I was asked recently by someone who knows my roots if I had any knowledge of the Birmingham Surrealist group. I don't, well I didn't, probably because Surrealist art has consistently left me unmoved, particularly the Belgian variety. I was intrigued however and a little research titillated and also brought forth a gem. As is often the case with me it was the trivial that drew me in. Groups of artists, their circles, wherever they are, have their own special watering holes, places to congregate and chew the fat, the Birmingham Surrealists gathered at the Kardomah Cafe in New Street and the Trocadero pub in Temple Street, and in the sixties Birmingham's artists and art students still thronged to these venues. My groaning and reeling recollections of the decorative tiling of the facilities at the Trocadero do not bear recall.
The Birmingham surrealist painters saw themselves as a group quite distinct from their London counterparts indeed there was some acrimony between them, the Birmingham painters forged their own links to like minded artists in Paris rather than London. I would have to say that looking at their work did little to dispel my indifference, I found it dull, derivative even pastiche. But then I found the gem, Emmy Bridgewater. She was Birmingham born and attended the Birmingham Art College. She was drawn into the Birmingham group but was less confined than her contempories and forged her own links with the London group, she made a great friend of the artist Edith Rimmington and many personal contacts in Paris. She exhibited widely and had her first one man show in 1942. In 1947 she was invited by Andre Breton to exhibit at the Galerie Maeght in Paris, the last major international Surrealist exhition.
She explored 'automatist' techniques, almost blind drawing, the theory being that the subconscious would control the drawing hand, a drawing would emerge to be elaborated upon and 'pulled together' at a later stage. The thrilling drawing above, held at the Birmingham Museum, is one such drawing, tortured and sensuous, similar in many ways to the work of the French Surrealist Andre Masson.
Many were the student nights I would fall through the doors of the Trocadero onto the Birmingham cobbles leaving my compatriots to get on with the serious drinking and debating. One of this group was Kerry Trengrove. He had joined the sculpture department from Falmouth Art School and seemed crafted by his Cornishness. He was charismatic, gregarious, ebullient and a serious quaffer, and I must admit to finding him quite intimidating.
Kerry's high spot came in 1977 when he created the work, 'Passage'. He was imprisoned in a concrete cell under the Acme Gallery and over 10 days with a jackhammer and hand tools he tunnelled his way to freedom under the galleries foundations. His progress and well being were monitored on camera, the event attracted a lot of coverage and was in more ways than one a ground breaking event. There are many 'time based' works but I know of no other 'escape' piece, it was bold and outrageous, a work that defined a man.
AGED AND AWKWARD