Grace Pailthorpe

May 16, 1941


Grace Pailthorpe 1883–1971
Oil paint on canvas mounted on board
Frame: 381 × 483 × 27 mm
support: 303 × 405 mm
Purchased 2018


May 16th, 1941 is a landscape format oil painting on canvas board dominated by a suspended reclining figure of a foetus. Eyes, mouth, stump arms and genitalia are schematically represented, as is the placenta. The figure is suspended in what appears to be a light blue sky and the lower right corner of the painting is bisected by an area of green over which other forms hang from the baby, including a trio of claws or talons. A simplified red animal with a mane and a long tail is perched on the upturned tail or leg stump of the foetus. The painting was made in New York after Pailthorpe and her partner, the artist Reuben Mednikoff (1906–1972), moved there from London in 1940. Its title indicates the date of the work’s making, as was the artist’s custom.

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 May 16th, 1941 is an example of how this series spread into her work during this period. The picture develops some of the imagery found in the slightly earlier April 20, 1940 (The Blazing Infant) 1940 (Tate T14514).

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 May 16th, 1941 and the earlier December 4th, 1938 (Tate T15033) 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.

By the time that she painted May 16, 1941, Pailthorpe and Mednikoff had been living in Berkeley, California where she was following research work. On leaving Britain they had initially settled in New York, moving to California in December 1940. Not long before leaving the country, they had ceased their formal association with the British Surrealist group. In March she and Mednikoff had sent out letters of invitation to the group seeking their participation in an exhibition of surrealism at London’s British Art Centre for June that year, in an attempt to increase the group’s level of activity that had tailed off since the closure of the London Gallery in July 1939. They then convened a meeting of the group at the Barcelona Restaurant on 11 April to suggest that the group be reformed free of any political or other bias. E.L.T. Mesens (1903–1971), the de facto leader of the surrealists in Britain, countered this attack on his authority and, following a number of subsequent meetings later that summer, engineered the departure from the Surrealist group not only of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, but also Ithell Colquhoun (1906–1988).

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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Display caption

A surgeon during the First World War, Pailthrope later trained in psychological medicine and criminal psychology before undergoing Freudian analysis. With her partner, Reuben Mednikoff, she made paintings which they submitted to detailed analysis. They showed in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, and, in 1940, moved to the United States, where Pailthorpe made this painting. Unconscious images from the earliest moments of life fill her work, here in the form of an unborn foetus. She wrote of their research that ‘Surrealism can lead to a greater understanding of the world around and within us’.

Gallery label, February 2022

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