This charming, playful family photograph of American Surrealist Dorothea Tanning with her two nieces Mimi and Martha Johnson, taken at the home she shared with her husband Max Ernst in Seillans, France, features wallpaper, the only thing that happened in her childhood home in Galesburg, Illnois, prominently.
In several of her works, noticeably Children’s Games and the final masterpiece of Surrealism, Room 202, Poppy Hotel, the wallpaper conveys a sense of menace bordering on horror. In her concentration on claustrophobic domestic spaces Tanning anticipated a whole wave of female artists, noticeably the photography of Francesca Woodman.
My elder sister, perturbation,
heedless and headless
rushing towards paradise,
sinister utopia, blissed out
We call to St. Satan Esq: among others,
Prince of Liars, Lord of this World and all its Works,
louche lounger, adolescent rebel par excellence,
horny old goat stroking your neatly trimmed beard,
He who comes and goes, ever toing and froing:
to grant us a show of a little sympathy.
Walking down the avenue,
only a few more
blocks to cross:
but these streets are constantly changing,
losing my bearings,
I call out, where have you gone?
There is a way if you have the requisite will,
dive deep, immerse yourself in the elements,
there is freedom in surrendering to immensity,
being your virgin canvas, empty page, tabula rasa
onto which you scrawl all your needs, wants and desires,
fill the void inside with a phantom of substance.
Swamp of dreams,
Paris, Rome, Toyko, maybe London,
of eternal decadence:
what a rotten tooth is to love are
you to me.
Parabolas, delirious paranoid constructions,
the sweep and curve of vast cosmic conspiracies.
Something’s not right, something is askew and aslant,
counterfeit currency passed along in a dream,
unveiling the secrets of a banal mystery
ultimate truth is vicious, yet deeply inane.
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.
Let’s us drink and play a game
It might set us free
Matching and mixing
Till we’re maxed all tapped out
Spun around oozing sugar
The sickening unto death sweetness
Of invading all pervading lust
We will ache for all tomorrows
To come and then some
But it’s OK, it’s alright
Let it reign
An era of indolence
Till the waters rise
To wash it all away
Then its time to rise and shine
Start again fresh and clean
With newly laundered souls
And sparkling crystal eyes
A touch that thrills to the slightest tremor
In the nearest galaxy
And hear the rhythm section
Of the spheres and the stars
Shimmering points of light so tight
As they improvise upon creation
This is really some concoction
Drink to the depths this witches brew.
This was the phrase that was produced when the Surrealists first sat down to play the game that was to later be christened Exquisite Corpse. It was one of those happy accidents so beloved of the Surrealists and seemingly dictated by the collective unconscious mind ready to reclaim its rights.
The most celebrated of Surrealists techniques, it tied in nicely with several key tenets of Surrealism; namely artistic collaboration and the belief that was first stated by Lautreamont that “Poetry should be made by all.” Originally played with words it soon become apparent that the technique could extend to drawing and collages. The examples from the Golden Age of Surrealism are numerous and feature some of the most illustrious names in 20th Century art and letters.
Below are some of the most notable Exquisite Corpses from that era. I have also included work from the YBA artists the Chapman Brothers who have produced a number of drawings using the technique.