This Thursday, “Surrealism in Mexico” will open at the Di Donna Galleries in Manhattan. Arriving at the tail end of the Brooklyn Museum’s blockbuster Frida Kahlo show, this new display cocurated by gallery founder Emmanuel Di Donna and Dr. Jennifer Field, its director of exhibitions & head of research, underlines the growing interest in the work of women artists. Leonora Carrington, Lola Álvarez Bravo, and Kahlo are well represented in the exhibit, though we’d like to direct your attention to a lesser-known artist and former Vogue editor: Bridget Bate Tichenor. Tichenor’s individualistic paintings, often featuring egg-headed creatures said to have been inspired by her pets, are gems in their own right, but the artist’s glamorous and stranger-than-fiction provenance gives them some added frisson.
Born in 1917, it only took B.B.T., as she would come to be known, 22 years to make it into Vogue. In 1939, the magazine announced the wedding of Bridget Pamela Arkwright Bate to Hugh J. Chisholm, a Yale-educated poet and heir to a paper fortune. Around the same time, a society columnist clocked the newlyweds out on the town, “Bridget dripping with strings of pearls.” It might have also been said that the Paris-born British-American beauty was dripping with intrigue, as Bate’s backstory has more convoluted plot twists than Game of Thrones.
Even a condensed version that omits many riveting details is knotty, but here goes. Tichenor was born in Paris in 1917, the daughter of the American-born, London-based Frederick Bate, a broadcaster with the BBC and NBC who was friendly with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Her mother, known as Vera Lombardi, was rumored to be the illegitimate child of royalty (which is unlikely). Still, as she had the golden key to society, Lombardi was very useful to Coco Chanel, for whom she worked in a kind of public relations capacity—supposedly it was Lombardi who introduced the designer to the Duke of Westminster, with whom Chanel carried on a long-lasting affair. Even more interesting is the suggestion that the Englishwoman’s tweedy, sporty personal style, greatly informed Chanel’s aesthetic. Things didn’t end well between the women to say the least, but this drama unfolded years after Lombardi allegedly arranged her daughter’s first marriage, with the help of Linda and Cole Porter, as a means of getting daughter Bridget—who had been a model for Chanel—safely out of Europe.
Once in America, Tichenor would return to modeling. In California she sat for her father’s friend Man Ray, and she would go on to appear both in the pages of Vogue and on its masthead. In fact, it was when working with George Platt Lynes that Tichenor met and fell in love with the photographer’s assistant, Jonathan Tichenor, who became her second husband. She adopted his surname, becoming known as Bridget Bate Tichenor. With her striking good looks and societal pull, B.B.T. was much admired—and, at times envied. The writer Anaïs Nin fell into the former category, and it’s been cattily suggested that Diana Vreeland fell into the latter. Tichenor worked for Vogue under the editorships of Edna Woolman Chase and Jessica Daves until 1953, when she swiftly divorced her second husband and moved to Mexico, a country she had become acquainted with through her cousin Edward James, an art collector and patron who had an estate there.
Tichenor not only shed her socialite skin in Mexico, but she also took up painting full time. As a girl she had been tutored by Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico in Italy; in New York she had been a pupil of Paul Cadmus, who combined the painstaking Renaissance technique of tempera painting with gritty realist subject matter. Once installed in a remote ranch in Mexico, Tichenor used Cadmus’s retro methods to create startling, magical realist paintings that nodded a bit to De Chirico’s dreamscapes.
Did fashion inform Tichenor’s work? To some extent, says Emmanuel Di Donna. “Her notebooks from 1939-40 [. . .] reveal her interest in designing masks and colorful outfits that she would later incorporate into her paintings. The use of masks and veils were popular among the Surrealists as a device for exposing subconscious fears and desires.” More topical is understanding how this unsettling, agitating post-war art movement speaks to our turbulent era. “The vibrant art-historical episode that we focus on in ‘Surrealism in Mexico’ was made possible through liberal ideas about collaboration, immigration, and gender roles,” Di Donna explains. “It is particularly relevant in the context of today’s cultural and political climate, where these issues remain under intense scrutiny and debate. Surrealism is a great expression of a world in flux, a world in need of beauty, discovery, and dreams.”