Mary Stephenson & Grace Pailthorpe :
Fertile Spoon

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15 April  –

22 May 2021

Preview 15 April, 3 – 8pm

The exhibition Fertile Spoon will bring together the work of Grace Pailthorpe (1883-1971), Surrealist painter, psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, with that of contemporary painter Mary Stephenson (b. 1989), student at the Royal Academy Schools, London.

Pailthorpe and Stephenson: two British artists living a century apart, remarking on the unruly depths of human psychology, and representing it through a world of surreal fantasy.  Marking fifty years since Pailthorpe’s death,  the exhibition will comprise paintings and works on paper by both artists, including July, 1948 (1948) by Pailthorpe that has never previously been publicly exhibited. What emerges from the artists’ shared exploration of the unconscious is a surreal dialogue formed in the logic of dreams and emotion, which asks that we look anew at the submerged recesses of the mind.

Playful, satiric, and mostly disordered, Mary Stephenson’s work is concerned with the way that the unconscious colours the waking world: distorting, concealing and revealing physical reality. The audience encounters a range of ideas mined from the artist’s unconscious; inner desires, childhood regressions and the formation of an ‘ideal self’. Depicting the transition of thoughts and emotions in psychological spaces, her works emerge from the depths of the unconscious mind and culminate in comprehension at the surface level. Stephenson’s imagination induces a state of self-reflection in the spectator, asking them to look beneath the constructed self to the surreal reality below.

Grace Pailthorpe was trained in psychiatry and psychoanalysis in the 1920s, but her artistic inquiry into representing the unconscious began in 1935 when she met Reuben Mednikoff, the artist who would become her life-long collaborator and partner. Pailthorpe’s works reflect a lifelong commitment to psychoanalysis; painting what lurks deep in the unconscious, often revealing disturbing visions of uterine anxieties. She stands as a controversial figure in the history of Surrealism, and would be expelled from the group in 1940 for her refusal to heed the group’s doctrine. Fascinated by the therapeutic power of art, her understanding of Surrealism was deeply informed by her psychoanalytic knowledge, and resulted in a process which the artist termed ‘psychorealism’, in which works were automatically produced and then analysed.  Depicting organic matter; bodily fluids, umbilical cords and infantile fantasies, such as in the work titled June 3, 1938-4 (1938), Pailthorpe’s paintings are located within the biological and psychological processes of life and humanity.

Curated with Chloe Nahum.

Grace Pailthorpe works courtesy of Austin/Desmond Fine Art and James Birch.

Thanks to John Austin, James Birch, Richard Pailthorpe and Monty Renshaw for their help and support with this exhibition.

Grace Pailthorpe (1883-1971) trained as a doctor and worked as a surgeon in France during the First World War. In the 1920s, she trained in psychological medicine before beginning psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud’s friend and official biographer, Dr Ernest Jones.  In 1935, she formed a close collaborative partnership with the artist Reuben Mednikoff, with whom she began a lifelong investigation into the unconscious through art. In 1936, Pailthorpe was invited by Roland Penrose to exhibit at the landmark 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London, where her work was described by  André Breton as ‘the best and most truly Surrealist’ of the exhibiting artists. In 1939 she held an exhibition with Mednikoff at Guggenheim Jeune Gallery, London. Recent retrospective exhibitions include Sluice Gates of the Mind: The Collaborative work of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, Leeds City Art Gallery, 1998 and A Tale of Mother’s Bones: Grace Pailthorpe, Reuben Mednikoff and the Birth of Psychorealism, De La Warr Pavilion and Camden Arts Centre 2018/2019. Recently she has been included in the exhibitions British Surrealism, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2020, and Not Without My Ghosts, Drawing Room, 2020. 


Mary Stephenson (b.1989) lives and works in London. She is currently completing her postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy Schools, London after graduating from the Glasgow School of Art in 2011. Recent exhibitions include those at Berntson Bhattacharjee Gallery, Skanor (2020); Lychee One, London (2020); Cob Gallery, London (2020); Bosse & Baum, London (2020); Harlesden High Street, London (2020); Super Dakota, Brussels (2020); After Nyne Gallery, London (2019) (solo); Pestana CR 7, Lisbon (2018); Downstairs at Mother, London (2017 and 2014); and HIX Cock ‘n’ Bull Gallery, London (2015). Stephenson’s practise encompasses painting, photography and ceramic sculpture. 

Chloe Nahum is a freelance writer and researcher in art history. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and Imperial War Museums, where she is researching dreams in art and literature of the First World War. She received her MA in Modern British art from the Courtauld Institute of Art.

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