Ithell Colquhoun: Surrealist, Occultist… Hipster?

Ithell Colquhoun is clearly having a moment.

For one thing – and more than 30 years after her death – she’s about to have her first solo show in London since 1977.

The Viktor Wynd Museum is hosting an exhibition of Colquhoun’s work:

Surrealism, Occultism & Sexuality
18 September 2019 – 1 March 2020
(excluding 24 December – 1 January)
Viktor Wynd Museum Of Curiosities, Fine Art And Natural History
11 Mare Street, London E8 4RP
Venue open Wednesday – Saturday midday – 11pm, Sunday midday – 10pm, but to see this show you are advised to visit before 5pm on a weekday
Admission is free

Not only will there be an illustrated catalogue of the show, but the private view will also mark the launch of Medea’s Charms, a new anthology of her shorter writings from the publisher Peter Owen:

Medea’s Charms book launch and exhibition private view
Tuesday 17 September, 6 – 9pm
Viktor Wynd Museum Of Curiosities, Fine Art And Natural History
11 Mare Street, London E8 4RP
Places must be booked via Eventbrite

Last year Fulgur Press issued a visually stunning book on Colquhoun’s personal tarot deck, Taro As Colour. This followed their 2016 edition of her kabbalistic Decad Of Intelligence, complete with lavish reproductions of 10 colour enamels.

All of this came hard on the heels of the new illustrated hardback edition of Colquhoun’s beautiful novel Goose Of Hermogenes, which Peter Owen brought out at the end of 2017 – which in turn had followed the same press’s new editions of her books on Ireland and Cornwall, The Crying Of The Wind and The Living Stones.

Plus there’s Amy Hale‘s long-awaited (and I mean loooooooong) biography of Colquhoun, which Strange Attractor is currently promising to release at some indeterminate moment in 2019/2020.

Gone are the days, it seems, when Colquhoun enthusiasts had to rely on self-publishing platforms such as Lulu for access to her magickal writings.

And that’s extremely good news, no question about it. Even if you have to save hard for weeks to be able to afford one of those gorgeous Fulgur books, it’s worth it. Even if the comedian Stewart Lee seems an odd and self-consciously “cool” choice to write the forewords to the Ireland and Cornwall books, well, he’s not a bad guy. Even if the Viktor Wynd Museum is my idea of Hackney Hipster Hell, I’ll gladly brave it for Colquhoun’s sake.

And yet, and yet… does this upsurge in attention also have a downside?

Take the Peter Owen website blurb for Medea’s Charms, for example, which begins:

Along with the likes of Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning, the British writer and painter Ithell Colquhoun (1906–1988) is one of a small number of previously overlooked Surrealist women artists, whose stock today is on the rise.

And let me make the following observations:

  • Previously overlooked Surrealist women? Overlooked by whom? Participants in the international Surrealist movement have never overlooked them. Book publishers, gallery curators and academics may well have done so – but then the Surrealist women overlooked by those constituencies, both previously and currently, hardly constitute a “small number”.
  • “The likes of?” That trinity of Carrington, Tanning and Colquhoun – so easy, so glib, so lazy. It’s a yoking that reminds me of the way “French feminist theory” used to get presented in textbooks back in the 1980s: Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous, three intellectuals lumped together despite their stark differences, the only three you need to bother with, the token women jammed into a perfunctory section at the end of a big book or a university module about an otherwise exclusively male canon of literary theory… No, Carrington, Tanning and Colquhoun are not the likes of each other, and no one else is the likes of them.
  • That word “stock”. An unfortunate one, but not inappropriate. Stock as in: an investment. Stock as in: has potential to yield a profit.

Yes, I know. Peter Owen have been loyal to Colquhoun since they first published The Crying Of The Wind in 1955; literary publishing is a precarious game; and marketing blurb like this is intended to get folks to buy the book, not to offer deep analyses of the works in question. I’m not knocking it really, or at least not very hard. As a feminist publisher friend once remarked to me: marketing is marketing, but markets are also potentially other things. Fellow travellers, or allies, or defenders, or converts.

So I urge you to buy as much Colquhounabilia as you can afford, and to see the show as often as you can get there.

But don’t forget that there are also scores of Surrealist women out there, working and playing and thinking right now, who aren’t getting – or even looking for – solo retrospectives in hip London venues, or lavish full-colour book deals.

For starters, try “the likes of” Alexandra Halkia, Ana Orozco, Casi Cline, Elise Aru, Elva Jones, Emma Lundenmark, Gina Litherland, Jan Drabble, Janice Hathaway, Katerina Pinosova, Kathleen Fox, LaDonna Smith, Ody Saban, Sarah Metcalf, Sheila Nopper, Sherri Higgins, Theoni Tambaki…

Immerse yourself in Colquhoun, yes, of course. But find – or become – your own local Surrealist witch too.

Image: Song Of Songs by Ithell Colquhoun, licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0.

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4 thoughts on “Ithell Colquhoun: Surrealist, Occultist… Hipster?

  1. Great write-up, Merl. I wish I could levitate across the Atlantic to attend this. And I agree with you about Peter Owen. I have had a similar feeling about their marketing and promotion of Anna Kavan’s work through the years. Certainly as you say, literary publishing is a tough field, but there are still ways to market without straying into gauche territory.

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