One of the most remarkable aspects of Francesca Woodman’s astounding photographs that she produced between the ages of 13 to 22 is that it forms such a cohesive body of work. There is no juvenilia (in the sense of immature work that shows future potential), no false starts or dramatic u-turns. It appears that as soon as she took her first self-portrait at 13 that she had her own unique vision which she followed for the next nine years, never wavering and never deviating from once.
Growing up in an artistic household, both her parents are artists, the precocious Francesca had a thorough grasp of Dada and Surrealism by the age of 11. Francesca acknowledged the influence of Surrealism on her work, particularly Man Ray’s portraits of Meret Oppenheim and Andre Breton’s seminal Surrealist novel Nadja which was accompanied by photographs by J. A Boiffard. One of her early photographs features herself dressed up as Alice In Wonderland, the influence of which upon the Surrealists cannot be over-estimated. Also evident is the influence of the Gothic novel. Francesca favoured slow shutter speeds and long exposures which resulted in a blurry, ghostly images inhabiting the ominous, decrepit buildings where she set her photographs.
The above photograph was taken during her student year in Rome. A stunningly stage-managed yet otherworldly self-portrait, her posture hanging from the door lintel suggests both an ascending angel and a crucifixion. This is not the only question this magnificently enigmatic photograph raises; every object in the room seems to hold a coded significance.
Tragically Francesca, suffering from depression which was exacerbated by a broken relationship and the lack of recognition that her work had received, committed suicide by jumping from a New York loft window at the age of 22.
Andre Breton had ended Nadja with the bold statement that: “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” In L’Amour Fou (Mad Love) from 1937 he further expands on the theme with the declaration: “Convulsive beauty will be veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magic-circumstantial, or won’t be at all.” Accompanying the text are three photographs illustrating the types of convulsive beauty: Man Ray‘s Veiled-Erotic, a stunning nude study of the Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim, Fixed-Explosive also by Man Ray and Brassai‘s strange Magic-Circumstantial. All the images had previously appeared in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure.
There always comes the moment
When you receive the confirmation
Of what you half intuited all along
No more evasions or denials
The truth is written on the wall
Writ large and quite plain to see
You are entangled within the trap
Held fast now there is no escape
It was all a set up a complete illusion
A vast conspiracy centred on you
Always and forever you alone
How can you ever begin to fathom
The depths you are plunging into
You never even knew it was a game
Until I showed you the aces in the hole
And demanded payment or satisfaction
So many questions you wanted to ask
But crumpling beneath the realisation
Of all I had in store you remained silent
Submitted docilely to my desires
However perversely strange or subtle
All your striving had come to naught
Think of this as a complete education
Now maybe you will understand
What I would sacrifice for pleasure.
Guiseppe Arcimboldo is a hazy peripheral figure in art history. Enjoying noble and royal patronage he was honoured during his lifetime before completely falling out of fashion during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries only to be rediscovered by the Surrealists in the 20th. Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Man Ray were all admirers and Arcimboldo’s visual puns and double meanings undoubtedly influenced Dali’s infamous paranoiac-critical method. Other art historians posited Arcimboldo as the most mannered of all the Mannerists. His composite portraits certainly show the period’s taste for enigmas and riddles taken far into the hinterlands of the grotesque and the whimsically bizarre.
Vertumnus is Arcimboldo’s most famous painting, a composite portrait of his patron, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Rudolf II as Vertumnus, the Roman God of metamorphosis, the seasons, gardens and vegetable growth. The plants, flowers and fruits that form the portrait of Rudolf II are from every season and are taken to represent the perfect harmony and balance with nature that his reign would re-establish. Unfortunately events and history had other things in mind for the studious, occult inclined Rudolf II and his notably tolerant court of Prague, leading eventually to the calamity of the Thirty Year War between competing Catholic and Protestant states before engulfing the majority of European great powers.
Other notable composite portraits painted by Arcimboldo include the Four Seasons, the Four Elements and the witty The Librarian (below).
Calm it, calming
Calming, calm it.
-Talk to me
-I wish I could talk—
But easier said;
A few issues remain unresolved,
In fact permanently outstanding.
I have always been afflicted,
If Memory serves,
(Not me though,
Bitch is thoroughly self-serving
With her insidious insinuations,
Rosey sepia’d projections,
Flat-out brazen taunting,
Wince inducing comparisons;
The future ain’t what it used to be
But was the past so very hot?)
By a stuttering reluctance
To showtell, that would be an act,
Stripping myself bare to tease,
Besides what if there is nothing
Beneath to reveal, could I stand
The disappointment turning
To anger and then inevitably,
As night turns to day, to hatred?
So I crouched my sentences
In an invented, inverted argot
Of my own twisted devising,
A cunning linguistic cant
Impenetrable and dense
Filled with allusions, elisions,
Strewn with the slang and jargon
Of restless haunted journeys;
The most I could hope for
Was an odd sensation of frisson,
The occasional moment of fusion,
Before the dissolution of an imagined unity;
Fracturing, splintering, fragmenting,
Sending me back into my private
Realm where I can babble away,
In my nonesuch nonsense language,
Or just remain silent if I wished,
(and therefore, be true?)