Grace Pailthorpe

December 4th, 1938


Grace Pailthorpe 1883–1971
Oil paint on hardboard
Support: 697 × 519 mm
frame: 835 × 660 × 60 mm
Purchased 2018


December 4th, 1938 1938 is a portrait format oil painting on canvas board. The ground is divided horizontally in half by a curving line. The lower half describes a blue pool or platform on which rests a reclining pink simplified baby form, with a tap at its neck. Its mouth is wide open receiving nourishment from a liquid that is spurting from the base of a similarly simplified standing green figure with pendulous breast forms and whose body curves towards a rectangular head that occupies, and is cropped by, the top right corner of the canvas. The eyes and mouth are painted violet as is a curving tapering cylindrical form that arcs from the figure’s neck to the edge of the blue platform, and which in section is green with a red tip. The upper background to the left of the figure is yellow and to the right is mottled purple. The title indicates the date of the work’s making, as was the artist’s custom. It was made while the artist was living in Cornwall, where she moved with her partner, the painter Reuben Mednikoff (1906–1972), in 1935.

Liberation of man achieved through a liberation of the repressed unconscious was Pailthorpe’s declared goal and from 1938 the imagery of her paintings explored an intra-uterine regression and a concern with portraying life at its earliest stages – where the baby is dependent on the mother for life and sustenance. A group of forty-two paintings and drawings created between 23 April and 11 May 1938, described as the Birth Trauma series, built on her response to the principles of Object Relations theory that had been developed by the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, and was the subject of two lectures written by Pailthorpe in 1938 and 1940 (papers regarding the two lectures and the analysis leading to them are contained in the Grace Pailthorpe / Reuben Mednikoff Archive, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, GMA A62/1/069 and A62/1/021). This broad subject formed the basis of much of her subsequent work until the early 1940s and December 4th, 1938 is an example of how this series spread into her work during this period.

A surgeon during the First World War, Pailthorpe afterwards trained in psychological medicine and criminal psychology before commencing personal analysis under Dr Ernest Jones in 1923. In 1930 she became associated with the Mandrake Press and Aleister Crowley, in which context five years later in February 1935 she met Reuben Mednikoff. Within a few months they were living together in 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.

Pailthorpe was alert to unconscious colour symbolism in her work, which the Birth Trauma and subsequent related works including December 4th, 1938 and the later May 16th, 1941 (Tate T15034) appear to approach quite consistently. Blue in both paintings refers to the amniotic fluid of the womb, the yellow in December 4th, 1938 represents the outside light beyond the womb – aspects of the colour meaning being outlined in her lectures. These two paintings span the climax of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff’s collaborative endeavour that was first widely publicised through the publication of Pailthorpe’s essay ‘The Scientific Aspect of Surrealism’ in the London Bulletin – the organ at the time of the British Surrealist group (London Bulletin, no.7, Deecember 1938–January 1939) – and the subsequent joint exhibition mounted at Guggenheim Jeune gallery, London in January 1939. In both her essay and the introduction written for their exhibition catalogue, Pailthorpe declared that surrealism and psychoanalysis in common ‘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 she 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 surrealism as a therapeutic tool drew fire from other surrealists for whom automatism was a way of liberating language and not strictly a means to unlock and study the unconscious within a therapeutic context, something other surrealists held to be socially repressive. In 1940 both Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were expelled from the British Surrealist group and in June that year they left London for America, where they lived until 1946.

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

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

This painting shows a foetus being nourished in the womb. These early stages of life were Pailthorpe’s main artistic subject. Part of her process was to analyse her paintings, using them as a therapeutic tool. This put her at odds with other members of the British Surrealist Group. Her work was celebrated at the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London. Yet, members saw her use of surrealist techniques for therapeutic ends as ‘repressive’. This ultimately led to her expulsion from the group in 1940.

Gallery label, May 2021

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.


You might like

In the shop