Myths and spirituality are recurring themes in Surrealism – especially in the art of painter Ithell Colquhoun. A conversation about this fascination with Occultism expert Richard Shillitoe.

In the context of the exhibition ”Fantastic Women”, topics such as alchemy, myths and spirituality keep cropping up – all terms from the field of occultism. What does occultism actually mean and what does it have to do with surrealism?

Words such as magical, occult and esoteric all refer to ways of thinking that came before the discoveries of science. They arose in the distant past when people were trying to understand and control important aspects of their lives such as ill health, death and the fertility of crops. Myths developed as stories which attempted to explain natural events. Rituals, spells and alchemical experiments all grew as ways of trying to influence the course of nature by harnessing inner powers and supernatural forces. All of these things show great imaginative power and poetic beauty and continue to stir and inspire our minds.

In time, they were largely overtaken by science, rationalism and logical thinking. But André Breton and his surrealist colleagues believed that rational thinking had led straight to the catastrophe of the first World War. Science and logic had brought destruction and suffering: instead, they thought it necessary to develop the mind’s creative capacities and unlock people’s hidden potential. So they turned back to these old ways of thinking and used a variety of techniques to investigate the mind and its creative possibilities. These methods included automatic writing, trances, dream analysis and free association. Some came from occultism, some from spiritualism and others from psychoanalysis.

1939, in an essay published in the London Bulletin no. 17, the English artist Ithell Colquhoun asserted that ‘my life is uneventful, but I sometimes have an interesting dream’. Like occultism, psychoanalysis and dream interpretation are central topics of surrealism. Where does this connection come from?

Sigmund Freud had shown that much of the mind’s activity takes place at an unconscious level, or through the bizarre world of dreams with their strange images and lack of logic. André Breton argued that the irrational world of dreams was just as important as the rational world of waking reality: taken together as equals they would form a new, sur-reality. In their different ways, the worlds of the occultist and of the psychoanalyst seemed to promise liberation and freedom of thought and action. 

Colquhoun recorded her dreams throughout her life and used them as the foundation for her novels, poems, paintings and magical rituals. But whereas Breton followed Freud in arguing that dreams come from the dreamer’s unconscious, Colquhoun believed that they could also come from astral worlds. She thought that sleep is the time when rationality is weak, when we are closest to the gods and at our most receptive to godly messages. During sleep the dreamer is released from normal constraints, can visit other worlds and receive visitors from them. Seeking to put these ideas into practical use, in the 1950s she was a member of a research group led by Alice Buck, a Jungian analyst, that investigated the power of dreams to predict forthcoming disasters. Sadly, the results were inconclusive.

How do these aspects translate into the works of surrealist artists?

Although the surrealists were very interested in magic, it was the language and imagery they found inspirational. Generally, they denied the existence of supernatural forces. But some had fewer reservations. Among the women artists, Leonora Carrington is known to have performed an act of divination, usually a Tarot reading, before making important decisions. Remedios Varo was interested in talismans, clairvoyance and dream control and experimented with alchemical healing potions. 

But Colquhoun was the only one who was formally initiated into magical societies. She alone learned how to devise complicated rituals or knew how to consecrate objects for use in magical ceremonies. Only she was trained in astral travel and the invocation of spirits and angels. Every working magician needs a crystal ball or magic mirror. Colquhoun used a mirror with an ornate copper frame decorated with a hand beaten Celtic interlace pattern. In use, she attached herself to the mirror with a woven rope as a sort of umbilical cord, in order to anchor any visions that might appear.

My life is uneventful, but I sometimes have an interesting dream.

Ithell Colquhoun
Ithell Colquhoun, Tree Anatomy (Anatomie des Baumes), 1942, The Estate of the late Dr. Jeffrey Sherwin and the Sherwin Family, © Samaritans, Noise Abatement Society & Spire Healthcare
Ithell Colquhoun's mirror © Richard Shillitoe

In works such as "Tree Anatomy" or "Linked Islands II", Colquhoun combines gender symbols with representations of nature: a tree hole looks like a vulva, the islands are reminiscent of phallic shapes. Numerous other examples can be found. To what extent does this come from the occult world of ideas?

Colquhoun believed in animism, the ancient idea that all of nature, even the parts usually regarded as inanimate, contains a life force. This includes the Earth itself which, being alive, is sexually active. Many of her paintings illustrate the sexual life of the earth. This is obviously true of “Stalactite“. The imagery of “Linked Islands II“ is more complicated: the structure on the left is a holy well, a female symbol, which balances the male symbol of the standing stone on the right. The two islands, or genders, come together and separate in rhythm with the tides. These paintings are based on real locations that Colquhoun had visited and where she had uncovered their hidden sexual side. The slit in the rocks in “Stalactite“ is at Nanjisel, a rocky bay in Cornwall, and “Linked Islands II“ is the nearby island of St Agnes which is divided in half by the rising waters at each high tide. “Tree Anatomy“ is not a specific place, but no one who has seen it can walk through a forest of mature trees again and see them with an innocent eye!

In “Dance of the Nine Opals“ magical currents from deep within the earth break the surface and energize the stones. It is an imaginative interpretation of the Merry Maidens stone circle in Cornwall. She described the central form as ‘a supernatural flower with nine petals and a fiery pistil’ and added that the nine stones represent ‘the nine moons of pregnancy with perpetual solar impregnation.’ 

Colquhoun was excluded from the British Surrealists group in 1940 due to her devotion to the occult. What’s the background of this story?

The leader of the London Surrealist Group was a Belgian, Eduard Mesens. In 1940, thanks to wartime conditions, the group was in danger of splitting up and members began to pursue other activities. Mesens tried to impose order by insisting on total allegiance to surrealism to the exclusion of everything else. Colquhoun refused to give up her occult interests and left the group. Others, such as Eileen Agar and Grace W. Pailthorpe also rejected his terms and left, but Agar later recanted and was allowed to rejoin.

In the work "Stalactite" from 1962, which can also be seen in the exhibition “Fantastic Women”, a kind of emblem is found at the bottom of the picture instead of a signature. Can you explain that?

It’s a tradition in many spiritual organizations for a person to adopt a new name or motto when they join, to symbolize their new spiritual identity or aspirations. For example, William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet and occultist who was a leading figure in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was known by fellow members as “Demon Est Deus Inversus" - the devil is the reverse of God. It is not just magicians that do this: Joseph Ratzinger became Benedict 16 when he was elected Pope. When Colquhoun started studying with a magician named Kenneth Grant she chose to be known as “Splendidior Vitro”- more sparkling than crystal. This indicates that her personal spiritual search was for purity and clarity. From 1962 onwards she signed all her paintings with a monogram formed from the initials ‘S‘ and ‘V‘ inside a circle, indicating that now and in the future, art and magic would be one and the same.

Richard Shillitoe © Richard Shillitoe

Dr. Richard Shillitoe is a biographer of the surrealist artist, author and occultist Ithell Colquhoun and works tirelessly to research and publicize her work.



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