|home | features | exhibitions | interviews | profiles | webprojects | archive|
Pailthorpe and Mednikoff: Towards Surrealism
At the time that Dr Grace Pailthorpe and her 'patient' Reuben Mednikoff were invited to participate in the International Surrealist exhibition in London (1936), they were carrying out intensive psychoanalytic research on one another in Port Isaac, North Cornwall. Lee Ann Montanaro describes the circumstances of this era-defining exhibition, and Pailthorpe and Mednikoff's involvement with it.
In November 1935, poet David Gascoyne's text, A short survey of Surrealism, was published by Cobden-Sanderson. Gascoyne had been commissioned by Cobden-Sanderson to write a book on Surrealism, and in July 1935 he went to Paris to do the necessary research. The result was the first comprehensive work on Surrealism to be published in English.
Reuben Mednikoff, who by then was also a published poet, had asked Gascoyne whether he could write a review of the book, but his offer was turned down because the review had already been written by an unnamed person.1 Gascoyne's book was proof of the growing international interest in Surrealism. Translations of poetry by Breton, Tzara, Eluard, Dalí and others provided the book's framework. It also features ample quotations from the Surrealist manifestos, other books and poetry collections, together with an account of Surrealism's ancestor Dada. The book is part history, part critique. A Short Survey of Surrealism constitutes a landmark in the history of art in Britain. Arguably, it had an immediate influence on Pailthorpe and Mednikoff because within a very short time of its publication, as Pailthorpe noted on 3 December 1935, there was the 'first appearance of true uncontrolled unconscious writing' in Mednikoff's work.2
The International Surrealist exhibition, which was held at the New Burlington Galleries in London, opened six months after it was hinted at in Gascoyne's A short survey of Surrealism which he ended by saying: 'It is within the bounds of possibility that a surrealist group may be founded shortly in London. André Breton and Paul Eluard have declared their intention of visiting England in the Spring of 1936 and there is talk of a large surrealist exhibition being held at the same time'.3 However, in his article 'Surrealism's vertiginous descent on Britain', Michel Remy tells us that although the first discussion about organising such an exhibition had been between Gascoyne and Breton, it was Herbert Read who took the initiative to set it up.4 At the instigation of Roland Penrose and Read, an organizing committee was set up and the first of eight meetings took place on 6 April 1936 in Penrose's home at 21 Downshire Hill.5 Rupert Lee acted as the chair. Read, Paul Nash, Henry Moore and Hugh Sykes Davies were all present. From the fourth meeting, Man Ray, Humphrey Jennings, Gascoyne, Sheila Legge and occasionally S.W. Hayter and Edward McKnight Kauffer, also attended.6 In order to get works from other nations, contact was made with Breton, Paul Eluard and Georges Hugnet in France, E.L.T. Mesens in Belgium, and Bjerke-Peterson in Denmark. Breton and Eluard were responsible for the selection of international works whereas Penrose and Read chose works by British artists.7
The installation was arranged for June 8th and 9th but, two days before the private view, Mesens came to London and disagreed with the hanging. According to Remy, he redesigned the exhibition, alternating large and small paintings, so that the visitor was obliged to step forward and then backward, thus encountering each picture individually.8 In fact, in Scrapbook, Penrose wrote how: he was immensely helpful in insisting that the right method to follow in hanging the show was to abandon all thoughts of chronology or of making isolated groups of each artist's work but rather whenever possible to make contrasts of colours, dimensions and content so as to produce, by shock tactics, the maximum of excitement. The labyrinth of objects, surrealist and ethnographic, helped greatly to remove any sense of a conventionally arranged academic show and contributed greatly to the fact that surrealism was not a new artistic style but a challenge to the painstaking aesthetic approach which dominated all London art exhibitions at that time.9
The exhibition was held from 11 June to 4 July 1936, twelve years after the publication of the first Surrealist Manifesto by Breton in 1924. This large-scale, highly publicized Surrealist event consisted of an impressive series of works by all the continental celebrities of Surrealism. Breton and his wife Jacqueline attended the opening ceremony and Breton inaugurated the show on 11 June at 3pm with his lecture on the Surrealist object.10 Breton also delivered a lecture entitled 'Limites non-frontières du Surréalisme' at the exhibition on June 16.11
At that time, Pailthorpe and Mednikoff who had met in 1935, had been working together for only a year and had never exhibited any of the works which they had so far produced. It is difficult to know for sure whether Pailthorpe and Mednikoff's invitation to exhibit came through Gascoyne or Pailthorpe's patient (from 19 April 1929 to 17 January 1930) and supporter Cecilia Dimsdale. During the early to mid-1930s, after her treatment had ceased, Dimsdale continued to send her drawings and analyses to Pailthorpe, asking the latter to analyse them.12 Pailthorpe's correspondence with Dimsdale suggests that their relationship provided a model for the later relationship and research with Mednikoff.
We do not exactly know how Dimsdale became involved in the organisation of the exhibition but we do know that, two weeks before it opened, Pailthorpe received a telegram from Dimsdale, asking her to post examples of her work to Rupert Lee.13 On 31 May 1936, after having visited London with examples of their work, Pailthorpe then wrote to Diana Brinton Lee, the secretary of the exhibition, saying that they would follow Gascoyne's suggestion that they deliver their work personally on 8 June 1936.14 From two drawings by Mednikoff captioned as having been executed while in London for the exhibition, we know that the couple were in London from June 3rd.15 Therefore, it seems that both Gascoyne and Dimsdale played a part in aiding the couple's participation in the exhibition.16
An undated form from the International Surrealist exhibition committee listing requirements for the exhibition also tells us that Pailthorpe and Mednikoff must have been in London at the start and end of the exhibition. However, we do not know in which part of London they were based. The form states that 'Works must be delivered to the Gallery by the artist on Sending-in Day and removed at the close of the Exhibition'.17 The form also includes a timetable of the exhibition diary dates: Sending in Day, Monday June 8th. Press View, Thursday June 11th, 10 o'clock. Private View, Thursday June 11th, 3 o'clock. Open to the Public, Friday June 12th. Works to be removed, Saturday July 4th.18
A letter from Pailthorpe, dated 1 June, to the insurance company Lloyd’s & Royal Exchange, shows that the works that Pailthorpe and Mednikoff exhibited were as follows:
Pailthorpe's Ancestors drawings (pictured above right), dated 5th July 1935, consist of images of hairy, grotesque human and animal figures and faces packed inside one another. The Surreal images emerge through a disengagement from conscious mechanisms as she morphs one image into another. In the first drawing, there is a figure with a monstrous hairy masculine face and breast-shaped hump on its back whereas in the second there are several other ambiguous half-animal, half-human forms.21
Pailthorpe produced these works at a time when she had only just begun to paint and draw and, in them, she makes patterns and representations of anything that came to mind, unconsciously exploring the bounds of space with the objects she arranges and depicts. In these drawings, as she herself puts it, her use of graphic automatism brings us face to face with our ancestors because they are part of our interior transformations.22 Even at this relatively early point, Pailthorpe insisted that the couple's art was based on the assumption that 'every mark and shape is intended by the subconscious and has a specific meaning'.23 Thus, the symbols in the Ancestors drawings indicate the wanderings of the subconscious mind when released from inhibitions and repressions.
Moreover, the lines and shapes in Ancestors are stylistically in tune with works by André Masson, and it is likely that she used his art as a visual source. Many of Masson's automatic drawings were reproduced in La Révolution Surréaliste and Cahiers d’Art and Pailthorpe would have looked at such key publications when she first began collaborating with Mednikoff. Articles on Masson also featured in Surrealist journals such as Documents and Transition in 1929 and 1930.
In Figure, for example, Masson's interest in metamorphosis is demonstrated as his unconsciously drawn marks or lines become recognizable shapes. As with Ancestors, the almost convulsive black line of automatism virtually takes over the canvas as the architecture dissolves into humanoid forms. Like Pailthorpe, Masson's figurative forms seem to have been created without any conscious control. Figure was published in Documents in 1929 so it is likely that Pailthorpe saw this work there.24
Although, like Ancestors, Mednikoff's Come Back Soon (26.01.36 - pictured above left) also portrays a half-animal, half-human figure, his drawing is not as detailed as the patterns which we see in the Ancestors drawings since his forms are not packed inside one another to the extent that Pailthorpe's are. Instead, there is a combination of different graphic styles in Come Back Soon. We can see the contrast between the representation of the legs, which are quite naturalistic, and the monstrous torso. Mednikoff had previously worked as a caricaturist and illustrator and the drawing looks like a comic sketch. Nevertheless, the drawing also represents complex autobiographical references. The images of the running boy's legs, the coffin and the beard illustrate how Mednikoff was recreating his own childhood experiences.
Although the style of both Come Back Soon and Ancestors is spontaneous, the imagery is complex and, as well as drawing on psychoanalytic material, the drawings are evidently indebted to Surrealist automatism and to the metamorphic forms of typical Surrealist art by the likes of Masson and (Salvador) Dalí. As well as consist-ing of menacing imagery, their drawings reveal a spontaneous and integrated relationship between lines and forms.
Unlike the couple’s drawings, Mednikoff’s paintings Darts, dated 4 May 1935 (Figure 25), and The Stairway to Paradise (pictured right), dated 20 March 1936, are compar-atively more solid and three-dimensional in style and are also less autobiographical in their imagery than the works he produced after 1935.
Arboreal Bliss (pict-ured below) was the third painting that Mednikoff made once he started working with Pailthorpe. After painting this work, Mednikoff wrote: My fear of the results of biting and piercing mother and the fact that the sucking motive first came into this sketch, which GWP’s tacit consent permitted me to do, led me to rush at an orgy of sucking milk and faeces out of mother. The biting and piercing was being done in the unconscious so that I could get at the food and milk inside mother.30
Arboreal Bliss demonstrates Mednikoff's concern with the recovery of his earliest experiences and in her notes on this painting, Pailthorpe stated that 'If that repressed child within us is to be revived, we shall find it still the infant with the infant's mode of expression'.31 Arboreal Bliss contains recognisable biomorphic forms and we can make out flowers and genitalia. As with Barn Dance, Mednikoff uses a faeces-like colour and curvilinear forms that resemble the freely developed forms of living organisms. Yet, despite the fact that Pailthorpe linked them together, unlike Darts, the shapes in Arboreal Bliss are organic rather than geometric.
In The Stairway to Paradise Mednikoff makes use of the red, yellow and blue primary colours. He creates an impression of softness and solidity as it consists of a stairway that lies between a solid, bony, red structure and a blue liquid tongue. There is a little stairway which leads up to a box and comes out of the other side as a long pink form which reaches towards a hole situated just below where the tongue forks.
The Stairway to Paradise bears a similarity to Hepworth's Mother and Child (1934). Hepworth's sculpture was included in an exhibition called 'Unit One' at the Mayor Gallery in April 1934 and Mednikoff could have seen it there before he painted The Stairway to Paradise. In this horizontal work, Hepworth juxtaposes separate elements in which the piercing suggests that the child had come from, and outgrown, the vacant space in the mother's body. Life, birth and infancy were the underlying subject of Hepworth's art in 1933 and, as we will see, were also consistent themes in Pailthorpe and Mednikoff's work.38
Plans show us that the International Surrealist exhibition space was divided into six small rooms, eight large rooms, two corridors and two rooms labeled the 'drawings rooms'.39 Come back Soon and Ancestors II were placed in Drawings Room 1 (Figure 34) and The Stairway to Paradise and Ancestors I in Drawings Room 2 (Figure 35). Darts was situated in the first corridor (Figure 36). We do not know where Pailthorpe and Mednikoff's other works were located. It is interesting to see that although Pailthorpe and Mednikoff's works were part of a joint research project, with the exception of The Stairway to Paradise and Ancestors I, they were not hung side by side during the exhibition. Moreover, to my knowledge, none of the analytical descriptions were available to visitors to the exhibition and no texts can be seen hanging next to any of their drawings or paintings in photos of the exhibition.
The drawings that Pailthorpe exhibited at the International Surrealist exhibition in 1936 were sufficiently impressive to attract André Breton's attention. It is possible that Gascoyne introduced Breton to the couple as he had translated the latter's Qu’est-ce que le Surréalisme? in 1935. At all events, after seeing their pictures in the exhibition, Breton singled them out as being 'the best and most truly Surrealist of the works' exhibited by the British artists. He did so in conversation with them – a conversation referred to by Mednikoff in an article entitled 'A History, an exposition and an exhibition of Surrealism', published in the journal Comment two weeks after the exhibition closed: In a conversation with M. Andre Breton I was given to understand that Dr. G. W. Pailthorpe's works were outstanding examples of the art. Such they clearly are, and, with Roland Penrose's work, give English Surrealism an excellent start.40 This conversation must have taken place some time between June 11 and 20 as that was when Breton and his wife were in London.41
It seems that Pailthorpe attached great weight to Breton's statement because it was often quoted by Pailthorpe herself, by Mednikoff and by journalists to whom she must have repeated it. Although they never state why Breton praised their works, it is likely that he sympathised with their medical approach (having after all had a medical training himself) or perhaps because he responded to the hard-line Surrealist imagery and style. Breton's warm reception of the couple's works at the 1936 International Surrealist exhibition also led to a correspondence with him over the years.
Reviews of the couple's work at the exhibition were also published in Comment. Runia Tharp (who signed as Sheila Macleod) and Victor Neuburg were the editors of this journal, which was not a Surrealist magazine but the successor to 'The Poet's Corner' and published articles, stories and poems. Tharp's column in the journal was called 'The Arts', and Neuberg's was titled 'Poetry'. In a review of the International Surrealist exhibition published in Tharp's column in Comment, the critic Brian Crozier wrote: So, for a few good pictures in the present exhibition, there are literally dozens of really bad ones, which are revolutionary neither in the political nor in the artistic sense. They are works which are 'superficial and do not consider the unconscious mind'. Some of these works included those by Hans Bellmer and Len Lye.
On the other hand, he singled out Mednikoff's work by stating: Of the good ones, we may mention the following: The Child’s Brain (de Chirico), which represents a nude middle-aged Italian gazing out of a window into the evening; The Dream (Dalí); for its glowing superromanticism; Darts, by Mednikoff, for its paranoiac tenseness of colour expression; and several Picasso's, for their prismatic brilliance.42
Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were regular contributors to the journal and often published their poetry and extracts from Pailthorpe's texts on crime and from her work on children from the unpublished manuscript Curucuchoo. Furthermore, Mednikoff designed the journal's masthead 'Comment'. Pailthorpe and Mednikoff's willingness to be associated with a journal which included Crozier's negative review of the Surrealist exhibition prefigured their refusal later to publish or exhibit under Surrealist auspices, an attitude which, as we shall see, led eventually to their expulsion from the movement.
Pailthorpe and Penrose frequently corresponded with one another after the exhibition ended. It seems that Penrose approved of Pailthorpe's work and they kept in touch over her research. In a letter dated 26 June 1936, Penrose asked Pailthorpe for her permission to reproduce Ancestors I in the upcoming fourth International Surrealist Bulletin to be published in September 1936.45 He told her that the publication would include 'a few reproductions of the most outstanding paintings and drawings among the English contributors'.46 Although Diana Brinton Lee had already asked Pailthorpe if she would exhibit Wind and Ancestors I in an unnamed exhibition of Surrealist art due to open at the Kidderminster Art Gallery and Museum during July 1936,47 a letter to Penrose shows us that Pailthorpe prioritised the drawing's publication in the International Surrealist Bulletin over the exhibition at the Kidderminster gallery: Dear Mr Penrose, I have been asked to loan two of my pictures to the Kidderminster Art Gallery and Museum for exhibition, and I have written giving permission provided that you have first had the use of whichever picture you require for reproduction in the Bulletin. Should there be any difficulties in this matter I would much prefer you to make use of the drawing than have it sent to Kidderminster.48
In the end, Pailthorpe’s work was exhibited at Kidderminster and published in the Bulletin. Other exhibitors at the Kidderminster Art gallery exhibition included Dalí, Miró, Ernst, Picasso, Moore and Klee. A letter from the Borough librarian and curator of the exhibition, dated 24th July, indicates that the exhibition lasted for just over a week but attracted a large attendance. Most of the works on display had already been shown at the International Surrealist exhibition.49 Clearly, the International Surrealist exhibition had a positive outcome for the couple as, from then on, they were often asked to take part in other exhibitions.The commotion generated by the International Surrealist exhibition in London coincided with the intense interest in Surrealism in the United States, where a subsequent major exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, was held from 8 December 1936 to 17 January 1937 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The director of the museum, Alfred Barr, had attended the International Surrealist exhibition during a trip to London and decided to hold a similar exhibition in New York. It included work by Eileen Agar, John Banting, Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Penrose. Both Pailthorpe and Mednikoff also had their works displayed.50
This exhibition differed to the one in London because, apart from the Surrealist works, it contained the most comprehensive presentation of Dada works since the Dadaist's own exhibitions.The main body of the exhibition represented the pioneers of the Dada-Surrealist movements of the previous twenty years but it also included the art of children and the insane. Furthermore, Barr set Dada and Surrealism into a historical context by also exhibiting examples of “fantastic art” from earlier periods. In doing so, he incurred the anger of Breton, among others, who objected to his art-historical slant on Surrealism. Breton did not approve of Barr's approach because he was not a Surrealist and his exhibition was not intended to be a demonstration of Surrealist principles or to convert people to Surrealism, but to historicise the movement by connecting it to its predecessor Dada and beyond Dada to the tradition of 'fantastic art'. The art of the insane and Child Art were included to define other sources of inspiration. Therefore, unlike the International Surrealist exhibition in London, Barr‟s show was not a Surrealist exhibition curated by the Surrealists themselves but a historical survey by a non-member of the group.
Evidence of the couple's invitation can be found in a letter from Pailthorpe to Barr, on 8 September 1936, saying she would be happy to loan Ancestors II to the Museum of Modern Art. After repeating Breton's praise, she asked whether Barr would also like to obtain one of Mednikoff's works: Dear Mr. Barr, Thank you for your letter of August 27 and your kind invitation to exhibit my drawing ‘Ancestors II’. I shall be glad to loan ‘Ancestors II’ for the exhibition but I should like to know that the drawing will be returned to me early in the new year as it must be exhibited in my scientific exhibition when I make known my research results… It may interest you to know that M. André Breton said of my work and that of my colleague (in my research), R. Mednikoff, that they were the best examples of English Surrealism. Should you wish to obtain one of my colleague's works for this exhibition I feel sure it could be arranged under the same conditions as my ‘Ancestors II’ and that it is returned in time for my scientific exhibition. Yours very sincerely Dr. G.W. Pailthorpe 53
Barr agreed to exhibit Mednikoff's work and The Stairway to Paradise was also shown. He also assured Pailthorpe that their works would be insured at a cost of £25 each.54 Following the Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibition in New York, the couple's works were also shown in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Boston.
This article is an abridged version of Chapter 4 of Lee Ann Montanaro's PhD (2010). The full thesis can be downloaded here: http://www.artcornwall.org/features/Pailthorpe_Mednikoff.pdf