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The eeriest couple in art: Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
In 1936 Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were included in the era-defining 'International Surrealist Exhibition' in London. At the time they were living and working in the small fishing village of Port Isaac in Cornwall, where they had moved within weeks of meeting in Spring 1935. Their extraordinary collaboration and involvement with the fledgling British Surrealist movement continued from their base there until they moved to America in 1940. In 1998 they were the subject of a solo exhibition at Leeds City Art Gallery.
There were no obituaries, no news reports, no photographs of pale women wearing widows' weeds. When Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff died in 1971, there were no doleful television tributes or radio broadcasts.
Yet this extraordinary pair - an 89-year-old female psychiatrist and her 65-year-old artist consort - had once been the toast of salons throughout London. In the 1930s Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were hailed as "the best and most truly Surrealist" of any artists living in Britain by André Breton, leader of the movement. Herbert Read, the art critic, ranked them alongside William Blake and Lewis Carroll in the canon of British "super-realists". Desmond Morris, the anthropologist who was also once in the British Surrealist group, said they created some of the most "serious and important works" of the day.
Today, though, they are quite forgotten. When the Hayward Gallery mounted a Dada and Surrealist exhibition in 1978, the organisers could not locate a single one of their works. Part of the reason why they have sunk without trace is that they had a genius for alienating people. Indeed, artistic merit aside, they are one of the strangest, eeriest couples in British art.
Conroy Maddox, another British Surrealist, remembers them simply as "the ogre and the dumpy one. I think if I'd heard Grace Pailthorpe was looking after children I'd have been seriously worried. She was severe, mannish, three or four inches taller than Mednikoff, and did most of the talking. He was quiet, pleasant and dumpy."
Grace Pailthorpe was born in 1883 - the third child and only daughter of a family of 10 children born to Edward Pailthorpe and Lavinia Green, both members of the strictly puritanical religious sect, the Plymouth Brethren. Reuben Mednikoff, born 23 years later in London, was the fourth child of a Jewish family of Russian immigrant origin. When they met, at a party in 1935 given by Victor Neuberg, a satanist and lover of Aleister Crowley, he was working in an advertising agency.
According to other guests, it was a debauched and alarming evening involving pentangles, ostrich feathers and satanic ceremonies. But Mednikoff and Pailthorpe were oblivious to all this, locking eyes in one corner of the room while they discussed the subconscious - and how art could be used as a means of curing mental problems.
"It was not so much love at first sight as an instant recognition on both sides that they needed each other to pursue scientific experiments they were interested in carrying out," says Andrew Wilson, who is curating the first major show of the couple's work in this country.
Once the relationship was established, though, its power balance never changed. Mednikoff, a small, jug-eared man obsessed with his bowels, was totally dominated by the woman he called his "Mother Flower" - even though she looked like Brian Sewell and had a tongue like glass-paper. After a few years of living together, he went one alarming stage further - legally becoming her "son" by changing his name by deed-poll to Richard or "Ricky" Pailthorpe.
But Mednikoff's attitude towards Pailthorpe appeared to veer between revulsion and dependency. "The guilt sense of my savagery towards M[other] has been violently aroused," he wrote, describing one of his paintings. "Mother is top left large head which is crowned with pubic hairs and two breasts. Her lower lip extends down to a head (myself) which is refusing to take the dummy which the lower lip has become. The dummy is covered with my Mother's saliva." Yet in another confessional he lovingly describes himself as a "baby" lying in his "Mother Flower's" womb, and he regularly wrote about his urge to paint something good to "please Mother".
By contrast, Pailthorpe was chillingly matter-of-fact about Mednikoff. Although she was willing to cook for him, sleep with him and provide him with financial security, the chief reason why she enjoyed his company seems to have been because he was a useful guinea-pig for her scientific researches into the unconscious. "RM's quick understanding of the use of symbols made him seem to me as probably the most suitable colleague for research," she wrote, as if discussing a new computer.
Pailthorpe had originally trained as a surgeon and had seen distinguished service during the First World War. But it was her interest in Sigmund Freud and his theories about how long-forgotten incidents in childhood cause many of the problems of adulthood that came to obsess her.
By getting Mednikoff to paint, she believed, she could bring his memories to a conscious level and as a result start to treat them. "I felt there must be somewhere a quicker way to the deeper layers of the unconscious than by the long-drawn-out couch method," she wrote.
Every day Pailthorpe encouraged Mednikoff to let his mind freewheel over the canvases. She then would analyse the results, and he would do the same for her. Mednikoff, Pailthorpe concluded, was suffering from an "anal sadism" fixation rooted in his reaction to his orthodox Jewish upbringing.
Certainly there's ample evidence of "anal sadism" in his work. His paintings feature infantile images of figures urinating, defecating, gurgling, dribbling and vomiting - apparently the legacy of a trip to a Kosher slaughter-house when he was five.
For his part, Mednikoff concluded Pailthorpe was obsessed with childlessness, manifested in the babies, sperm, ova and uterine shapes that throng her work. She had always been confused about her identity as a woman, and as well as never wanting children herself, was jealous of the men in her family.
She wrote how the imagery reflected her fury with her father, who because of his puritan beliefs denied himself sexual fulfilment. "If he castrated himself for his sexual desires how furiously would he destroy me for mine," she wrote. "And yet I wanted his penis and it filled me with impotent rage, his destroying that which I wanted."
However, this mania for Freudian interpretation was the kind of "scientific" dissection of art that enraged other members of the Surrealist group. They felt Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were too dry and literal, and tried to explain away the inexplicable in Surrealist art with scientific platitudes. "They reduced paintings to the level of symptoms", says Conroy Maddox, "and psychology to the level of a simple equation."
Parker Tyler, one of the most celebrated art critics of the time, summed up the hostility towards them when he wrote that their "mummified and perverted approach should be feared and deplored".
In 1940, the feeling against Mednikoff and Pailthorpe had grown so strong that they were expelled from the British Surrealist Group by its leaders, Roland Penrose and E. L. T. Mesens. Shortly before, Mednikoff had proposed a feature to Picture Post magazine to demonstrate Surrealist ways of working by enlisting a charwoman, a Mrs Ward, to do some "automatic" drawings. Events, however, overtook them. Nine days before Mrs Ward was all set to go, Marshal Pétain surrendered to the Germans.
Disgraced, hurt and enraged by their expulsion, Mednikoff and Pailthorpe moved to New York. It didn't work. Eight years later they returned to Britain where Pailthorpe became consultant at the Portman Clinic - an organisation to "cure" young delinquents through therapy rather than punishment. The following year they set up the world's first art therapy school in Dorking.
When Grace Pailthorpe died of cancer in 1971 at 89, Mednikoff was only 65, yet within six months he too had died. Their paintings were dispersed and most of them lost. The thousands of laboriously typed commentaries on paintings were shoved into the attic of their house in Hastings, never to be read.
Now their reappraisal is under way. "They were the only true Surrealists," says Andrew Wilson. "They were the only ones who scraped beneath the surface and dared go full fathom deep. All the other Surrealists were mere decorators by comparison."
The Sunday Telegraph London January 18, 1998
Time Magazine 6th Feb 1939
Dr. Grace Pailthorpe is tall. Mr. Reuben Mednikoff is small. Dr. Pailthorpe is the daughter of a stockbroker. Mr. Mednikoff is the son of a peasant. She is 48, he is 32; she a doctor, he a commercial artist. She has spent some time bushwhacking in New Zealand; he has spent much of his brushwielding in London. Both have bright eyes, great energy, and perfectly terrific subconscious minds. Fate threw them together at a party five years ago, and they have been working together ever since on the Cornwall coast. Last week the fruit of those years—65 of the goofiest paintings London has ever seen—were put on show in the white-walled Guggenheim Jeune Galleries.
In the course of experiments on themselves and each other, Pailthorpe and Mednikoff found they could let their subconscious minds range up near the level of conscious, so that the two intermingled. Many a childhood memory, wish, fear broke through and expressed itself—to the immense comfort of Dr. Pailthorpe's and Mr. Mednikoff's psyches. They were doing in their own way what psychiatrists do in psychoanalysis. Sometimes they happily babbled babytalk. Sometimes they wrote infantile verse. But most of the time they painted surrealist child-paintings.
From their experience grew the Pailthorpe-Mednikoff Theory, about which they hope to write a book if the show earns them enough money. Surrealist painting, they say, affords a very effective sort of psychotherapy. They believe childhood quirks, resulting in adulthood's maladjustments, can be cleared away if the subconscious mind paints them through symbols of its choice.
The Pailthorpe-Mednikoff canvases were filled with these symbols. Some of them, such as safety pins, wheels and houses, were easily recognizable as childish carryovers. Others were less simple. Dr. Pailthorpe and Mr. Mednikoff were anxious to explain that this cockscomb meant that the little boy had killed his mother, and that that tree represented father chasing him around behind the house. Some of the symbols were obviously adult, obviously sexual.
Art critics thought some of Mr. Mednikoff's work, such as Little Nigger Boys Don't Tell Lies (above right), beautifully painted. But neurologists and psychiatrists were considerably more dubious of the value of self-administered surrealistic psychotherapy.