Published in The University of Warwick student newspaper, The Boar, in February 2013
This new temporary exhibition at Leamington Spa Art Gallery is the first retrospective of the war artist John Bridgeman’s diverse practice, bringing together not only the story of his life and development of his work, but also charting and commenting upon social history – particularly that of WW1 – and his fellow contemporary artists, such as Henry Moore and Paul Nash. There are also references to other artists from different periods, indicating Bridgeman’s extensive art-historical knowledge and academic approach to his own artwork.
Bridgeman was Head of Sculpture at Birmingham University from 1955 to 1981, and later lived in Leamington for over 40 years.
On display there is a vast collection of paintings, sculpture, maquettes and drawings done with a huge range of media, techniques and styles. This shows Bridgeman’s exceptional training as an artist and experimental craftsman.
The exhibition begins by looking to the past and to artists such as Turner and Whistler, which are evoked in Bridgeman’s early landscape paintings. The first three oil paintings are inspired by Whistler’s Nocturne Series Blue and Gold 1872-5. There is a peacefulness and ‘mistiness’ to these paintings that noticeably disappears in Bridgeman’s later work completed during and after the war.
This ‘mistiness’ and sense of distance to the landscape also disappears the more Bridgeman started to take risks and experiment. His paintings come alive during his experimental phase, exploring the use of colour, dynamic thick bold lines, wax resistance that is reminiscent of John Piper’s work, another war artist.
Bridgeman also became absorbed in depicting three-dimensional objects in particular spatial contexts in a way that turns the landscape into a collection of sculptural forms. Although these drawings are very similar to Henry Moore’s work, which was being made at the same time and was very well known, Bridgeman’s drawings of ‘sculptures’ are site specific, making them merge with the landscape rather than being an abstract form imposed upon it.
This intense three-dimensional feeling is translated into the harrowing and raw scenes depicted in Bridgeman’s war drawings. Again, these are fairly similar to Moore’s shelter drawings. Bridgeman had first-hand knowledge of the scenes depicted, as he was an involved participant in the Civil Defense Depot at Fulham for conscientious objectors. Due to the artist’s firm political stance, the consequences of war are prominent themes in his work.
Torture Wall, an installation made up of approximately 20 cast bronze figures, is one of the highlights of this exhibition, dubious as this may sound. It was partly inspired by Goya’s Disasters of War series. It is exciting to have it here in Leamington because it is the first time this sculpture has been displayed in its complete form.
From his sculptures, it is evident that Bridgeman was most interested in the form and overall shape of figures. This means that limbs could be left off the figures if the desired shape had already be achieved by its absence. However, each one has a bold overall form as well as individual character and detailed facial expressions. This individual quality is particularly impressive since many of these sculptures were created from memory. Bridgeman was able to do this because he had such a clear grasp of anatomy.
The figures are never static; it feels as though they are all about to move forwards, due to their contraposto positions, which is characteristic of Bridgeman’s work. After the section on painting, it is refreshing to suddenly find yourself amongst a forest of dancing figures, many of which look as though they are dancing for joy.
So Bridgeman’s sculptures each have a playful element to them. This is overtly brought out and used as a function in his gigantic ‘Play Sculptures’ that were installed in playgrounds throughout the West Midlands in the 1960s, which are depicted in large photographs on the walls of the exhibition. They were inspired by Scandinavian sculptures that were being erected in this country at the time in order to provide children with imaginative, tactile objects to play with in parks.
A new public sculpture, Design for Pleasure by Simon and Tom Bloor, is being erected in the Pump Room Gardens this February after Bridgeman’s ‘Play Sculptures’. This will be the first time that an exhibition at the Art Gallery has been accompanied by a public artwork.
The refugee figures are Bridgeman’s last creations. The Unknown Refugee Monument is hopefully to be cast in bronze and erected in Coventry Cathedral soon to mark their 70th Jubilee celebrations. It will also act as a testimony to Bridgeman’s love of humanity and his care for ordinary suffering people, as well as being a larger gesture of recognition and concern for all those made refugees in the contemporary climate in many parts of the world.