Our society proscribes certain forms of sexual behaviour. One component of this is sexual looking. Both boys and girls are socialised not to permit, or to engage in, sexual looking. These social inhibitions are more forcefully applied to women. In art, a whole culture of power and desire is enshrined in the traditional pictorial transaction in which men observe and women are observed. A strategy that, for Colquhoun as a woman was particularly effective, was to challenge the usual prohibitions on sexual looking.
In Scylla (1938) she invites the viewer to gaze at her thighs and, as the boat edges its way between the rocky pillars, to imagine her sexual penetration. She has converted herself into the siren whose attraction for men is both irresistible and fatal. Tree Anatomy (1942) is a classic double image in which knot hole becomes vagina. The picture also contains for the first time in Colquhoun’s art the idea of an intimate and harmonious association between woman and nature. Tree Anatomy is an intimate picture of a vegetation deity, a tree goddess. In these works, by deliberately exposing parts that are normally concealed, Colquhoun defeats voyeurism by trumping it with exhibitionism. There is a piquancy in painting those body parts that are essentially private - and showing them in a public place, such as an art gallery. There is a sense, too, of getting away with it, of victory over authority, and protesting injured innocence when challenged. Colquhoun was asked to remove The Pine Family from an exhibition in 1942 because of its alleged pornographic content. She chose to replace it with a work that was ‘just as bad’- Tree Anatomy. (1)
The scornful treatment of the male that was evident in her early works now began to display a more complex form, introducing both an element of cruelty together with a more fundamental questioning of the nature of maleness. This started in a fairly innocuous manner. Between 1936 and 1941 Colquhoun painted a number of pictures of fruit, vegetables and other organic forms in which she emphasised the visual similarity between the natural forms and male genitalia (e.g. Double Coconut, 1936). Pitcher Plant (c.1936), however, is altogether more complex. This is a very personal view of the Green Man, the male vegetation deity. It is also a work that plays with the opposites of the container and the contained, of female and male. Colquhoun’s pitcher plant is, at once, both penis and vagina dentata. Coniunctio oppositorum has been achieved, but male sexual anxieties have also been reinforced.
The cut-in-half Cucumber (1939) is a simple image of emasculation. A much more powerful enquiry into male genital integrity is to be found in Sardine and Eggs (c.1941). This work is more than just a visual pun: alchemically, it fuses the male with the female. Testicles are uniquely male and eggs are uniquely female. Part metaphor, part double-image, part sadistic revenge on the male surrealists’ enthusiasm for dismembering the female body, is there anything less potent than a dead sardine?
1. See Johnstone, W. Points in Time. An autobiography, Barrie and Jenkins, London, 1980 and Colquhoun, I. ‘Women in Art,’ Oxford Art Journal, July 1981 p. 65 for further details.
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