Reuben Mednikoff

December 31, 1937, 8.00pm (Oompah)


Not on display

Reuben Mednikoff 1906–1972
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 510 × 765 mm
frame: 620 × 873 × 52 mm
Purchased 2018


December 31, 1937, 8.00pm (Oompah) is a landscape format oil painting on canvas. The background of the painting is divided vertically by a jagged white line – the right two thirds being a flatly painted yellow ground and the left third a dark blue-green. Represented against a yellow field is the semi-naked torso of a woman with breasts exposed, a white chemise under her breasts and her right upper thigh apparently clothed in a snuggly fitting dark fabric. Balancing on her thigh is a red baby or sprite figure with a white band around his waist. A long sharply pointed phallus penetrates and ejaculates through the chemise. His thin long arms reach out, holding onto and pushing against the woman’s right breast; his head arcs back, two drops of milk hanging above his open mouth. The work is titled after the date of its making, as was the artist’s custom, and while Mednikoff was living in Cornwall with his artist partner, Grace Pailthorpe (1883–1971).

Mednikoff first met Pailthorpe in February 1935 and within a few months they had moved to Cornwall where they commenced collaborative research and work in psychology and art. In June 1936 works by the two artists were included in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London and from this date until 1940 they were key members of the British Surrealist group. In 1939 Guggenheim Jeune, London held a joint exhibition of their work in which December 31, 1937, 8.00pm (Oompah) was included (no.43). This exhibition followed the publication of Pailthorpe’s article ‘The Scientific Aspect of Surrealism’ (London Bulletin, no.7, December 1938−January 1939) in which she declared that both surrealism and psychoanalysis ‘strive to free the psychology of the individual from internal conflict so that she or he may function freely’ – this she defined as ‘the liberation of man’. Furthermore, she stated that the expression of ‘unconscious fantasy’ could be unlocked and interpreted – ‘not a line or detail is out of place and everything has its symbolic meaning. This also applies to colour. Every mark, shape and colour is intended by the unconscious and has its meaning.’ (Reprinted in Leeds City Art Gallery 1998, pp.97−103.) Each painting, watercolour and drawing Pailthorpe and Mednikoff produced allowed the unconscious free rein. Subsequently they both offered analytical interpretation of their own and each other’s work, and these texts were presented alongside their work at Guggenheim Jeune using much the same language as Pailthorpe employed in ‘The Scientific Aspect of Surrealism’. Nevetheless, their allegiance to a surrealism as a therapeutic tool drew fire from other surrealists for whom automatism was a way of liberating language and not strictly a tool to unlock and study the unconscious within a therapeutic context, which they held to be socially repressive.

One strong theme running through Mednikoff and Pailthorphe’s work was a concern with the period before birth, in the womb, and also early childhood, as in December 31, 1937, 8.00pm (Oompah) where the child as a form of sprite is born of, attached to, impregnating and being nourished by the mother. This painting shows how Mednikoff created hybrid human/animal figures for his paintings that were firmly located in the world of the nursery dream and the carnivalesque. In each painting, children both play and are punished; each presents images of nourishment from the breast and the expulsion of waste matter.

The imagery of Mednikoff and Pailthorpe’s work was, on the whole, amongst the most shocking and violent produced by any of the artists within the British Surrealist group; even more so for its autobiographical coherence – found in Mednikoff’s anal sadism as much as both artists unpicking of childhood trauma or progression towards intra-uterine regression. The relationship that is played out here between birth and sleep, the playroom aspects of eating, vomiting, defecating, copulating and pissing, seem sharply rooted to immediately felt experience.

Further reading
G.W. Pailthorpe and R. Mednikoff, exhibition catalogue, Guggenheim Jeune, London 1939.
Sluice Gates of the Mind: The Collaborative Work of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Gallery 1998.
Michel Remy, Surrealism in Britain, Aldershot 1999

Andrew Wilson
November 2017

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