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The late Francesca Woodman, a native of Denver, Colorado, whose death by suicide in New York in 1981 at the age of 23 robbed art of a precious talent, was one of the 20th century’s great surrealists.
But wasn’t surrealism essentially to do with Paris, and with men? No. That’s only a small part of the story. It was undoubtedly born in Paris, and the surrealism of Paris gave the movement much fame and notoriety.
It was also shaped and dominated by noisy males in the early years. André Breton, that tyrannical, bullying purist of a theorist, was its self-selected leader and purger of those who betrayed the cause. (Other members of the gang included Paul Éluard, Louis Aragon, and Man Ray.)
But the truth is wider and geographically much broader altogether. Surrealism spread and spread — to Mexico, South America, Czechoslovakia (as it then was) and elsewhere — until it became a global phenomenon.
What’s more, Surrealism was a weapon ripe for seizure by women.The ever-shifting nature of the idea of the unconscious was helping to dissolve some of the rigidities of social identity, establishing a new parity between the male and the female of the species.
You could even say that it weaponized female art, gifting the power to shock, violently disrupt, or generally interrupt the smooth and onwardly complacent passage of the sleekly besuited status quo. The women shown off in surrealist paintings by such artists as Leonora Carrington and Leonor Fini often look emboldened, if not armored against adversity. Not quite so, however, in the delicate monochromatic photographs of Francesca Woodman.
In Woodman’s photographs, the presence of the female figure is defined and contained within a strange milieux of her own devisings. It surprises and challenges by the way it freshly wafts in among us, so fleeting, so ethereal, so here and gone. Sometimes its embodiment is nothing more than a wisping spume of smoke.
The figure, the artist herself or a female model, is often a fleetingly tragic emblem of some notion of the beautiful or the angelic, coming into being or on the point of disappearing, set within a rackety, near-doomed architectural context. She floats or lifts off, near-weightlessly. Her clothes, thin, transparent or translucent, help to give her such shape as she has, which is seldom much.
Some of these poses are often framed by a heavy wooden doorway, as if it were the impromptu frame of a painting. In one of a series of photographs taken in Rome four years before her death, the female figure hangs wispily suspended from that doorframe by her arms, as if seeking to claim for herself all the gravity, lightsomeness, and mystical appeal of the crucified one.
Woodman’s female figure in “House #3, Providence, Rhode Island” (1976) melds and merges with (or emerges from) its surroundings, which in this case is the room of a house in Rhode Island in a woeful state of decrepitude, neglect, and semi-dereliction.
The woman seems to have erupted onto the scene dramatically, startling even herself. She cowers back, slumped into a fearful blur of herself, still partially in motion, as if knowing neither her role nor her identity. She looks as if she would prefer to be melting away from our gaze.
The graininess of the texture of her face is at one with the graininess of the wall against which she presses it. There are strewn bits and pieces of wallpaper, tiles, and nails at her feet. The walls thirst for new paint.
Only she, this fearful, precious near-child with just the suggestion of a light-defined angel’s wing of fabric at her shoulder, has a certain glossiness about her; only she seems to contain within herself the promise of the bright light glaring from the window behind her.
And yet everything is so fragile and so fearfully childlike about her presence here. She is in the world, but she is not quite of it. She is the interloper, who has fabricated her own world, but whose right to exist in it is almost too difficult a thing to be contemplating. Yet it must be contemplated. And here it is, in all its anxious in-betweenness…
This essay is one of an occasional series, Great Works, devoted to single works of art.