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