Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Kitty Hauser

Reuben Med­nikoff, Oc­to­ber 17, 1938. 10am. (The king of the cas­tle) (1938). Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne. Pur­chased by the NGV Foun­da­tion with the as­sis­tance of the Duncan El­phin­stone McBryde Leary Be­quest, 2011. Sur­re­al­ism came late to Bri­tain. For his part, Salvador Dali held the view that since the Bri­tish were nat­u­rally sur­real, they had no need of it. Nev­er­the­less, when the In­ter­na­tional Sur­re­al­ist Ex­hi­bi­tion was held in Lon­don in 1936, amid much in­ter­est from the press, there was a de­cent muster from the lo­cals. Among them were Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Med­nikoff. You don’t hear much about them now, even in art his­tor­i­cal lit­er­a­ture. An­dre Bre­ton, the god­fa­ther of sur­re­al­ism, de­scribed them as “the best and most truly sur­re­al­ist” of any Bri­tish artists. But what they were do­ing was far more ex­treme than he, or any­one else, knew.

They met at a party in 1935. She was 48, he was 32. He was an artist who dab­bled in sur­re­al­ist-ish poetry and held down (not for long) a day job in ad­ver­tis­ing. She was a doc­tor and psy­cho­an­a­lyst who had served as a sur­geon in World War I, and un­der­took a rev­o­lu­tion­ary study of the psy­chol­ogy of delin­quency.

They shared an in­ter­est in the ther­a­peu­tic ca­pac­ity of art and the use of im­age-making as a tool to ex­plore the un­con­scious. He was flat­tered by her in­ter­est in his work. She saw in him the re­search as­so­ciate (or guinea pig) she was look­ing for. He started call­ing her “mother”, or “mother flower”. Not long af­ter meet­ing, the pair moved to a cot­tage in Corn­wall to carry out a pro­gram of re­search which they both viewed with deadly se­ri­ous­ness.

Pailthorpe, dis­sat­is­fied with the stan­dard prac­tices of psy­cho­anal­y­sis, was sure there must be a “quicker way to the deeper lay­ers of the un­con­scious than by the long drawn-out couch method”; and she thought the way might be through art. Med­nikoff in­tro­duced her to prac­tices of au­toma­tism and en­cour­aged her to make her own draw­ings and paint­ings. Their method was for one of them to pro­duce au­to­matic works as freely as pos­si­ble, and then the other would pro­duce elab­o­rate in­ter­pre­ta­tions of them. Then they would swap roles.

Pailthorpe also thought the “couch method” of psy­cho­anal­y­sis was too dis­tant, cre­at­ing the very en­vi­ron­ment of anx­i­ety it was sup­posed to al­le­vi­ate. She pro­posed the “sa­ti­a­tion method” in which the pa­tient’s un­con­scious is ther­a­peu­ti­cally given what it de­sires. Given Med­nikoff’s in­fan­tile fan­tasies (mostly aimed at her) in­cluded anal sadism, one can only imag­ine what went on in that Corn­wall cot­tage.

It’s easy to laugh, or be hor­ri­fied. But Pailthorpe held the high­est hopes for this re­search, see­ing it as the beginnings of a new art and the foun­da­tions of a new civil­i­sa­tion. The idea was that this kind of art-making could re­cover the very ear­li­est mem­o­ries of anx­i­ety or fear that are oth­er­wise in­ac­ces­si­ble; they could then be con­fronted, and the pa­tient could go for­ward.

As time went by, money ran out. Pailthorpe and Med­nikoff re­alised ex­hibit­ing their works might bring in some in­come, so some — such as this one — were worked up into gallery pieces and given ti­tles (gen­er­ally they were la­belled only with the time and date, to aid the an­a­lytic process).

All of th­ese works, as Pailthorpe in­sisted, were dense with the most pre­cise mean­ing, elab­o­rated in texts. I don’t have ac­cess to th­ese texts so I’m not sure what ex­actly The king of the cas­tle is about. It has to do with good moth­ers and bad moth­ers, and the trauma of birth. It’s on dis­play at the NGV.

Oil on com­po­si­tion board, 41.8cm x 52cm

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