Our family was not alone in digesting the impressive visual fare that was available for children in books in the 1950s and early 1960s. Books of superb graphic quality were immensely popular. They introduced children to the world of art, and provided a grounding that played a significant part in the post-war generation opening up to popular culture and its mass media manifestations of the mid-late 1960s. Children grew up loving the colourful fashion, off-beat films and television series, pop music and pop art that subsequently sustained a huge influence on the lives of Westerners. It also led to many of them contributing to creative fields themselves.
Children’s books, especially Golden Books and those illustrated by Brian Wildsmith, who combined fantasy with lavish watercolour treatments, were a favourite pastime in my family. Our mother insisted in sourcing the best books she could find to stimulate her young children’s imaginations, and received recommendations from other mothers (some of them artists), librarian friends and workers in the book trade. Sure enough, and no doubt under the influence of our father, who was then a celebrated painter, we were all drawing and painting keenly from an early age.
While my siblings and I matured, we moved on to engage with Libico Maraja, Benvenuti and others, and started to investigate historical figures like Arthur Rackham and Maxfield Parrish. The end result is that three of five children are now professional artists. This foundation in childhood, essentially a decent education in the principles of drawing and figurative painting, transferred into keen interest in art across history and cultural traditions. Indeed, as adults, members of our family not only produce art but still collect children’s books, seeking out contemporary masters like Gernady Spirin, Andrej and Olga Dugin, Pavel Tartarnikov, Mirko Hanak, Brian Froud and Alan Aldridge, and are followers the best Animé artists, like Hayao Miyazaki.
There were sufficient children who did not have artists as parents, but were madly keen about art, for the modern watercolour painter Ruth Tuck to open an art school for children in Adelaide in 1956. One of her first students was Janet Bridgland, then eight years old. Although she was several years in advance of our family, her work clearly emerged from a similar context, in her reading and in being connected with the modern element of the Adelaide art scene through Tuck (who was also a collector of children’s books, among them those of Wildsmith).
Bridgland was fortunate enough to have a continuous education in art from that point, for she entered the South Australian School of Art in 1965. Her extant drawings of the ensuing period indicate how her work bridged her childhood fascinations, modern art and contemporary fashions, especially in the graphic arts. In terms of artistic influences, she mentions Henri Matisse and Bernard Buffet, among painters, and the magic realism of Federico Fellini and Isabelle Allende, and the celebrated printmaker and author Barbara Hanrahan was her preferred teacher at art school.
In current terms, Bridgland’s paintings and drawings seem strongly stylised, with echoes of the surrealism of Marc Chagall and perhaps Lyonel Feininger’s peculiar angularities. You can see the continuity from her childhood reading, her fascination with 1960s’ pop culture, especially the direct connection to the psychedelic imagery employed by The Beatles in films like Magical Mystery Tour and the album covers of that era, and it has remained remarkably consistent in her oeuvre from her very first exhibition, in 1969, until now. The graphics have a commercial orientation; but that is merely a function of her adherence to drawing as her principle means of expression and her femininity, and flows from the maelstrom of influences that swirled around as she was growing up and, as a young mother, from observing her own children and communicating with them through art as they, in turn, grew up. It connected her to their world, and kept alive her own childhood fantasy.
John Bridgland points out in his book on the artist that his and his sister’s generation benefited from Don Dunstan’s social reforms in South Australia in 1970 and, in 1972, Gough Whitlam’s rise to power nationally, and that optimism generated great confidence among them. They matured at a time when barriers were lifted and progress was celebrated. It is a confidence and security that has underpinned her work and identity.
Bridgland has illustrated several children’s books and designed book covers but more generally has worked outside the arena of “commercial art”, by regularly exhibiting in the “fine art” galleries; but her style remains embedded in that terrain, no matter how adult her subject matter: for example, glimpsed in After Kristallnacht (1989), a drawing about the Nazis’ destruction of Jewish culture in Bonn in 1938.
In modern life, when art is a university subject and theorised about continuously, illustration is a form that has been bracketed as “commercial”, and is often regarded as having less substance than cutting-edge explorations that, in the main, are contained to museum spaces. The contemporary art world, despite the 1990s’ postmodern push to absorb popular cultural directions and decorative inclinations, and to embrace eclecticism, is still populated with artists and theorists with histories stretching back into Political and Post-Object and Conceptual Art, whose tastes incline towards the anti-aesthetic and art that is not commercial. Beauty and coherence has for decades been obscured by deconstruction of classical reflexes in art. Painting has suffered, with some claiming it is a dead art-form, and the graphic arts are Painting’s younger siblings. Yet, despite the prognostications of its demise, painting has survived, come back into fashion and once again thrives.
This partly explains how Bridgland has remained a marginal figure on the art landscape, but anyone with any visual sensibility and knowledge has to acknowledge her talent and ability. Her work is simply outstanding. Its quality is not an issue; her reputation, like many artists of her vintage and their immediate predecessors, was affected by Adelaide’s comparative apathy towards its own talented artists, and its provincial vision that sought to prove its cultural importance and improve its cultural capital by celebrating international stars rather than promoting its own.
Living in such a cultural environment has fostered a satirical tendency in her work, continuing the long line from figurative satirists like Francisco Goya and William Hogarth, to George Grosz and finally contemporary political cartoonists. However, this element of her drawing was commented on by Ruth Tuck, in 1988, as being immediately apparent when Bridgland first attended her school. In imagery like Meeting of the Flat Earth Society (1988) we glean the ripened fruit of her observational powers, mature formal style and deep-seated frustration, tempered by whimsy.
It is a delight to delve into this book and its visual charms, a thorough and sometimes warts-and-all account of a decently lived life of unique purpose.
Written as a Foreword for the limited edition of the monograph on the the artist