An alchemist transforms materials; an artist transforms experiences. Both are, at once, part of yet detached from, the process. Colquhoun was particularly drawn to those moments where a change of state is occurring; the moment of transformation and metamorphosis. Moments such as these occur in the material world, the human world and the realm of the spirit.
The instability and mutability of nature is a favourite theme. Volcanoes were a private obsession. Between 1941 and 1979 there are seven paintings that feature volcanic activity in addition to several references in her writings. Works that cover a forty year period, including Craters’ Edge (1950), Volcanic Flare (1978), Eruption (1979) and Earth Bubbles (1979) record a process of flux and metamorphosis in which rock, naturally hard and dense, becomes liquid and fluid. She also associated volcanoes with freedom, writing: ‘we cannot have liberty without repeated explosions.’ (1) Volcanic eruptions involve all the elements behaving in a tempestuous manner: lava spews into the heated air, water boils and fire rages. The sexuality of nature that is seldom far away for Colquhoun is well to the fore in these works. A volcanic eruption is a metaphor for sexual passion and climax. The image of a breast-shaped mound ejaculating fire and molten rock is both potent and gender-defying. The most vivid image is Volcano (1972), inspired by the eruption of Mt Etna in 1971. Through its associations with the Greek philosopher, Empedocles, (see Empedocles, 1943) Colquhoun presents us visually with gender-conflating forms, solids behaving as fluids and, allusively, with male vanity.
An eruption is a single, cataclysmic event, but nature also works slowly and imperceptibly. For example, the action of soft water on hard rock may eventually sculpt a cave. A cave is a place of ambiguity. At some point it changes from surface feature to subterranean structure. It may offer both protection and shelter but it can also trap and imprison. In mythology a cave is often an aperture that connects this world with the underworld. Because of their vulva-like entrance passages that penetrate into the earth, caves have been identified as the womb of Mother Earth, and associated with the mysteries of birth. Early in her career Colquhoun had drawn sacred caves during her Mediterranean travels (Cave, Delphi 1933) and also sketched the rock-cut shaft graves where people at the end of their lives were finally returned to mother earth (The Grave-Circle at Mycenae 1933). The most memorable of her paintings of caves is Stalactite (1962) in which a tall phallic stalactite stands over the cave passage.
Paintings of rock pools (e.g. Rock Pool 1947 and Rock Pool 1977) bear witness to bear witness to her long standing interest in the liminal zone where the land meets the sea, where the element water interacts with the element earth and which forms a gateway from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Rock pools, and other pools of water, may be used for divination as the surface is believed to reflect the realities of the higher world – providing, that is, that the scryer has sufficient control over his or her emotions and thoughts so as not to disturb or distort the surface and its contained images.
The defining feature of a rock pool is its transience: it exists only between high and low tides. The intertidal zone is a place of transition and transformation. At times belonging to the water and at times belonging to the land, at times wet and at times dry, at times fluid and at times firm, at times visible and at times concealed, it is a place that is neither one thing nor the other. Its existence is determined by tidal processes, themselves largely influenced by lunar forces. High energy events, such as storms and tidal waves, can result in dramatic changes to its appearance. It is a dynamic area; its intrinsic ambiguity is reflected in the fact that, in British law, there are three separate legal definitions of the foreshore. It is where water, the purifier, scours and cleanses the land. The ocean represents the chaos of creation out of which land is born. Water also stands for the instinctive and the unconscious; the land for autonomic biological processes which lie below the threshold of awareness. The foreshore is the place where consciousness is drowned and immersed in the unconscious and where material from the unconscious emerges into consciousness. The journey undertaken by the dead often starts with a journey over water, both in myth and history, and emergence from the water symbolises rebirth. In the Santa Warna myth, the saint emerges from the water and her womb-like coracle to start her new life. At the climax to the unpublished novel I Saw Water, the heroine is cast upon the strand of the Island of the Dead to experience not a rebirth as second death and acceptance of her fate. She achieves spiritual harmony in the intertidal zone:
She had been thrown up like a piece of flotsam at the edge of the tide… She lay with her back to the ocean, her left side dinting the moist sand and her head pillowed on a heap of gleaming seaweed, which mingled its tendrils with those of her hair… Now, a part of the strand itself, she felt the old dichotomies fall away from her – opposition between body and spirit or the differentiations of time and space no longer had a meaning. (2)
Water, the source of life, was undoubtedly integral to the rites performed at prehistoric stone circles and influenced their placement near rivers and lakes. (3) Rituals for the deceased often required a journey over water. La Cathédrale Engloutie (1952) is one such temple that now straddles earth and water. The watercolours that form the series Dance of the Nine Maidens (1940) are works that record transitions at megalithic monuments. Each contains the figure of a young woman within the outline of a standing stone; the phallic menhir and its female content; bodies in the process of petrification: from soft flesh to hard rock, from organic life to crystalline structure. The opposites are contained within each image.
In Heart (1938), carved from chalk (a rock composed of the remains of once-living marine creatures) transformation is incorporated into the material itself as well as the subject matter: a soft, beating organ into hard, motionless stone.
In the cycle of life, death and rebirth, the movement from one stage to another is a moment, or a process, of transition. Colquhoun made direct reference to these times on a number of occasions. For example, the unpublished novel I Saw Water (4) is predicated on the difficulties that people can experience in accepting the transition from life to the afterlife. She had earlier made reference to this same predicament in Goose of Hermogenes:
As an infant has difficulty in believing that it has left the womb, so a
new ghost has difficulty in believing that it has left the world. (p. 50)
Colquhoun clearly regarded the boundaries between states as permeable, permitting movement, communication or influence in either direction. Hauntings and sexual relations are amongst the possibilities this opens up and both are explored in the novel as well as elsewhere in her writings.
The watercolour Moment of Death (1946) depicts the point at which the soul leaves the body. Wispy filaments painted in three of the elemental colours ascend from the supine body.
1. Colquhoun, I. The Water Stone of the Wise in: A Comfort and J Bayliss, (eds.) New Road, 1943. Gray Walls Press, Billericay, Essex. pp. 196-9.
2. The manuscript is at TGA 929/2/1/31/8. The quoted passage is on pp. 193-194.
3. Fowler, F and Cummings, V. Places of Transformation: Building Monuments from Water and Stone in the Neolithic of the Irish Sea. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 2003, 9, 1-20.
4. The typescript is at TGA 929/2/1/31/8.
continue to next section: transitional places
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