Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

When Reuben met Grace

Reuben Mednikoff, 'King of the Castle', 1938

A word in honour of British Surrealism’s oddest couple, the wonderful Mednikoff and Pailthorpe. After Grace Pailthorpe, psychoanalyst and mother figure, and Reuben Mednikoff, painter and child substitute, fell for each other (despite – or maybe because of – a two and a bit decades’ age gap) at a party given in 1935 by Victor Neuberg (forgotten Swinburnean poet and ex-acolyte of Aleister Crowley), they embarked promptly on a decade and a half of heroically intensive mutual psychoanalysis, using automatic drawing and painting as their chosen therapeutic method; in the process they generated hundreds of extraordinary artworks and uncounted pages of notes and interpretations. Much of their delving involved regression to infantile or even intra-uterine experience, and in late 1936 they developed a shared baby-talk language called “Curucuchoo”, in which they wrote a number of texts.

Reuben Mednikoff

 

Grace Pailthorpe

 

When their direction was deemed to diverge from the orthodoxy then required of the British surrealist group, their summary expulsion from it was engineered by E L T Mesens, bumptious and untalented Trotskyist, self-appointed group leader and André Breton’s mini-me. In 1940 the pair fled to New York, returning to England after the war. In 1948, Mednikoff was “adopted” by his mumsy lover, changing his name to Richard Pailthorpe.

Mednikoff, 'Bulbous Figure', c 1935

It’s hardly surprising that after fifteen years of squelchy, labyrinthine navel gazing, their project wound up as a school of art therapy; finally in the mid-sixties it descended inevitably into new-ageiness as the old-age duo took to the sub-Theosophical teachings of Alice A Bailey. Grace Pailthorpe died in 1971. Reuben Mednikoff, perhaps unable to live without her, died a few months later.

There is only one book about them – Sluice Gates of the Mind, the expanded catalogue to the 1998 exhibition of their work at the City Art Gallery, Leeds. This is well furnished with colour plates and original documents; it contains three substantial texts, but owes most to the exertions of Andrew Wilson. It’s on offer in some places (like many art books) at hopelessly silly prices, but I managed an as-new copy for a tenner.

Short of this, a quick starting point might be this breezy review at artcornwall.org. More determined readers might try the 2010 PhD thesis on the pair by Lee Ann Montanaro, downloadable as a pdf from the University of Edinburgh. It’s an academic study, so it proceeds at a stately pace, but her research has been grounded most thoroughly in primary materials from the rich Pailthorpe and Mednikoff archive at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, making this a highly informed piece of work. The only regret is that Montanaro cuts off her account at 1940. A curious side issue on which she sheds some light is the tangled fate of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff’s papers before they were acquired as an archive, in relation to the unpublished study of Dr David Rumney.

Mednikoff, 'April 21 1935 - 4'

At this distance, as Freudian and Kleinian theory slide away into the Museum of Discredited Ideas, the endless and obsessive interpretations and analytical descriptions of the drawings and paintings tend to shed their fascination. The detailed identifications of murky and brutal symbolisms – mother, anus, penis, faeces etc – are extraordinary and compelling in small doses, but there’s only so much of this stuff that you might want to read. It’s the images that last. Of the two image makers, Pailthorpe, being untrained, is the lesser artist, though much of her work has a naïve/brut appeal. But Mednikoff, with the skills and experience of a commercial artist, brings an excitingly convincing plasticity to his automatic squiggles, which morph wonderfully and tonally into three dimensions, or suggest unpleasant cartoons drawn by Joan Miró on acid.

Pailthorpe, 'The Blazing Infant', 1940

By the ‘sixties, Pailthorpe’s paintings had become rather more decorative, with loose washes of primary colour. Much happier, in fact. Which suggests a resolution of some sort at the end of all those desperate years of birth trauma and castration. One would like to think so. But in any case, what a heroic endeavour! They may have sailed on Sargasso seas, but Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were true Argonauts of the Unconscious. We should salute them, at the very least, for the near-superhuman stature of their obsessions.

Mednikoff, 'Caucasian Blancmange', 1938

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5 responses to “When Reuben met Grace

  1. Alan Munton January 14, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    Someone I play cricket with (we both bowl slow left-arm) has a couple of Mednikoffs. Fascinating stuff, as you say.

  2. Nick January 29, 2015 at 4:54 am

    Reuben Mednikoff was actually my Uncle, my father’s brother and I met them both at their home in Ninfield when I was much younger and many of their paintings hung on the walls. I was too young to appreciate them other than liked some of the shapes and colours and so on. Grace always seemed very quiet and Reuben did most of the talking as I remember. They were also into crystal devining (or healing?) hanging them on a string above a hand or arm I think and then watching how/which way it swung. Anyway I digress. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Recuperemos a las mujeres pintoras de la historia – Estilo surrealista | Pintura y Artistas

  4. Alan August 24, 2015 at 11:31 am

    I just love Mednikoffs work, particularly Bengal Colonel, my favourite painting. I saw it in an exhibition in 1984 at school and would love to see it again. It seems to be in a private collection and there’s nothing at all on line about its history. Very sad.

    • richardawarren August 24, 2015 at 5:11 pm

      Thanks! Not seen this painting before, but it’s a great image. I see it’s illustrated in this history of art therapy in Google Books. In the acknowledgements it’s given as courtesy of Whitford Fine Art, London – this was in 2001. The copyright now seems to be held by Bridgeman Images (boo!), but they don’t put a thumbnail online. You must have seen this in the 1984 exhibition of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff at Oliver Bradbury & James Birch, London? (Listed in Sluice Gates.)

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