Sex before surrealism

The presence of sexual themes in Colquhoun’s work is first evident in her teenage years.  It is apparent in her choice of Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market to illustrate. Probably executed as early as her school days, the suite of (unpublished) watercolours accompanies a poem that is famously full of repressed Victorian sexuality.  The illustrations themselves possess a surface innocence, but a reading of the poem demonstrates the eroticism that lies just below the surface. In the poem, one sister performs a selfless heroic act to save her sister by deliberately exposing herself to temptation at the hands of the evil goblin men. This gender struggle was to be played out repeatedly in subsequent years.


At art school, and subsequently following graduation, Colquhoun painted a number of canvasses that depicted historical and biblical scenes.  Although her subject matter was often traditional, Colquhoun’s interpretations were not, as she invariably challenged or reversed traditional gender roles.  Rather than providing an opportunity for the artist to paint voluptuous female flesh, her women are powerful and assertive.  They are never subservient.  This is in marked contrast to her male figures who are often indecisive, weak and ineffectual. 


Susanna and the Elders (1930) and Judgement of Paris (1930) both depict women who are strong and men who are vulnerable and inadequate. Previously, artists had generally accentuated the eroticism of Susanna’s plight as she attempted to conceal her nakedness and gloried in the voyeuristic aspect of the situation as Paris sits in judgement over the goddesses.  Another emblematic woman, Judith, features in Judith Showing the Head of Holofernes (1929).  Judith was a woman who took charge of her own destiny, using her sexual attraction to ensnare Holofernes, who is betrayed by his sexual desires and whom she then murdered, enabling her compatriots to rise up and defeat his invading army. Colquhoun’s women accept the dominance of no man.  They behave with authority, affirming control over their bodies.  It is the men who are vulnerable and inept.


To this list of confident, self-aware women, we must add Colquhoun herself.  Self Portrait (c.1929) shows her perched on a boulder with knees apart and skirt hitched up, looking directly at the viewer.  She has chosen to portray herself within the natural, primal world on a rocky foreshore with flowing water in the background.  Her pose and her bobbed haircut place her firmly amongst those socially and sexually emancipated women who demand freedom of both mind and body.




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