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.
Quite by accident (a happy accident, I hope) this site has been mainly concerned with Surrealism. There have been detours into Decadence, Symbolism and the Situationists and I have occasionally veered into original fiction, poetry and the esoteric; but on the whole Surrealism has always been hovering in the wings when it hasn’t been firmly centre-stage.
There is one name that recurs more than any other in my posts and yet not one post (until now) has been sorely concerned with Andre Breton. The authoritarian and charismatic Andre Bretonis inseparable from Surrealism. Surrealism as a movement was the creation of Breton and the terminus of ‘official’ Surrealism is always given as the time of his death in 1966. He laid down the theoretical premises of the movement in the First Surrealist Manifesto published in 1924, organised the publications, provocations and exhibitions that made Surrealism a truly international phenomenon; recruited and cultivated many bright artistic talents who, although they may have left or been expelled never really ceased being Surrealists. In the Second Surrealist Manifesto of 1930 he maintained the ideological purity of Surrealism by a mass purge of members who showed a lack of sufficient zeal for the cause, earning Breton the dubious honorific ‘The Pope of Surrealism’. It was Breton, and Breton alone, who determined whether a poem, painting or person was Surrealist.
A full biography of the eventful life of such a forceful personality, who was at the centre of the international avant-garde for over four decades is beyond the scope of a short post. Apart from the Manifestos he published the Surrealist novel Nadja, a collection of automatic writings The Magnetic Fields (with Phillippe Soupault), numerous volumes of poetry including the magnificent Free Union and the book of art criticism Surrealism and Painting. He owned galleries and was a dealer in art and artefacts as well as being a keen and discerning collector.
It is only fitting that I close with Breton’s definition of Surrealism from the First Manifesto. Whatever his personal faults and the ultimate failure of his vision, Breton never wavered in his commitment to the movement that he originated:
SURREALISM, noun. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express-verbally, by means of the written word or in any other manner-the actual function of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
This stunning photograph of a serene beauty fully captures the belief in the transcendence of dreaming that all Surrealists shared . At first glance she appears to be underwater, after a quick double take it is apparent that she is rather soaring through the clouds. Or could it be that she is in fact laid out on a morgue table? But no, she is sleeping (we can be relatively sure as one can be in dealing with the Surreal), however that covers any reality you care to choose.
J.A Boiffard was Man Ray’s assistant from 1924 to 1929. His Parisian photographs were chosen to illustrate Andre Breton’s Nadja. However after his expulsion from the Surrealists, Boiffard contributed to Un Cadavre, a pamphlet that in no uncertain terms castigated Breton and his leadership of the movement. Boiffard then allied himself with the renegade Surrealists grouped around Georges Bataille and was the in-house photographer for Bataille’s Documents. His photographs illustrating Bataille’s article Big Toe are disturbing in an most uncanny way.