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Happy foetuses, angry children

Reuben Mednikoff: A Tale of Mother's Bones, 1936

Reuben Mednikoff, January 3 1938, 11am - January 4 1938,6pm

Grace Pailthorpe: November 28, 1968

With their startling creations of happy foetuses, angry children, and impaled adult torsos, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff were two of the most fascinating Surrealist artists of the mid-20th century.

Their paintings and drawings appeared alongside those of Picasso, Dali and Duchamp at the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936, and was described by the French poet Andre Breton as “the best and most truly Surrealist” of the work by English artists.

But then – even though Malcolm McLaren, ex-manager of Sex Pistols, apparently attributed his punk rock inspiration to the “juvenile delinquency” of Pailthorpe’s images – they became largely forgotten.

Dr Hope Wolf, from the School of English at the University of Sussex, has brought their art back into the light by co-curating an exhibition at De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. And new audiences are about to learn much more about their extraordinary art, research and relationship.

The show, which opened on 6 October, includes dozens of paintings, drawings, manuscripts and photographs created by the couple, alongside their own interpretations of the unconscious impetus of each of the works shown. In most cases, it is the first time the artworks have been paired with their interpretations since the 1930s and 40s.

'Psychorealism'

Mednikoff, a trained artist, met Pailthorpe, a surgeon-turned psychoanalyst, in 1935. He was 29. She was 52. She began to psychoanalyse him and his works, and then also took up painting. Over the next three to four decades they continued to interpret each other’s creative output using a process they called ‘Psychorealism’.  

They also lived together, initially in Cornwall, at one point in the USA and Canada, and then finally in Sussex: they ran The Little Georgian antiques shop in Mount Street, Battle, and their final home was in Ninfield. Pailthorpe died in 1971, followed by Mednikoff in 1972.

“Their relationship is not easy to summarise and it remained elusive even to people who knew them in their lifetimes,” says Dr Wolf, who explored the vast archive of their writings and art now kept at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. ‘Although the artists publically identified as colleagues, and tended to write about one another in psychoanalytic rather than romantic language, the way in which they projected their infantile desires onto one another meant that their relationship was not straightforwardly platonic either."

Childhood fears

The show takes its title, A Tale of Mother’s Bones, from an ink drawing by Mednikoff, featuring fantastical creatures devouring each other. According to Pailthorpe’s interpretation, this represented Medinikoff’s unconscious reflection of his early childhood fears about weaning and going hungry as a result of a new baby being born.

Pailthorpe’s own works of the late 1930s, such as her Birth Trauma series, were imaginings of her life in utero – and out of it. “The womb was depicted as a kind of Eden in comparison with the world outside,” says Dr Wolf.

“She used her birth story to understand why she experienced limitations in adulthood as ‘suffocation, as an impeding of the flow of life’.  She described, for instance, a sensation of strangulation whenever she spoke in public, suggesting that it was a physical remembrance of the umbilical cord wrapping around her neck.”

In fact, prior to meeting Mednikoff, Pailthorpe had already led a distinguished life. The only girl among nine brothers, she trained as a doctor and became a highly regarded surgeon at military hospitals during the First World War.

She then went to Australia and became a doctor in a gold mine. On returning to England in 1922, she studied psychoanalysis with Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones, and carried out research at Holloway Women’s Prison in London, where she concluded that the inmates needed hospital treatment rather than incarceration.

When Pailthorpe and Mednikoff began working together they produced reams of material, examining issues such as the origins of hate, and the problems of patriarchy, with the intention of getting it published as a book.

Therapeutic value

“Pailthorpe and Mednikoff took their joint project very seriously,” says Dr Wolf. “They saw it as scientific research that needed to be presented to the world. They believed that art and its analysis had a therapeutic value, and the capacity to liberate individuals and societies from violence and oppression.”

But despite many drafts of their manuscript, entitled, Psychorealism, The Sluice Gates of the Emotion, they failed to find a publisher, and didn’t have the money to publish it themselves.

Even though audiences of the 1930s and 1940s were exposed to the extraordinary works, with reviewers describing them as “eye stopping,” “fresh”, and “vital”, Pailthorpe only published carefully censored written interpretations of their art. This avoided both personal embarrassment, and accusations of obscenity.

The couple continued their research until their deaths, fusing their psychoanalytic interests with a new fascination for theosophy, Buddhism, and agni yoga in the 1960s.

'Eerie couple'

In 1948 Reuben Mednikoff changed his name to Richard Pailthorpe, and it has been assumed that Pailthorpe adopted him as her son. Dr Wolf thinks there may be contextual explanations for the name change however: Pailthorpe’s starting work in that year, with Mednikoff as her assistant, at London’s Portman Clinic (which she had helped to found), for instance, or public feeling towards the Soviet Union at the time.

Dr Wolf says: “They have been described as an ‘eerie couple’, which I think reflects the air of mystery around them, and also the tendency to assume that their lives were as quirky and strange as their art and writing, both of which they used to vent their furies and desires.

“I am not saying they were straight-laced – so many parts of their practice challenged convention – but I also think it’s important to consider how important maintaining an air of respectability was for them. Their personal photograph albums show them dressing conventionally, living in comfortable but ordinary surroundings, and enjoying activities such as gardening.”

While the exhibition tells the story of their lives, it also situates their work in the context of the political events of the 20th century, including referencing what they believed caused the rise in Fascism and Nazism. 

Dr Wolf explains: “Pailthorpe wrote that Hitler and Mussolini would never have become insanely dictatorial if they’d had the opportunity as children ‘to vent their infantile rages’. Because she thought making art could release frustrations, she proposed that it could be used as a preventative measure against the spreading of the ‘virus of hate’

She adds: “I can see why people might be critical of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff’s research, but I remain amazed by the ambition of their project and how daring they were in the context of the time to do such a thing. They were the guinea pigs in their own experiment.”

A Tale of Mother’s Bones’ is at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhilll-on-sea until 20 January 2019, accompanied by a programme of talks and events, before opening at Camden Arts Centre on 12 April 2019 (running to 23 June 2019).

The exhibition was curated by Dr Hope Wolf (University of Sussex) with Rosie Cooper, Head of Exhibitions at the De La Warr Pavilion, Martin Clark, Director of Camden Arts Centre, and Gina Buenfeld, Curator at Camden Arts Centre.


By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Wednesday, 17 October 2018

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