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Too Much, Even For The Surrealists

The Must-See Work in England

Reuben Mednikoff, The Bengal Colonel (1945-47). Courtesy of De La Warr Pavilion. Photo credit Rob Harris

BY Louisa Buck
contemporary art correspondent

Published
In Must See

Reuben Mednikoff’s Bengal Colonel is a perplexing creature. Painted between 1945 and 1947, it is equal parts benign children’s toy and savage deity. Baring ferocious fangs and claws, it carries on its back a peaceful sleeping baby (which weirdly appears to be suckling from the colonel’s tail). There appears to be a partially formed fetus inside the tiger’s gaping mouth and, indeed, the colonel himself is in turn contained within another giant mouth, hemmed in by a frieze of stumpy teeth.

Although the painting was executed by Mednikoff, a British artist of Russian-Jewish origin—and is arguably his most important work—it is also the outcome of one of the most unorthodox artistic collaborations in British art. The 29-year-old Mednikoff met Dr Grace Pailthorpe, a 52- year-old surgeon and practising Freudian analyst, at a party in London in January 1935.

In his words, he “allowed the unconscious to express itself”

There was an instant rapport and fascination with each other’s work and almost immediately they embarked on an intimate joint project involving art and psychoanalysis that was to last more than 30 years, until Pailthorpe’s death in 1971. Mednikoff died just a few months later in 1972.

The couple were rarely apart, with Mednikoff teaching Pailthorpe the rudiments of art and she instructing him in the basics of interpretative analysis. The result was an outpouring of drawings and paintings made by the duo. Pailthorpe assumed the role of surrogate mother, haunted by the trauma of birth-giving, while Mednikoff’s troubled family relationships found often bizarre expression in a flood of images issuing forth from visions, dreams and free-association. In his words, he “allowed the unconscious to express itself”. Repressed childhood memories of a cold, critical mother and domineering father were expressed as terrifying, engulfing beasts of fantasy—of which Bengal Colonel is a striking example.

These researches chimed strongly with Surrealism’s explorations of the subconscious and Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were invited to participate in the 1936 “International Surrealist Exhibition” in London, as well as in the early activities of the British surrealist group.

Surrealism’s founder and prime mover André Breton considered their paintings and drawings to be “the best and most truly Surrealist of the works by English artists” and Pailthorpe and Mednikoff had their first joint exhibition at the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London in 1939.

“The best and most truly Surrealist of the works by English artists”

But although the pair expressed their internal hallucinations in a more extreme, direct and brave manner than any other artists in the British Surrealist movement, their more scientific approach also alienated them from the group. An attempt by Mednikoff to organise a meeting to define the role of Surrealism in wartime Britain led to them being expelled from the group in 1940. From then onwards, this odd couple worked in almost complete isolation.

They spent the war years in America and Canada and Bengal Colonel was completed shortly after their return to England. By this time Mednikoff’s anthropomorphic animals had become even more flamboyant, large and vividly colored and the pair rechristened their boundary-blurring of art and psychoanalytic theory “psychorealism”.

The oddness of their relationship took another turn when, in 1948, Pailthorpe decided to adopt Mednikoff as her son. He changed his name to Richard Pailthorpe and called her “Mother Flower”. By the end of their lives this strange couple became increasingly immersed in occultism and mysticism and lived out their last years on England’s south coast, where they ran an antiques shop in Battle, East Sussex.

Bengal Colonel was one of only a few works hanging in their final home in nearby Ninfield, where apparently guests were invited to gaze into its mouth to test their interpretive faculties. It still invites multiple and disquieting readings today.

Bengal Colonel can be seen in “A Tale of Mother’s Bones: Grace Pailthorpe, Reuben Mednikoff and the Birth of Psychorealism” at Camden Arts Centre from 12 April until 23 June.

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