations.

Breton was profoundly influenced by 19thC French theorist Éliphas Lévi (Alphonse Louis Constant) who resuscitated large volumes of occult knowledge, dissecting it in a rational, scientific manner to make it digestible by contemporary readers (and indeed readers today). Interestingly Lévi was one of Aleister Crowley’s claimed former incarnations – his soul obviously had a quick turnaround as there was only about 4 months between Lévi’s death and Crowley’s birth!

Breton was particularly interested in Lévi’s conclusion that dreams exist on the astral plane and that the artist or ‘genius’ can interpret them:
“The man of genius differs from the dreamer and the fool in this only, that his creations are analogous to truth, while those of the fool and the dreamer are lost reflections and betrayed images.”
Lévi, E. Waite, A.E. (translator) (1968) Transcendental Magic, Weiser Books Kindle Edition.

To both Lévi and Breton this was akin to a kind of alchemical method. Breton saw the artistic process as a way to transform the unconscious ‘prima materia’ into a tangible thing in the real world – in this case art.

The notion of the female principle was highly significant to surrealism and relates back to both alchemy and tantra (the Indian mystic path just gaining interest in the west). To Breton the female principle was an almost religious ideal; something marvelous, wonderous, embodying great mystery and power. With this is mind it is easy to see how Colquhoun and Breton’s philosophies aligned, and how suited Colquhoun seems to have been to the Surrealist Movement. It appears the British Surrealists were on quite a different path to their compatriots on the Continent and it was no wonder that Colquhoun would not comply with British leader E.L.T. Mesen’s demands that she have no affiliation with occult groups.

Colquhoun was particularly interested in the use of automatism in her work, using Surrealist methods including decalcomania (the process of spreading thick paint upon a canvas, covering it with further material, removing it and the resultant paint pattern becoming the basis of the finished painting), fumage (using the smoke of a candle or lamp to create impressions with which to work), frottage (rubbing a pencil against an uneven surface to produce an impression). And several techniques invented by Colquhoun herself like parsemage (dust from charcoal or chalk is scattered on the surface of water and then skimmed off by passing a stiff paper just under the water’s surface). These techniques for accessing the subconscious and, indeed the dreamworld, are completely inline not only with what the Continental surrealists were practicing but also the kind of techniques used by contemporary European occult artists, such as the spiritual automatism of Austin Osman Spare.

Breton and Colquhoun shared an interest in the sacred feminine and the idea of the androgyne as expressed in alchemical and tantric practices. Surrealism was open to embracing the full range of human experience, including the erotic, the sensual and breaking of sexual taboos. As expressed by their own creative practices both Breton and Colquhoun appear to have enjoyed an intense, sensual relationship with the universe itself and a joy in the very experience of being.

In regards to the notion of the artistic life as one of alchemy, Austin Osman Spare wrote in his ‘Book of Pleasure’ (1913):
“Knowledge is but the excrement of experience,
the real gold lies in the experience,
the philosopher’s stone is the search”.

A fascination with the occult began early in Colquhoun’s life and stayed with her until the end. I can’t imagine that this quest for knowledge is something she could ever have abandoned, least of all for something as comparatively trivial as an art movement. I would posit that over time her work became more intensely aligned with occult ideas and methods (eg her Taro as Colour), while any connection to artistic fashions fell away.

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