July’s Featured Work is Scene from Marlowe’s ‘Dr Faustus’ by Ithell Colquhoun. Blending stylised forms with garish, almost artificial, colours, a performance unfolds on stage in this painting by Ithell Colquhoun. The scene depicts a moment from the opening of Scene V of Doctor Faustus, a morality play written c. 1592–93 by the English playwright, Christopher Marlowe. The play tells the folktale of George or John Faustus, a mid-16th century itinerant German scholar and fortune teller of immoral reputation, who made a pact with the demon, Mephistopheles. Marlowe is believed to have based his play on a popular 1592 English translation of an earlier German version of the life of Faustus (1587). The tale was famously adapted in the early 1800s by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Scene from Marlowe's 'Dr Faustus' by Ithell Colquhoun

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Colquhoun’s painting is composed of a series of layers: against a backdrop of a mountainous landscape, and set within a stylised theatrical set, is a performance watched by an audience of listless, disinterested young adults. We in turn, observe the audience and the drama. The young people’s bodies have a fleshy, almost sickly pink sheen. Pencil drawings In Colquhoun’ sketchbooks, (now owned by the National Trust), include a sketch of a young woman whose pose closely resembles the woman with thick dark hair in the audience who clasps her knees at the right of the scene.¹

On stage is Faustus’s study in which painted on the wall, is a serpent coiled around the tree of knowledge. Faustus (in red), stands inside a pentagram drawn on the floor. Before him are his good and bad angels, who, in the play, vie for his soul. The good angel, in white, points heavenwards, while dressed in black and pointing to hell, is the bad angel in black. In Marlowe’s scene, the bad angel conjures up Mephistopheles, represented by a Franciscan friar. Colquhoun uses motifs such as the stunted tree of knowledge, choked by the serpent, bare trees (one in the foreground is covered in fungus), and a sawn-off tree stump, all of which accentuate a sense of disease and death, symbolising Faustus’s own moral decay.

Painted in 1933, the muscular physiques and bobbed and waved hair of the young audience are reminiscent of the idealised Aryan youths of 1930s Germany. Their lethargic poses indicate a striking indifference to the battle between good and evil unfolding before them. Colquhoun’s use of visual cues, combined with the binary tale of Faust, persuasively presents a visual commentary that suggests the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist party amid a largely apathetic German public.

Ithell Colquhoun, painter and writer, was born in Assam, India, and studied at the Slade School, London. Between 1930 and 1940, she lived in London and Paris. She became involved in the surrealist movement and in the 1940s began to write surrealist poetry. In 1950 she settled in Cornwall near Penzance. This painting shows her technique, devised at the Slade, of ‘matching the drawing in monochrome with super-imposed glazes of colour’.

¹With thanks to Dr Richard Shillitoe for his generous information about the artist; June 2018.