My Favourite Painting: James Birch

'The symbolism in it is too weird to mention and every time I look at it I see more.'

James Birch chooses Mednikoff’s painting

‘The reason why I like it is I’ve had it hanging above my bed for 20 years and, even though it was painted in 1941, the hands and the feet look like a 1960s prog-rock album cover.’

‘The symbolism in it is too weird to mention and every time I look at it I see more. Mednikoff’s partner Grace Pailthorpe invented the term ‘juvenile delinquency’ and every time I look at the picture, I enjoy that association’

James Birch is an art dealer. He is the curator of ‘Them’, an exhibition featuring fashionable 1970s artistic high society at the Redfern Gallery, London W1, until February 15.

John McEwen comments on Mednikoff’s painting

Sex, politics and religion absorbed the Surrealists, especially sex, as they were most influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis. The term Surreal – ‘transcending the real’ – was coined in 1917 by Apollinaire. In 1924, his fellow French poet André Breton wrote the Surrealist Manifesto, advocating artistic expressions of ‘pure psychic automatism’ to free the mind of damaging repression.

In 1936, pictures by artist Reuben Mednikoff and his companion and collaborator Grace Pailthorpe (1883–1971), a First World War surgeon in military hospitals, were singled out by Breton as the pick of the British contribution to London’s first Surrealist exhibition. Who can wonder, when one considers this oil-on-board painting by Mednikoff? It dates from 1941, by which war-time date the couple had emigrated to the US.

In 1935, when the pair first met, Pailthorpe was studying the psychology of female prisoners and wanted someone to help her ‘prise open’ the mind of a patient. Mednikoff’s similar exploration of the subconscious as a painter and ‘sensitive, sympathetic nature’ made him the ideal person to do this. He taught her to paint and the two of them were soon producing separately – and sometimes together – pictures they called ‘psychorealist’.

This ‘automatically’ conceived figure is a prime example. The scholar Dr Hope Wolf suggests the yacht may refer to their emigration and the beard to Mednikoff’s memories of Jewish religious figures. Art comes from art, so one might also see the effect of the Surrealists Dalí and Miró, even of Goya and of the medieval Hieronymus Bosch. It could easily be a digital image made today, too, which reveals how deeply Surrealism’s transcendence has influenced advertising, film-making and modern thinking. ‘It’s surreal!’ remains an appropriately automatic reaction.

The painting is included in the forthcoming exhibition ‘British Surrealism’, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, from February 26 to May 17. Visit www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk to find out more