Emmy Bridgwater

English Surrealist Painter and Poet

Born: November 10, 1906
Birmingham, United Kingdom
Died: March 13, 1999
Solihull, United Kingdom

Summary of Emmy Bridgwater

The work of Emmy Bridgwater - her paintings, drawings, collages, and poetry - is throughout infused with melancholy and a macabre interest in the degenerative progression of life. As a relative enigma in her early years as an artist, in 1936 she attended The International Surrealist Exhibition in London and henceforth, for the following two decades became a fixture in the art world. The exhibition not only provided a great source of inspiration, but also introduced other artists into Bridgwater's life who would become lifelong friends, including Conroy Maddox and Edith Rimmington. Dealing with pain, and recognizing that emotional pain can be as acute and de-habilitating as physical affliction are themes that run throughout the artist's career. As such she must wear "necessary bandages", not wounded in the flesh, but instead in heart and mind. It is as though Bridgwater carries an inherent regret, which likely surrounds the fact that her career was fragmented and cut short by the need to sacrifice art to the care of her family.

Accomplishments

Progression of Art

c. 1940

Stark Encounter

In this quick and automatic pen and ink drawing, Bridgwater includes one of her most typical motifs, the hybrid bird-woman. As in similar works, Stark Encounter shows figures in a state of metamorphosis against an empty backdrop. Robert Melville described Bridgwater's works as depicting "the saddening, half-seen 'presences' encountered by the artist on her journey through the labyrinths of good and evil [...] although they are dreamlike in their ambiguity they are realistic documents from a region of phantasmal hopes and murky desires where few stay to observe and fewer still remain clear-sighted." Furthermore, Jeremy Jenkinson says of her work "Her paintings, drawings and poems are places of organic fusion and painful gestation. No concession whatever is made to 'artistic good taste', whether classical or not. There is only instinct, and a primitive feeling for the metamorphoses at the origin of life; strange sequences of birds, eggs, eyes, little girls, open tombs, larvae and lianas in nondescript landscapes."

The bird motif is also extensively investigated by Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Edith Rimmington. Furthermore, even outside the powerful women's circle within this movement, Max Ernst was famous for depicting himself with birdlike features and for revealing his alter ego, Loplop, to be half man, and half bird. Indeed, the bird, throughout the Surrealist movement, signifies a desire for flight and freedom, but at the same time confirms (with a regretful tinge of melancholy) that humans are earth bound. The motif of the bird does many things; it also links the majestic heavens with daily existence, and suggests a time linkage between the ancient of days and those of now. Interestingly though, in this work by Bridgwater it appears that the female in the image is not metamorphosing voluntarily into a bird, but is instead being abducted and forced in some way to comply. Sadly, there is always a sense in the work of Bridgwater that freedom comes at a price, that she is writhing in struggle as her own transformation takes place.

Pen and Ink on paper - Royal Birmingham Society of Artists

1940-43

Night Work is About to Commence

In this painting, a black raven is the main character in a surreal landscape that is born of a marriage between inorganic and mechanical objects united in a large bathtub, or basin. Here a draped towel or sheet of fabric hangs over the edge upon which the bird is perched. There is the strong sense of the original Surrealist principle of creating unusual juxtapositions and uniting otherwise disparate objects in this work, much like the chance meeting of "sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table" as stated in Breton's first manifesto (1924). Here we appear to have the sways and set-up of theatre meeting some sort of threatening spiked hammer. The overall message is one of looming threat combined with artifice.

The bathtub as a revealing and recurring motif in art, has been, and goes on to be repeated by other influential artists, in particular Frida Kahlo. The watery chamber is noted as a place where unconscious musing may rise to the surface, and as such the bathtub becomes a literal metaphor for human depth of emotion. As Bridgwater titles her painting, Night Work is About to Commence, it infers that the complex subconscious processes roused in the bathtub are anticipated to continue and be further enhanced during sleep. In technique and brushstroke, the work exemplifies the spontaneous, urgent, and rapidly painted quality of Bridgwater's paintings. Her rough, visible, and slightly frenzied brushstrokes reveal a searching, anxious, and seemingly agitated state of mind. The overall somber mood of the painting may indeed echo what was in fact a national state of depression brought on by the destruction and sadness associated with living in wartime Britain at the time.

Oil on wooden board - Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

c. 1940s

Untitled

In this drawing, we see Bridgwater's use of the automatist technique. There is little attempt to consciously control the movement of the hand, and the artist instead allows the subconscious to gain control. The same sense of violence, rapture, and sexuality, are all themes that Bridgwater shares with prolific French Surrealist artist André Masson. Masson's work has been described as "tortured and sensuous", and such would equally well describe this drawing by Bridgwater. Indeed, as limbs bend and elongate in this drawing, it is particularly similar to Masson's 1939 picture, The Genius of the Species.

The drawing also strongly recalls the experiments and automatic drawings of the artist/scientist couple, Grace Pailthorpe and Rueben Mednikoff. Mednikoff was a poet and a painter, and Pailthorpe, a surgeon who started to try and help female delinquents to resolve inner conflict by revealing subconscious desires through art. Pailthorpe's paintings similarly depict writhing limbs and globular breast like forms. She insisted throughout her career that attempting to make visible subconscious musings was a therapy, and ultimately, the only way to deal with past experiences as well as to move forward and better understand life.

Ink on Paper - Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

c. 1942

Necessary Bandages

In this painting, an ambiguous, wistful, and mummified fleshy face dominates the frame. The eyes gaze drowsily to the lower right with Bridgwater's overarching signature sense of sadness penetrating the picture. At the edge of the canvas, a portion of a malicious-looking (even reptilian) male face can be seen, smoking a cigarette from which smoke floats upwards. Indeed, the painting was made shortly after Bridgwater's lover, Toni del Renzio, left her for another woman. Thus the work speaks of the conflict and pains of love, a similar theme to Eileen Agar's most famous sculptures, Angel of Anarchy (1939). Agar made an actual sculptural 3D version of this painting, but whilst Bridgwater created a painted head wrapped in bandages, Agar used fabric pieces to entirely cover a plaster portrait - a head of her lover, Joseph Bard.

Whilst Agar's work was intended as a portrait of Bard, Bridgwater's work was intended to be a self-portrait. The painting expresses the artist's raw sense of agony and betrayal. Through rough brushstrokes she paints pain and angst directly onto the canvas, whilst at the same time distancing her work from the more polished, smooth, and completed appearance of work by many male Surrealist artists. Indeed, the American architect and renowned urban planner, Andres Duany writes of Necessary Bandages, "The conception is simply brutal, because it is brutally simple. Raw spatulas of paint bandaged across a battered face. Only the eyes remain, one in pain and the other in bewilderment. Never does the formalism of Picasso's disparate eyes so disclose the soul within. Only a woman, and a courageous one, would expose such vulnerability to the public gaze. It is a deeply feminine achievement." Furthermore, as may be said of Angel of Anarchy, the same could be deduced of Necessary Bandages, that both works reveal the important notion that the only way to really "see" is to reflect inwards.

Oil on panel

1945

The Fountain

In this painting, an androgynous humanoid figure stares penetratingly out at the viewer. The figure emerges from the ground, perched at the top of a cliff and combines with the watery landscape to become part of the river flowing, as well as a literal 'fountain' as the title suggests. Behind the mysterious torso is a three-pronged, organic-looking outgrowth. This seems to form the essential part of the natural waterfall, but also serves to remind the viewer of Bridgwater's long-standing interest in wings.

Whilst previously depicting lots of birds in her work, this image combines instead the human and the insect. In doing so an interesting parallel is established between this painting and that of The Decoy (1948) by Bridgwater's friend and colleague, Edith Rimmington. In The Decoy, Rimmington depicts a hand with skin peeling away and lots of butterflies at various states of metamorphosis. Bridgwater shares Rimmington's ongoing fascination for such natural processes which were, indeed popular with many Surrealists, with some having read the research of the French intellectual Roger Caillois on the subject of mimicry. Overall, The Fountain conveys a sense of loneliness and longing, as well as an understanding that no human power can stop rivers flowing or fissures forming in the earth. The human presence is little more than one part of many which combine to form the natural cycle of life, death, and regeneration.

Oil on panel

1950

Leda and the Swan

In this work, the background is dominated by curving, swirling fields of inky black and powder soft blue. Arching black lines at the top of the frame are overlaid by horizontal swipes of grey, and overall there is an impression of a cold and misty landscape. At the centre of the image, an unrecognizable organic form appears to grow in a palette of green and peach. The elongated, ovoid, almost phallic central form has what appears to be a flower growing out of its right side, as well as a leafy protrusion growing out downward from below. These combined elements seem to indicate a hybrid male-female form (a common and repeated motif of the Surrealists), while the swirling sense of movement given by the black and blue backdrop indicates that the central figure is undergoing a state of metamorphosis.

As the work's title reveals, Bridgwater presents her own version of the moment when Zeus, disguised as a swan, seduces (and in some accounts, rapes) the mortal woman Leda. This scene has been depicted by many artists throughout history, including but not limited to, Correggio, Michelangelo, and Leonardo Da Vinci, in order to illustrate unfair and forced consumption and dominance over a woman. Interestingly, Bridgwater's version differs significantly from these earlier, more eroticized versions. Here, both Leda and the swan lose their individual identities, and instead swirl and merge together, along with their organic surroundings to become more plant and celestial-like rather than resembling a human and an animal/deity.

The work also bears striking resemblance to the drawings by Nadja, reproduced throughout the book with the same name written by André Breton following his short relationship and subsequent intense fascination with a mentally imbalanced, artistic young woman. There is one particular drawing of a flower, called The Lovers Flower that has particular similarities to the central bloom in Leda and the Swan. The interesting point to be made here - beyond the combination of opposite elements in order to create union - is that the drawings by Nadja act as an accompaniment to Breton's text. In many ways, Bridgwater's body of work is supportive, rather than integral to the legacy of the Surrealist movement. It reveals, although there are a relatively small number of prolific and famous "Surrealists", that there were also a great many artists without whom the more well known would not have flourished. Furthermore, these countless marginal figures show just how wide spread and far reaching the influence of Surrealism was. As the book, Nadja, was first published in 1928 it is possible, and indeed likely that Bridgwater got hold of a copy and was directly inspired by this iconic text.

Gouache on paper

Biography of Emmy Bridgwater

Childhood

Emmy Bridgwater was born in Edgbaston, a district of Birmingham situated in the midlands of England. Her father was a chartered accountant and her mother a practicing Methodist. She was the couple's third and youngest daughter and appeared to enjoy a relatively comfortable middle-class childhood.

Education and Early Training

From the age of sixteen, Bridgwater spent three years studying under the tutelage of Bernard Fleetwood-Walker at the Birmingham School of Art. After graduation, she attended art school in Oxford, paying for this phase of education herself by simultaneously working as a secretary.

Unfortunately, information from this early period of Bridgwater's career is very sparse. It is known however, that 1936 was a pivotal and transformative year for the artist. She attended the London International Surrealist Exhibition, where she first met the most significant members of the Birmingham Surrealist group, including Conroy Maddox, and the Melville brothers, Robert and John. She was instantly enamored and felt at home with the principles of Surrealism, and set about immediately using automatist techniques to explore the illogical and dark side of the unconscious in her own work. Between 1936 and 1937 she remained in London and studied at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. She then returned to Birmingham, where she exhibited alongside other members of the Birmingham Surrealists throughout the late 1930s.

The Birmingham Surrealist Group was led by Conroy Maddox, and its members frequently met in the Kardomah Café on New Street or the Trocadero pub on Temple Street, then later on, in Maddox's own house in Balsall Heath. From the beginning, the Birmingham Surrealists (which included painters John and Robert Melville, William Gear, and Oscar Mellor, the poet Henry Reed, literary critic Stuart Gilbert and, later, painter and anthropologist Desmond Morris) were distinguished by their strong opposition to what they considered the "inauthentic" and even "anti-Surrealist" approach of the London Surrealists. As Robert Melville stated, "If London was trying to make a contribution, we were not interested". Conroy Maddox accused London Surrealists like Herbert Read, Henry Moore, and Graham Sutherland of being "too middle-class" and "purveyors of the picturesque". Thus, the Birmingham Surrealists preferred instead to associate themselves more directly with Parisian Surrealism, maintaining contact with André Breton, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali. Bridgwater, however, did not share the same animosity towards the London Surrealists as her male colleagues.

Although an official member of the Birmingham Surrealist Group, she also enlisted as a member of the London Group in 1940, and throughout the decade was involved with, and exhibited alongside both groups. Indeed, in this capacity, Bridgwater became an important link between the otherwise opposing groups. She developed a particularly strong friendship with the London based Surrealist Edith Rimmington, and the two women often employed similar symbolism within their works.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Bridgwater mainly produced paintings and ink drawings, frequently depicting birds - particularly swans, ravens, and hybrid bird-women - eggs, and leaves in dreamlike, yet depressive and haunting landscapes. Her works also incorporated tendril-like, writhing, and potentially dangerous (through entanglement) automatist lines. Toni de Renzio (editor in chief of the Surrealist magazine, Arson) poignantly described her works at the time; "We do not see these pictures. We hear their cries and are moved by them. Our own entrails are drawn painfully from us and twisted into the pictures whose significance we did not want to realise."

Mature Period

During the early 1940s, Bridgwater divided her time, and indeed her life, between west London (where she lived in a small apartment in Lancaster Gate), and Birmingham. She contributed prolifically to various Surrealist publications, including the Surrealist Magazine Arson, and had a short but intense affair with the magazine's editor, Toni de Renzio. This happened in 1942, the same life-changing year that also saw Bridgwater's first solo show being hosted by Jack Bilbo's Modern Gallery, London. In 1944, writing lots of poetry at this point, Bridgwater also contributed to the Surrealist periodical Fulcrum. In 1946, she contributed to Free Unions / Unions Libres, a Surrealist review edited by Simon Watson-Taylor, which, in its first and only edition, reproduced texts and images by British and French Surrealists alongside one another. This was the most productive period for both Bridgwater's art and writing.

In 1947, Bridgwater was one of just five British artists (along with Eileen Agar and Leonora Carrington) selected by André Breton to participate in the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. This was the last major international Surrealist group exhibition. On this occasion, Bridgwater was even elected by the British Surrealists to travel to France to sign the declaration of the Surrealist group in England, thus reaffirming the group's allegiance to the principles of Surrealism, and confirming the importance of Bridgwater as an important member of that group.

Upon returning to England after such a great experience, Bridgwater sadly found - tasked with caring for her aging mother and disabled sister - that she had less and less time to make art. In 1953, she stopped making art completely, and relocated to Stratford-upon-Avon to take on caretaking full-time.

Late Period

Following a widespread resurgence of interest in Surrealist women artists, the writings of both Leonora Carrington and Meret Oppenheim enjoyed international readership during the mid-1970s. As result, many other women who had not been involved in collective activities for years - including Agar, Colquhoun, and Bridgwater - took part in newly organized Surrealist groups. Indeed, Bridgwater resumed her artistic practice and worked, for a time, prolifically in collage. Unfortunately though, a decade later, in 1986, she stopped producing art again, and this time the halt was permanent. She spent her final years in a nursing home in Solihull, where she passed away in 1999.

The Legacy of Emmy Bridgwater

Bridgwater's path through Surrealism was rebellious, or at the very least, as arts professor Peter Stockwell of University of Nottingham, put it, "decentered". She pursued Surrealism in England rather than France, whilst maintaining important ties to the latter. She also refused to participate in the politics of animosity between the London and Birmingham Surrealist groups. Michel Remy, professor of art history at the University of Nice, glowingly describes her influence as "of the same importance to British surrealism as the arrival of Dalí in the ranks of the French surrealists". This seems a somewhat lofty claim given the examples of artwork that we have to go on for Bridgwater, but perhaps this is only because research remains fragmented and incomplete.

As a woman in a male-dominated movement, Bridgwater (along with her fellow female Surrealists, and notably here, Edith Rimmington) incited what Stockwell refers to as "a counter-culture [...] Instead of their male counterparts' indulgent fantasied of 'Mad Love' [...], they resorted to asexual imagery, distancing themselves from the risk of mere objectification as women and creating instead a kaleidoscopic image of women also alienated, but alienated with a difference." Indeed, Bridgwater, like other female Surrealists, produced images of mythical narratives, hybrid and metamorphosing creatures, and deserted, wistful landscapes.

As the journalist, Jeremy Jenkinson wrote in Bridgwater's obituary, "Her paintings show an ability to enter a personal dream world and transform the visions she experienced there into bold, unselfconscious, emotionally charged landscapes which more often than not strike into the very depths of one's mind. Using a limited palette and painting thickly, she was able to bring together seemingly unrelated objects which she used to fill desolate landscapes, giving the paintings a narrative quality of her own making". Along with the other female Surrealists, she gave the following generation of female artists the gift of role models and in turn, access to the notion that women are active art producers, not simply models tasked to provide inspiration for their male counter-parts.

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