Reuben Mednikoff

Untitled Drawing


Not on display

Reuben Mednikoff 1906–1972
Ink on paper
Support: 380 × 255 mm
frame: 527 × 425 × 20 mm
Purchased 1984

Display caption

Mednikoff was a painter associated with the British Surrealist group, who worked in close collaboration with the psychoanalyst Grace Pailthorpe. Both of them would paint, and then conduct a Freudian analysis of each other’s work, a process described by Pailthorpe in her 1938 article ‘The Scientific Aspect of Surrealism’. Mednikoff inscribed the back of this drawing: ‘eyes, eyes, eyes and arrows. The same need to see + attack + possess with the eyes. Wanting to see things - my insatiable curiosity.’ Forbidden, sexually charged vision emerged as an obsession, whose violence Mednikoff channeled through his drawings.

Gallery label, July 2011

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Catalogue entry

Reuben Mednikoff 1906-75

T03890 Untitled Drawing 1936

Pen and blue-black ink approx. 25.5 x 17 (10 x 6 3/4) on paper 380 x 255 (15 x 10)
Inscribed ‘June 23 1936 - 8' b.r., ‘eyes, eyes, eyes and arrows. The same need to see + attack | + possess with the eyes. Wanting to see things - my insatiable | curiosity' on back along top edge, ‘June 23 1936 | No. 8' on back centre, and ‘folio 4' on back near bottom edge
Purchased from Oliver Bradbury and James Birch Fine Art (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Prov: Bt from the estate of Richard Pailthorpe (previously known as Reuben Mednikoff) by Owbenn Antiques, Hastings; sold to Oliver Bradbury 1983
Exh: Grace Pailthorpe 1883-1971 Reuben Mednikoff 1906-1975, Oliver Bradbury and James Birch Fine Art, April-May 1984, (34, repr. p.12)
Lit: Anna Gruetzner, ‘Introduction', Grace Pailthorpe 1883-1971 Reuben Mednikoff 1906-1975, Oliver Bradbury and James Birch Fine Art, exh. cat., 1984, (pp.1-2, repr. p.12); David Maclagan, ‘Making For Mother', leaflet accompanying Insiders and Outsiders, Goldsmith's College Gallery, Sept. 1985 [pp.1-3]

In 1935 Mednikoff, who was then earning a living as a commercial artist, met a psychoanalyst, Grace Pailthorpe, at a party in London. They were interested in each other's work and quickly began to collaborate on the project of exploring the psychological content of art.

Pailthorpe recorded her first impressions of Mednikoff in notes written some years afterwards:

RM was still at office work at this time and therefore was very restricted for time. He had been astounded at the previous interpretations I had given him (more as entertainment than anything serious at the moment) and the way he had responded and his eagerness to follow on had greatly helped me on to form my plan of a research. I felt that there must be somewhere a quicker way to the deeper layers of the unconscious than by the long drawn-out couch method, and I had the feeling that it was through art. At any rate it should be used in conjunction. RM's quick understanding of the use and interpretation of symbols made him seem to me as probably the most suitable colleague for the research (Reuben Mednikoff, ‘Poems, diary and correspondence with Grace Pailthorpe 1935-37', Tate Gallery Archive TAM 75, pp.3-4).

In letters in April and May 1935 Pailthorpe reminded Mednikoff of the scientific nature of the research they were undertaking and of the need for his full cooperation with the conditions of what she termed their research project. ‘If what I am aiming at comes off', she wrote encouragingly on 10 May 1935, ‘we shall not only have benefitted ourselves, but we shall have made a contribution to progress however small or great that may prove to be' (TAM 75, p.14).

A fuller description of the nature of the work that she and Mednikoff began at this period is found in Pailthorpe's article ‘The Scientific Aspect of Surrealism', published a few years later (London Bulletin, no.7, Dec. 1938, pp.10-16). In this she reported that during recent research ‘undertaken from the psycho-analytic point of view (by a colleague and myself), the results of certain experiments in painting and drawing led to Surrealism' (p.10). Although reticent about the precise character of her experiments, she wrote in general terms about her understanding of the relationship between art and the psyche. Steeped in Kleinian theory, she based her interpretation of conflicts within the unconscious to infantile fantasies regarding the mother's womb, breast-feeding, and toilet-training. She claimed that in her work with Mednikoff she had found evidence ‘that early enforced restrictions on the infant's excretory functions inhibits fantasy life and, therefore, its imagination' (p.11). She saw art works as complex records of the functioning of the psyche: self-expression was limited in academic art by conformity to tradition, but spontaneously created, or ‘surrealist', works provided, she claimed, a key to the depths of the mind.

Mednikoff was a willing partner in this research. Under Pailthorpe's tutelage, he quickly became adept at analysing the unconscious content of his thoughts, dreams and art works. In the images of cruel and fearsome beasts that he produced from the beginning of his collaboration with Pailthorpe (and of which T03890 is one) he saw evidence of the effects of his earlier troubled relationship with his parents.

His notes of the period show that he found the experience of prolonged analysis initially disturbing. On 15 June 1935 he wrote:

Fear was strong all the time and the thought of drawing was most abhorrent and I avoided any such proposal to this effect by GWP [...] I dare not draw for fear that I should find out more about myself that was unpleasant - that I was even more savage a murderer than had so far been disclosed (TAM 75, p.21).

At the same time, the exploration of the depths of his unconscious as mapped by Freudian complexes was clearly intoxicating. With a rather self-conscious use of poetic language he wrote on 19 June, ‘What then if I do desire to ravage and make desolate the womb that is my mother's ... even of all mothers? Tear at the vitals; sapless make the dugs that feed the greater evil within me?' (TAM 75, p.30) As the months passed, however, growing familiarity with the language of these complexes quietened his early fears and he came to take pride in his newly acquired clinical competence in interpreting the latent content of his thoughts, dreams and art works. Regarding his paintings and drawings as documents with a scientific value, he often wrote detailed interpretations of their psychoanalytical meaning on their backs and dated them, even noting the hour in which they were made. Numbered ‘8', this drawing is likely to have been one of a series made in close succession on the same day.

The text on T03890 is slight in comparison with the inscriptions on many other works of the period, and so the hidden ‘story' of the unconscious content that Mednikoff and Pailthorpe looked for in all art works remains unclear. However, Mednikoff's statement that the presence of numerous eyes in the drawing represented a desire to possess objects through looking suggests that he felt that the drawing as a whole expressed scopophilia, the desire to look, notably at ‘forbidden' objects or activity, as a substitute for direct sexual gratification. The form resembling a snake in the upper left of the drawing may be seen as a phallic symbol (Mednikoff invariably interpreted the snake forms that appear in other works of his as representative of the father figure); at the same time, David Maclagan writes, it might also be read as ‘a "puppy" sprouting out of the head of a larger, fiercer "dog" that forms the principal container of most of the subsidiary forms in the drawing' (letter to the compiler dated 2 January 1988). The bird, which for the artist carried connotations of the mother figure, is either clasping in its beak or attempting to swallow an eye, an act which for Mednikoff might have represented an infantile fear of punishment for his ‘need to see'. Maclagan interprets the underlying feeling of the drawing as an expression of ‘the desire to look at what is forbidden & fantasies of possible punishments that might be visited on Mednikoff for so doing (I would see the fear-ridden face in the centre as a self-representation): the whole obviously relates to Freudian notions of the "primal scene"' (ibid.).

In an entry in his diary dated 1st June 1936 (that is, a few weeks before he began this drawing) Mednikoff wrote: ‘There are two forms of surrealism: one the expression of the unconscious controlled by its inhibitions and the other the expression of the unconscious free of its inhibitions. Of the first we have many examples; of the second but few (TAM 75, p.35)'. T03890 was a product of Mednikoff's project in these years to follow the second path of exploring the mainsprings of the human psyche. In this he and Pailthorpe aimed to work towards the harmonisation of the internal mental world which, in common with certain psychoanalysts and artists in the period, they believed would remedy the psychological ills of modern society.

This drawing remained in the possession of the artist till his death. In a letter to the Tate Gallery Archive dated 8 December 1971 he wrote that though he exhibited under the name of Reuben Mednikoff he had changed his name to Richard Pailthorpe ‘some years ago'.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.208-10

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