British Painter, Photographer, Poet
Bexhill, Sussex in England
Summary of Edith Rimmington
Edith Rimmington had a curious mind and a boundless imagination and as such became a highly respected and central member of the British Surrealist Group. Although less well known than its Parisian equivalent, Surrealists based in London and Birmingham aspired to the same principles, tirelessly investigating dreams and the subconscious. Indeed, from the beginning to the end of her career, Rimmington was profoundly influenced by Salvador Dalí. Having first encountered Dalí in 1936 at the International Exhibition of Surrealism, the image of the diving suit that the Spanish artist had worn to the opening then appeared repeatedly in Rimmington's paintings. Furthermore, Rimmington was attracted to images of the repugnant, as was Dalí, with the themes of death, decay, and re-birth being longstanding concerns for both. Later in life she painted less but continued to write poetry, practice automatic writing, and to take photographs of her natural surroundings. Alongside other artist contemporaries, she settled on the coast of Sussex, making a literal statement about living life on the edge.
- Many works by Rimmington reveal a tendency toward the darker depths of the imagination. She was deeply affected by the shocking images of maimed and wounded soldiers in World War II, and as such many of her works depict dismembered body parts and speak of the utter horrors of war. Steering away from fantasy, her work echoes dissent Surrealist ideology that had been theorised by Georges Bataille and Jacques André-Boiffard.
- Indeed, her work often has an anatomical and biological quality of dissection to it. As animals appear as hybrids or in states of transformation, Rimmington makes reference to ideas of mimicry as discussed by the French intellectual Roger Caillois. In this respect her pictures successfully combine two great curiosities: art and science. At times, a work by Rimmington looks like a medical textbook illustration - albeit with a Surrealist twist.
- Many of Rimmington's paintings feature claustrophobic interior spaces with unusual perspectives and a repeated checkered-floor motif. This links her work to an international cast of female Surrealists, including and in particular Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. Similar to the Yin Yang symbol's use of black and white to illustrate seeming contrast, checkered boards reinforce the important Surrealist notion of combining opposites. Furthermore, all three of these artists are drawn to a "she-bird" figure; again uniting the opposite desires to be at once earth and sky bound, and also illustrating a newfound and shared sense of freedom.
- In later works when Rimmington focuses predominantly on photography she exposes the specifically British Surrealist interest in merging with the natural environment, and more specifically, with the sea. Dissolving boundaries between the animate and the inanimate, between the rock and the human, and between the sea and the shore, becomes a speciality of Rimmington. This is an interest intimately shared by fellow British Surrealists Ithell Colquhoun, Eileen Agar, and Emmy Bridgewater.
Progression of Art
Eight Interpreters of the Dream
In 1936, Rimmington attended the International Surrealist Exhibition in London. Here, the young and already highly influential Spanish artist, Salvador Dalí famously turned up in a diving suit and claimed he would be "diving into the human subconscious." This performative gesture and clear statement had a profound and lasting impact on Rimmington, who four years later, in this painting, featured eight diving suits hung out to dry in the arched niches of a classical colonnade. In place of diving helmets, however, Rimmington has included a series of severed sheep heads, which are scattered and propped up here and there. Indeed, as much as the hanging suits resemble diving attire, they also look like skinned animal carcasses strung up on meat hooks.
Intentionally flesh-colored, the suits also resemble decapitated bodies, or artificial limbs, and it is thus significant that the work was painted just a year after the start of WWII. However, the title of the work, along with Dalí's diving reference, opens the work up to deeper interpretation, linking it to the world of dreams and the subconscious mind, both of which were key subjects for the Surrealists. By painting headless bodies Rimmington separates body from mind, a reminder that the two can be read as distinct entities. The idealised, classical setting here reinforces the dream-like, otherworldly nature of the painting, and resembles the strictly composed architectural paintings by the forefather of Surrealism, Giorgio de Chirico.
French art historian and avid supporter of British Surrealism, Michel Remy has explored Rimmington's complex relationships with the human body, which, as he points out, she often depicts as disjointed, divided, or fragmented, as if "suspended in-between" states such as living/dead, imaginary/real. In doing so, she emphasises the blurred boundaries between the internal and external world of human existence, an idea that formed an integral aspect of Surrealist thought; poet André Breton aptly summarised it as "the liberation of the imagination."
Oil on canvas
Sisters of Anarchy
Two versions of the classical Greek statue Athena stand united in this mysterious, earth-toned, ruined interior. Whilst one version of Athena wears classical drapes, the other woman is unusually dressed in owl feathers. The owl costume infuses the more traditional and static image of woman with a new sense of wildness, freedom, and the potential to fly.
Like many artists working in the early to mid-20th century - in an attempt to instil a new sense of order amidst the socio-political chaos of war-torn European society - Rimmington explores classical mythology, depicting the goddess of wisdom, handicraft, and warfare. Like many of the Surrealists (including Max Ernst whose alter ego was also a bird called Loplop), Rimmington identified strongly with owls. She shares this interest with both Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. Varo painted Creation of Birds (1958), whereby a woman-owl sits at her desk painting a picture of a bird and then bringing it to life.
The title of the work, Sisters of Anarchy, well describes the two female figures standing so close together in solidarity. It also echoes the title of a sculpture by the Surrealist artist Eileen Agar, called Angel of Anarchy (1936-40). There may be a reference here in the term "sisters" to the allegiances formed between female artists involved in Surrealism; Rimmington did know Agar well, as well as Emmy Bridgewater. It is thought that the "anarchy" referenced in both Rimmington and Agar's titles relates to the Spanish anarchists who emerged during the Spanish civil war, a group which many Surrealists strongly supported.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Art historian Michel Remy has described this painting as "one of the icons of British Surrealism". An ominous bird-human hybrid figure sits surrounded by a heavily clouded seascape. The figure is blind and wears a diving suit with his helmet and diving equipment placed to the side. The title of this painting makes reference to the "work" performed by the fictional figure; he/she/it is an oneiroscopist, a person who specialises in studying and interpreting dreams. Indeed, it is likely that the diving suit again makes reference to Salvador Dalí.
It has also been suggested that this painting illustrates the position of the British Surrealist Group in relation to their French counter-parts. It was as if the British fraction of the movement was cast off and pushed into obscurity somewhat. Thus the bird-person sits in isolation with no supporters climbing the ladder to join. Still though, with eyes covered, the creature is a "seer" in the same vain as other Surrealists, always looking within for the answers, and unusually (as at once bird and diver) able to explore both the seas and the skies.
Indeed, Remy describes Rimmington's curious character in this painting with great empathy: "This person lives a strangely luminary life (filled with) anticipation ... immersion and emergence." We can imagine Rimmington's figures readying themselves to climb down the ladder and dive back into the heavy, dream filled clouds that lie below. Yet there is, as Remy points out, impossibility presented to us here; "the helmet is intended for the head, but it is incompatible with the beak, reinforced by the inability of the suit to pass over the beak." With two different feet and human hands, the unlikely nature of this character becomes even more apparent; the dream and the real, and the possible and the impossible are inextricably liked.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
A dichotomy between attraction and repulsion is created in this complex, multi-layered, illustrative, and anatomical painting. The decomposing hand points down, palm facing out, whilst skin is peeling off from the arm towards the hand, almost like a glove (which, interestingly is a recurring motif for Surrealist artists, particularly André Breton). Human veins are at once plant tendrils, while caterpillars and larvae are revealed nestling beneath flesh. Cocoons elegantly hang from the blood red fingertips; they are in various stages of hatching and some are already fully fledged, dazzling, and exquisitely painted butterflies.
The painting is testament to the marriage between birth and death, and how one state cannot exist without the other. Indeed, Rimmington documents the life cycle of the butterfly from birth to full maturity with careful scientific attention to detail here; all the species depicted are British butterflies, including the Ringlet, Peacock, Wall Brown, and Red Admiral.
The painting demonstrates Rimmington's ongoing fascination with the natural process of metamorphosis, a popular subject with many Surrealists, with some having read the research of the French intellectual Roger Caillois on the subject of mimicry. By including a human element to the insect life cycle, Rimmington creates a macabre sense of discomfort. She reminds the viewer that human life is by no means eternal and that the natural, regenerative life cycle runs constantly and applies to all living things. The title, The Decoy, implies a victim has been lured into a trap. The trap here is perhaps the exquisite beauty of the image, whilst by contrast the overall message of the artwork is death and decay.
Oil on canvas - National Galleries of Scotland
A vulture, metal glove and two butterflies are placed together in this delicately detailed drawing. These incongruous elements are suspended mid-air as if cut out and collaged onto the page, creating a mystical, dream-like effect. It is likely that Rimmington selected the various elements of this painting for their symbolic potential. Vultures are often seen as a symbol of death, while butterflies suggest hope and regeneration, or metamorphosis, which was a recurring theme in Rimmington's work. In many of her paintings at this time Rimmington combined natural and mechanical imagery, a popular trope for Surrealist painters at the time.
Painted five years after the end of WWII, one asks if the painting pays homage to the soldiers either lost or returned home with missing limbs. The mechanised hand pointing upwards, against a blood red sky, could be an early example of prosthetic replacement for an arm lost in battle. As designs were still relatively primitive at this time, the metal arm could also once again make reference to Dalí's diving suit. Either way, the painting seems to represent the trio of Rimmington's interests: life, death, and Surrealism.
Pen, ink and watercolor on paper - Private Collection
In this complex, theatrical painting Rimmington presents a mystical, otherworldly scene, uniting a natural landscape and an artificial interior. Two stories seem to be unravelling on opposite sides of the paper, divided by a curved river. On the right stand a King and Queen, as rigid as chess pieces, placed on a checkered ground. Michel Remy describes the couple as "puppets of geometric authority, prisoners of their own checkerboard". On the left, a violent revolt is taking place involving animals and humans amidst a rocky backdrop, with sharp, threatening spears pointing outwards towards the royals.
Rimmington was fascinated by Greek mythology, and this interest is reflected in many of her paintings. Remy points out the painting's resemblance to the myth of the hunter Acteon, who having been transformed into a stag by Diana after he witnessed her bathing naked, was then hunted down and killed by his own dogs. With her fantastical imagination running free, Rimmington takes flight with the original story, allowing it to meander in various new directions.
Overall, the painting seems to represent a division between rigid, mechanised control and the powerful forces of nature. It was made shortly after the end of WWII when many artists had become mistrustful of authority figures, and sought refuge and independence amidst the natural world. Rimmington reflects this mindset here, with the powerless King and Queen frozen and immobile. Remy writes, "Mythical Composition represents an opposition between the living forces of nature and the forces of ... an artificial power. King and queen are nothing but pawns ... dead bodies in a finished game." A force altogether more animal and with powers of rawness is taking over here.
Ink and watercolor on paper - Private Collection
A myriad of eyes look out from a clear, glass jar in various different directions as the notion of vision becomes at once heightened and fragmented. In the centre is the head of a classical female bust, but her eyes are closed; she is silent and passive, or, alternatively she is looking within to acquire the only vision that is really needed to see. Behind the "all-seeing" female head, various biological specimens adorn the blue, clinical walls and everything becomes a sample to be inspected and examined. Most of these apparent organs bear some resemblance to those of the female reproductive system.
Rimmington often confronted the traditional representation of women in her paintings, upturning the conventional male gaze and female muse roles which were firmly established in Western art. Here, the classical bust in the centre blindly and dutifully performs her role as assigned to her by the "museum" in the work's title. But the searching eyes around her suggest an attempt to break free, to find a way out of the stranglehold, which some do, confronting us with wide-eyed curiosity. The concept of a divided self was common in Rimmington's practice, and one particularly familiar to women artists, who often found themselves performing the role of both artist and muse. Rimmington reflects the many selves of the female psyche here, without reaching any form of unity. Joan Rivieré's concept of Womanliness as Masquerade (1929) comes to mind, and selfhood is presented always as a multi-faceted entity.
The painting also reflects the Surrealist approach to "visuality", or vision, which was often distorted, fragmented, and disjointed. Such ideas reflected the political uncertainty of the times, but they also simultaneously considered modern ideas about our perceptions of reality, as a series of broken elements rather than a unified whole, which had already appeared in the Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. The eye itself was a symbol for a kind of enlightenment, a privileging of being directed by individual vision to navigate the world, rather than being led by collective ideas. Michel Remy writes about Rimmington's Museum, "The fragmentation of the bodies, the multiplication of the eyes, the splintering of our gaze, all this bars the spectator from reaching any totality... eyes cannot but wander, away from the law."
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
A rock encrusted with seaweed emerges from the sand as the tide goes out, bearing a startling and uncanny resemblance to the torso and upper legs of a human body. Rimmington spent the last few decades of her life in Bexhill-on-Sea wandering along and photographing the shoreline, producing surreal, haunting, and macabre images like this one in the aftermath of WWII.
Much like her earlier paintings, here Rimmington continues to explore distortions and dislocations of the body, with this potential headless torso resembling French Surrealist Hans Bellmer's early sculptures. Indeed, there is a strong parallel to be made between the photography of Rimmington and the famous film made by Salvador Dalí and Luis Bunuel, Un Chien Andalou (1929). The film features body parts infested with ants, which recall Rimmington's seaweed covered rock. It also ends with a very pessimistic scene of blinded lovers on the shoreline. Rimmington is drawn to such base and bleak imagery and as such it is also useful to think of Boiffard's famous Big Toe (1929) photograph when studying Rimmington's late work.
In Bexhill, Rimmington became part of a thriving artistic community, including artists who had fled Nazi Germany, or simply escaped war ravaged cities that had once seemed so full of hope and promise. For many artists living in Bexhill, the sea became a powerful symbol of the threshold between one space and another: between Britain and Europe, the land and the sea, or the real and the imaginary. In a letter to her friend, the Surrealist artist John Banting, Rimmington reflected on her environment, writing, "(The sea is) a vast water brain (that) seems to hold all the secrets." The body emerges here from the sand like an artefact being slowly unearthed, all the more potent given the extent of the grim realities that were discovered after the end of the war.
This photograph was included in the survey exhibition Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion, at Two Temple Place, London in 2017. The exhibition's curator, Dr Hope Wolf compared it more generally with the status of art and artists after the war, writing, "...I see her image of a grey, part submerged lump of stone, shaped like an upended body disappearing into the sea, as a reminder of all the partly submerged modernists whose works are rarely read and exhibited." Rimmington's photography also bears strong affiliation to both Eileen Agar's and Lee Miller's photographs of rock formations. The suggestion is that the power of nature was too strong to capture in paint and that the immediacy of photography was required to do the subject justice.
Photographic print - Private Collection
Biography of Edith Rimmington
Edith Rimmington was born in 1902 in Leicester, a city in the East Midlands of England. Unfortunately there is very little information available on her childhood.
Early Training and Work
In 1919, at age 17, Rimmington moved to Brighton and began studying at the Brighton School of Art. She graduated in 1922 and soon met the artist Leslie Robert Baxter. The pair married in 1926 and later moved to Manchester together. Little is recorded or known about the artist's early work, or her married life.
The 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition held at the New Burlington Galleries in London acted as a dramatic catalyst and turning point for Rimmington's career. The show introduced the full scope of the French Surrealist movement to the British art scene. Salvador Dalí famously attended the exhibition in full diving gear ready to delve into "the human subconscious", and almost suffocated himself in the process. The British painter and performance artist, Sheila Legge arrived with a pork chop accessorising her long satin gown; a rotten kipper hung from a painting by Joan Miro, and the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas moved around the opening event offering guests teacups of boiled string. The press and public were mesmerised, and as was Edith Rimmington. The following year she moved to London to further connect with artists and poets active in the movement.
Once settled in London, Rimmington mingled with the country's most prominent Surrealists. She quickly became friends with the artist Gordon Onslow Ford and the writer E.L.T. Mesens, who were both immediately enamoured by her character and work and as such, invited Rimmington to join the London Surrealist Group. The eager young artist began to attend weekly meetings at either the Barcelona Restaurant in Soho, or the Horseshoe pub on Tottenham Court Road, and she soon became one of the group's most active and dedicated members.
As one of only a few female members in the British Surrealist Group, Rimmington formed close bonds with the other women involved, and in particular with Emmy Bridgewater and Eileen Agar. Rimmington also impressed and befriended many of her male peers, including Edward Burra, John Banting, and Conroy Maddox, forming lasting, inspirational, and lifelong friendships. In 1937 Rimmington contributed to the landmark exhibition Surrealist Objects and Poems at the London Gallery, cementing her place in the emerging British Surrealist canon.
Throughout the 1940s, against the backdrop of WWII, Rimmington continued her membership with the British Surrealist Group, meeting weekly and painting prolifically. The group initially started when the poet David Gascoyne met fellow British writer, Roland Penrose, in the company of French poet Paul Eluard walking the streets of Paris. Consequently, Gascoyne wrote the British Surrealist Manifesto in 1935. Regular participants to the weekly salon for the duration of the war included Rimmington's husband Baxter, Emmy Bridgewater, John Banting, Antonio Pedro, and occasionally Lucian Freud. Other poets and writers often made an appearance including Simon Watson Taylor and Serge Ninn, and the charismatic, anarchist cartoonist Philip Samson also sometimes attended. During these gatherings, in much the same fashion as their colleagues in France, the artists in attendance collaborated on various projects, including automatic drawing, making Exquisite Corpse drawings, and composing multilingual collective poems, all the while hosting heated political debates.
With her striking, at times unsettling imagery and haunting, melancholic poetry Rimmington became one of the most important contributors to the movement throughout the following decade. She created automatic drawings with accompanying texts for many Surrealist publications both UK based and abroad. Rimmington disseminated her visual and literary ideas to an international audience through contributions to The London Bulletin (1940), Arson (1942), Fulcrum (1944), Message from Nowhere (1944) and Free Unions (1946).
Many of the artist's best-known paintings from this time feature imagery relating to the process of metamorphosis, including The Decoy (1948) and Relative Strength (1950). The war undoubtedly had a dramatic impact on Rimmington's visual and literary vision, with death, wounds, and amputation featuring as recurring themes. While Surrealist imagery from male artists often featured objectified or fetishized women's bodies as symbols of unsettling dreams and desires, Rimmington subverted this passive representation of women by creating images that look back out at the viewer in direct confrontation, for example as in the Sisters of Anarchy (1940), and Museum (1951).
Although she is recognised today predominantly as a painter, Rimmington's poetry gained her great admiration amongst her peers, and in particular her published prose poems called The Growth at the Break (1946), and The Sea Gull (1946). While the original British Surrealist Group disbanded in 1947, Rimmington and a few others remained dedicated to the Surrealist vision, demonstrating an ongoing fidelity to the group's basic aims and principles, and worked with such in mind for the remainder of their lives.
By the 1950s Rimmington had moved out of London to live in the Bexhill area of Sussex. At this particular moment, the coastal area in the South East of England was a hotbed of creative activity, a sanctuary for artists escaping ravaged, war-torn cities. In the exhibition catalogue for Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion, held at Two Temple Place, London in 2017, curator Dr Hope Wolf writes, "For some Modernists ...the move to Sussex was cast as both a retreat and a rebellion: a rejection of ways of life associated with the metropolis left behind."
Sussex became a refuge for artists, architects, and filmmakers of varying styles, ideologies and nationalities throughout the mid to late-20th century, offering an idyllic, Arcadian hideaway. Some found freedom from Hitler's Germany there, including László Moholy-Nagy and Lee Miller, while others were attracted to its potent status as a threshold between England and the rest of Europe, such as Edward Burra, Ezra Pound, and Bloomsbury Group members Vanessa and Clive Bell.
Rimmington was well aware of the coast's possibilities to further explore notions of the in-between, of the meaning of boundaries and opposites, a space where land becomes sea, or one country slowly rolls into another. Such ideas echoed her ongoing interests in metamorphosis and change, as well as allowing her to reflect on the current modernist trend for the post-war artist as émigré or outsider. Throughout the later years of her life she predominantly produced color photographs of the changeable coast of her immediate environment, including Sussex Coast, taken in 1960s. In a letter to her dear friend and fellow Surrealist, John Banting, she described the sea as "a vast water brain (that) seems to hold all the secrets." Rimmington continued to explore Surrealist ideas while living in Bexhill-on-Sea, until her death in 1986.
The Legacy of Edith Rimmington
Rimmington's prolific practice in drawing, painting, writing, poetry, and photography gave significant substance to the British Surrealist movement, helping to secure its reputation both locally and overseas. Much like her contemporaries Rene Magritte and Max Ernst - whilst always maintaining the more typical Surrealist interest in the unconscious - Rimmington's otherworldly, highly detailed paintings at times glean from the interests of the Magic Realists. Indeed, the writer Simon Martin has latterly referred to Rimmington's revival of classical language to tell a modern tale as a "mystic method", which she explored along with many other British painters including Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Madame Yevonde and Wyndham Lewis.
Rimmington was one of only a handful of women termed Surrealists, and although the body was a recurring theme in her practice, unlike many of her male colleagues her imagery was less overtly sexual, more concerned with the symbolism of life, death, and regeneration. Along with the artists Eileen Agar and Emmy Bridgewater, Rimmington's work has often been side-lined or overlooked in favour of that by her male counterparts, or by that made by female artists who were in romantic relationships with very famous men, for example, Dora Maar, Leonora Carrington, and Dorothea Tanning. This said, however, most recently curators and writers have aimed to redress the balance. Dr Patricia Allmer organised the important exhibition, Angels of Anarchy at Manchester Art Gallery in 2009, which included artwork by Rimmington. In a conversation with Allmer, writer Jeanette Winterson acknowledged the pioneering work of Surrealist women that the exhibition highlighted, saying, "Surrealist women ... have made it possible for the women artists that we know now of our generation to get the kind of recognition ... the true status that they ought to have."
Winterson cites both Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas as examples of high profile female artists who have followed the Surrealist women's risk-taking path. Emin's intimate, biographical subject matter delves into her deepest thoughts and desires, while Lucas's uncanny and unlikely combinations of materials explore the territory between fantasy and reality, following Rimmington and her peers' fascination with the unconscious mind.
The impact of Surrealist ideas promoted by Rimmington has been significant and long lasting. Her dream-like imagery provides interesting comparison with Portugese artist Paula Rego's carefully detailed, highly symbolic paintings, which also explore taboo subjects and unconscious desires. Rimmington's uncanny combinations of everyday, bodily matter are echoed in Helen Chadwick's sculptures and installations, and in the eccentric subject matter of other Young British Artists, particularly DDamien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman. More recently, Tony Swain's fantastical, collaged landscapes owe a debt to Rimmington's complex, Surrealist visuality; Swain merges figurative and landscape elements into haunting, enigmatic reveries.