Painting: British Surrealism at Its Best - and Most Nightmarish

By Gascoigne, Laura | The Spectator, June 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Painting: British Surrealism at Its Best - and Most Nightmarish


Gascoigne, Laura, The Spectator


Holding the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 was a coup for the British avant-garde, putting newbie surrealists such as Paul Nash and Roland Penrose on an equal footing with founding members of the European movement. But André Breton, who opened the show, was unimpressed by Nash, Penrose and co. Instead, he singled out two complete unknowns, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff, as 'the best and most truly surrealist' of the British contingent.

Pailthorpe and Mednikoff came out of nowhere. He was the artist son of a Russian-Jewish tinplate maker from the East End; she was the daughter of a Sussex stockbroker and had served as a surgeon during the first world war before training as a psychoanalyst. They hooked up at a party just a year before the 1936 exhibition, when he was 29 and she was 51. She had thought he might help to open the mind of one of her patients through art therapy, but soon decided he might help cure her writer's block. It was a coup de foudre psychologique.

Pailthorpe was a fast worker. Within a couple of months she had found a cottage in Cornwall where they could conduct research into the liberating effects of automatic drawing. She trained Mednikoff in the analytic method; he overcame her fears about handling paints. Together they developed a process they called 'psychorealism', which they promoted as a shortcut to the unconscious, avoiding the longueurs of Freud's royal road of dreams. The unconscious, Pailthorpe said, 'tells a perfect short story'. On the evidence of Camden Arts Centre's current exhibition, it also paints some remarkable pictures.

Step inside this show and you realise Breton was right. There's a vibrancy and exuberance about the paintings that blows away the stale air of self-consciousness hanging around so much British surrealism. 'Sixty-five of the goofiest paintings London has ever seen,' was the verdict of one reviewer on the couple's joint exhibition at Guggenheim Jeune in 1939. …

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