The Dream of Reason: On Photographer Francesca Woodman
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Francesca Woodman was a late 20th century American photographer known for her dramatically staged black and white self-portraits. She started photographing at the age of 13 and produced an astoundingly large and diverse body of work before committing suicide at the age of 22.
In the first Manifesto of Surrealism, Andre Breton lays out the heritage for his movement by retroactively claiming the great authors of the past were channeling his ideas: “Swift is Surrealist in malice,” “Reverdy is Surrealist at home,” and, my personal favorite, “Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid.” The absurdity of this is not unlike my mother’s claim that the one poem she wrote in middle school — “I see myself an old man now / with wrinkles deep across my brow” — is the wellspring for any poetic talents I might now be able to claim.
Woodman had a similar relationship to drugs. She was “already out there” when she was sober.
Breton goes on to point out that these artists are not always Surrealists, that there is some impurity in their thinking, namely forethought, that prevents them from accessing the unconscious for any extended amount of time. Rimbaud is the one person on his list that comes closest though; “[he] is Surrealist in the way he lived, and elsewhere.” His decision to bathe around twice a year, his endless experiments in absinthe and knife fighting, his defecating on a café table to show what he thought of impasto, all of these are swept under the Surrealist rug. Breton, though, was adamant that drugs were not to be involved in his movement; the drunkenness was to be totally induced from within.
According to Woodman’s good friend Betsy Berne, the photographer had a similar relationship to drugs. She was “already out there” when she was sober. Nevertheless, the link that many draw between her and her Surrealist predecessors is overstated, and her work is best appreciated in her own austere light. There is a feminist restraint, a cold eye, to her work that is totally unlike anything they produced. The only persuasive link between her and them is through Rimbaud, the proto-Surrealist, whose life and precocious mental faculties mirror her artistic arc and downfall more than any of Breton’s cronies or excommunicated cronies.
Woodman famously produced all of her work by the age of 22 when she leapt to her death from a loft window, leaving behind over 800 prints and 10,000 negatives (her father believes the catalyst for this final act was a failed application for an NEA grant). All the poetry Rimbaud would ever write was produced before he turned 21 and ran off to Africa to deal in guns and coffee. He came to completely loathe the European continent and lifestyle, but couldn’t stop himself from ironically becoming its ambassador. Besides the obvious prodigy connection, they are bound together by their mutual insistence that they weren’t receiving proper recognition in their time even though they were still babes at the time of their departures from art. They, too, like my mother and T.S. Eliot, saw themselves as elderly and improperly laurelled from the onset. No doubt this is due to their high level of passion mixed with self-criticism at such early ages. Rimbaud continuously tills over his own pronouncements, at one moment claiming he alone holds the key to all invention, and at the next saying he’s going to bury his imagination forever. Woodman’s self-portraits, the first of which appeared at the age of thirteen, can similarly turn from celebration of the body to degradation, from portraying herself as an angel, to displaying herself unconscious in a glass case of hissing taxidermy raccoons.
Woodman’s self-portraits, the first of which appeared at the age of thirteen, can similarly turn from celebration of the body to degradation, from portraying herself as an angel, to displaying herself unconscious in a glass case of hissing taxidermy raccoons.
Their inner critics, though pitched to the same volume, were of two different natures due to their differing childhoods. Rimbaud came from a provincial background he would later describes as of “pagan blood” (although his mother was strict with him when it came to schooling and moved the family out of a neighborhood she considered poor), while Woodman was the child of two well-off, moderately successful artists who set the standards for her achievements. In Rimbaud’s work his wretchedness can always be attributed to his upbringing or to the French society that tried to shape him, and eventually succeeded in turning him into a colonial capitalist. Much of this is played out in A Season in Hell, “The pagan blood returns! The Spirit is near; why doesn’t Christ help me, by giving my soul nobility and freedom. Alas! The Gospel has passed by! The Gospel! The Gospel.” In typical Rimbaud fashion, even the request for aid is both sincere and sarcastic. He doesn’t believe in the Gospel in the slightest; these are merely the only terms he’s inherited for salvation.
There was no world to turn against, only a world to turn into, and so when the breaking point comes for her, society is absolved of its sins.
Woodman, however, never finds comfort in blaming the world at large for her problems. Because of her parents, her life from a young age was spent in expression, visiting the Uffizi to sketch masterpieces, discovering photography. There was no world to turn against, only a world to turn into, and so when the breaking point comes for her, society is absolved of its sins. She does thoroughly examine the “male gaze,” but her work is too insular and claustrophobic and Puritanically austere for the frame to fully believe in societal forces beyond her control. She brings everything under her control. In fact, if I had to play Breton’s game of assignment with Woodman, I’d say her consistent staging of tableaux vivants makes her a “Surrealist in forethought,” a contradiction in his eyes, but he was so fond of contradictions and paradoxes that it might be most apt. Here, too, her reasoning powers are aligned with Rimbaud who believed poetry was the result of a “rational derangement of all the senses.”
Not only is she more aligned with critical aspects of Rimbaud, as mentioned, her link to the Surrealists is tenuous, though she did admittedly admire the interplay between text and photography in Breton’s Nadja, and her props — the mirrors, gloves, masks, and occasional stuffed animals — were all favored by Surrealist predecessors. In many of her photos she’s transubstantiating her inheritance with her body. She presents a direct challenge to the Surrealist’s He-man Woman Haters Club (and a challenge to their extreme fondness for transforming anything and everything into glass).
The uncanny anxiety I experience when looking at her work makes me feel as though no one is watching nor should they be.
Take for example the series A woman. A mirror. A woman is a mirror for a man. The literal looking glass in question is a wide cheval mirror that barely rises to Woodman’s navel, the kind of height and width appropriate only for pre-teen conjoined twins. There are circular dust marks smeared across it as though it had been cleaned previously with a dirty rag. In the first frame she appears nude kissing the butt of a cat that’s jumping off and away from her (this cat presages some of her own animalistic movements to come). The room itself is in flux between an abandoned factory and an artist’s studio converted from an abandoned factory. On the ground there is a three-cubby cupboard whose mosaic frame is seemingly composed of mirrors. There’s one frame of a floor to ceiling window in the far right of the shot, which one would normally associate with voyeurism except the factory across the way looks just as dead as the one Woodman is occupying. And, because Woodman is both classic nude model and photographer, the picture itself lacks a traditional maker/voyeur. The uncanny anxiety I experience when looking at her work makes me feel as though no one is watching nor should they be. When I step behind that vacant camera to view a print, instead of filling the role of maker she’s left empty, I feel my ego float away and pass its control totally and solely down to my eyes.
The technique and set-up of this first photo also plays with metaphysics in another way. The factory space is distorted due to the long exposure time, the high contrast, and the tilt of the cheval mirror. It’s almost entirely implausible that its reflection belongs to this room (the far window appears shrunken, whited-out, and oblique, that’s our one clue, so at best it’s a funhouse mirror). There is something of the fairy-tale then in this first picture that intrudes, the link to another space, a wardrobe offering the escape to elsewhere. The second photo in the series comes as a shock then, when Woodman grabs the mirror, looks into it, and the door to elsewhere swings shut with her tenderly distorted face. Her body and hands threaten to bring the mirror down to the horizontal so she can fully transform into Caravaggio’s Narcissus (a self-critique on her many self-portraits as well a reminder that our prototype for vanity is a man). The light streaming down from the window casts a shadow that belongs to Woodman’s mirror-self, whereas her corporeal shadow is nowhere. So, not only has this elsewhere been cut off, the mirror has been given a reality that the room and the body lack.
In the third picture of the series, the camera shifts in and to the right of its previous location. We are given a better sight of the large industrial windows and now Woodman is holding a glass frame, facing the camera. Nothing from our side of the view is reflected in the glass she’s holding, and it can only really be made out because of its edges and its scratches and a stray piece of tape failing at translucency. The photo is almost wholly taken over by reflective surfaces, mostly surfaces that can also be seen through. The right side of her face is totally obscured by shadow and the left is obscured because of the long exposure. Behind her, the mirror appears threateningly darker than the room it’s reflecting and the contrast reminds me of a section of Louis Aragon’s post-Surrealist poem “Elsa at the Mirror”, translated here by George Dillon: “Her dark glass was the world’s facsimile / Her comb, parting the fires of that silken mass, / Lit up the corners of my memory.” The reflection of Woodman’s mirror, as in the first parts of the series, seems to be misremembering the room it’s currently in.
The meaning of the glass frame becomes apparent in the last print. Here Woodman is trying to mount herself to the cheval mirror, to literalize the metaphor of the title. Unlike another untitled photo from this same time period in Providence, the frame isn’t disfiguring her just yet. Her animalistic movements suggest we are looking at the reflection of the spirit trying to yoke itself. Since this is the last in this series, everything that is implied by this act remains for the imagination to fill in, the struggle and disfigurement and impossibility, while here we see a portion of her body “framed” by the glass, another “framed” by the mirror, and the whole “framed” by the limits of the actual photo. Woodman shows us through this excessive framing as well as through the discreteness of the series that the body is never considered “in the round”; she forces us to consider that the images reflected on our retinas are two-dimensional no matter how spherical our eyes appear to be. This effect is reinforced by the small size of the original prints; at only 5 and 3/4” by 5 and 3/4”, they force you to confront the intimacy and flatness of your own experience.
The body is never considered “in the round”; she forces us to consider that the images reflected on our retinas are two-dimensional no matter how spherical our eyes appear to be.
One reason why this work and many of her other photos resonate so deeply is that their claustrophobic atmospheres, their blurred or obscured faces, recall certain strains of dreams and nightmares that evaporate just as their reality is about to be proven dubious. In my own, there is always something imminent occurring, a tornado absent-mindedly picking up a little girl, a deranged man holding a knife holding my reflection, and always my body is unmoving, but attempting to scream, as if noise alone could stop whatever is occurring and pierce the veil of Maya. I’m never able to speak anything more than clipped words, which sound like panting to my significant other whenever I wake her and myself up. In my head the words have endings, but on my tongue they’re reduced to unorganized air.
…her other photos resonate so deeply is that their claustrophobic atmospheres, their blurred or obscured faces, recall certain strains of dreams and nightmares that evaporate just as their reality is about to be proven dubious.
The analysis of these dreams is easy enough. They’re linked to my own feelings of poetic self-criticism and my inability to speak without first bending each word to my will, exerting a Woodman-like control over my environment. It’s impossible for me to stop wanting to individualize each thought enough so that it’s sincere, to process my feelings to such a degree that they wind up feeling genuine, so that I can place them back into the body where they started. Woodman and Rimbaud’s mission is similarly visceral and embodied. In Rimbaud’s “Genie” for example, he invents a new god to clear out the terror of the morality of the past and the suffering of Christian guilt; this outdated morality is replaced with “the clear song of new misfortunes!” Later he intones that we should “follow his seeing, his breathing, his body, his day.” Because Christ’s sufferings were so tied to his corporality, he can only be replaced by a figure who incarnates the new misfortunes of modernity. The only consolation we’re left with is clarity, and if this clarity of feeling is indeed the new god, then Woodman, through obfuscation and reflection and the fog of long-exposure, is as clear as it gets.