|Edith Rimmington | Leonor Fini | Francesa Woodman
Deeply affected by images of wounded soldiers that surfaced during the atrocities of World War II, Rimmington used her work to explore themes of death, decay, vivisection and regrowth. By practicing ‘automatic’ writing and drawing (created by subconscious agency rather than conscious thought), Rimmington produced work that was not just surreal, but which explored the psychological effects of living in war-torn Britain from the unique perspective of a female artist.
In 1946, an article was published in the Belgian surrealist journal Savoir Vivre, titled Surrealist Inquiry: What do you hate most? Amongst those interviewed for the inquiry was Rimmington, who was asked various questions about her personal desires and dislikes. When asked what she feared most, Rimmington replied: “All that constrains my freedom to be curious”. It was this love for the unknown, this desire to explore, that allowed Rimmington to produce enigmatic works of art which serve to both confuse and fascinate viewers to the present day.
Rimmington studied at the Brighton School of Art from the early age of 17. There she met Leslie Robert Baxter (1893-1986), a fellow painter, who would later become her husband.
She first made contact with the British Surrealist Group in 1936, during her visit to the infamous International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries. Here she was exposed to a new realm of artistic possibilities, and surrounded by subversive artists such as Rene Magritte, Andre Breton and Eileen Agar. During this exhibition, artists and writers took the opportunity to deliver bizarre performances. Salvador Dali would make history when he conducted his seminar Fantomes Paranoiaques Authentiques while dressed in a full diving suit (with helmet), brandishing a snooker cue, and allowing two Irish wolfhounds to lead him on to the stage. Sheila Legge would embody the Surrealist Phantom, standing outside the gallery with arms outspread, her face obscured by a floral mask, waiting for pigeons to settle on her sheer-gloved wrists. The poet Dylan Thomas would quietly weave through the crowds, offering guests steaming cups of boiled string.
Amongst these oddities Rimmington found great inspiration, and by 1937 she was an established member of the British Surrealist Group. In November 1937, she participated in the Surrealist Objects and Poems exhibition at the London Gallery, which opened at the stroke of midnight. The art historian Herbert Read stood at its doors declaring “Approach, for we have names to sell – angels of anarchy and machines for making clouds.” The artist’s work was also exhibited internationally, most notably at the Surrealist Exhibition in Paris in 1947 at the Galerie Maeght.
Rimmington’s painted works are executed with extreme precision, exploring the boundaries between “non-beings” and the autonomous; between life, death and sentience. Butterflies are a regular motif, symbolising rebirth and regeneration, and can be seen fluttering across the canvas of The Decoy (1948), which is the only painting of Rimmington’s in a public collection. In this work, a dissected hand hangs limply, and its exposed muscles and ventricles become macabre incubators for butterflies and their cocoons. Here, the artist continues to examine the way in which death can promote new life. These themes are also recurrent through her poetic work, such as Growth at the Break (1946) and The Sea-Gull (1946), as well as other pieces of writing that Rimmington contributed to Surrealist publications throughout the 1940s, such as the London Bulletin and Arson.
Perhaps influenced by Dali’s stunt at the 1936 Exhibition, and his expressed desire to “dive” into the human subconscious, we see Rimmington using diving suit and sea imagery often in her work, including Eight Interpreters of the Dream (1940), and The Oneiroscopist (1947). In Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, Whitney Chadwick refers to the latter painting, describing its imagery and “surrealist content” as residing “in the fantastic biomorphic image of the birdlike creature preparing for its descent into the world of the dream.” Linking the vastness of the ocean to the mysteries of the human mind is a theme Rimmington would explore often throughout her career, describing the sea as a “vast water brain [that seems to] hold all the secrets” in a letter to her friend and fellow artist John Banting in 1971. For Rimmington and her contemporaries, the sea was a point of great curiosity, and provided an excellent visual metaphor with which to explore surrealist motifs.
By the 1950s Rimmington had moved to live in the Bexhill area of Sussex, where many artists and poets were retreating to nurture their creativity, far away from the war-torn streets of London. Here, she began to focus on creating photographic works, continuing to use the ocean as a metaphor with which to explore unusual surrealist juxtapositions. Sussex Coast (1960s, photograph) shows a half-submerged rock, the shape of which reminds the viewer of half submerged body or a corpse, Bellmer-like in its dislocation.
It is not clear if Rimmington continued to make any more work after the late 1960s. She died in 1986, in Bexhill-on-Sea, where her apartment overlooked the ocean.
2. Francesca Woodman (1958 -1981) is, was (and probably always will be) an enigma. Her work is full of tension and spectral explorations of the female form, but her early death at the age of 22 has left scholars questioning Woodman’s artistic intentions. Were these photographs an exploration of the artist’s internal angst? Or simply the early works of a college student who favoured a surrealist aesthetic?
Born in 1958, to ceramicists George and Betty Woodman, Francesca Woodman was surrounded by artistic practice and creativity from a young age. Growing up, her family home in Colorado would become a temporary sanctuary to the likes of David Hockney, Richard Serra and other famous artists, as they made tours of America. As an adolescent, Woodman received her first camera – a Yashica 2 ¼ x 2 ¼, which was a gift from her father and would continue to be her camera of choice throughout her short career. Her first self portrait (aged 13) shows the same defiant and graceful Surrealist self-representation that would not only typify her later work, but define her artistic practice.
The young photographer attended college at Rhode Island School of design in 1975, and between 1977 and 1978, she studied in Rome (a familiar city where she had spent many summers as a child). In 1979, Woodman moved to New York with the intention of beginning her career as an artist, and in 1980 was awarded Artist-In-Residence at the distinguished MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.
Unfortunately, upon returning to New York, her work was met with much indifference, and it is only in the last decade has there been a resurgence of interest in her photography and videography, the latter of which became a method with which to expand her creative projects.
Aside from her photographic work, Francesca Woodman produced several livre d’artiste including Portrait of a Reputation (date unknown), Quaderno dei Dettati e dei Temi (c.1978), Quaderno Raffaello (c.1977), Portraits Friends Equations (c.1979) and Angels, Calendars (c.1977). However, just one book (Some Distorted Interior Geometries, 1981) was published during her lifetime – only a few weeks before the artist’s suicide. The book itself is made from a repurposed, Italian exercise notepad with pale pink pages, pasted with photographs and annotated with scratchy, sprawling marginalia. In it, we see Woodman exploring her fascination with time and identity, as she writes: “These things arrived from my Grandmother’s. They make me think about where I fit in this odd geometry of time.”
This theme of pasting down, erasing and overlapping can also be seen in Quaderno Raffaello which includes a selection of taped-down transparencies instead of opaque photographs, allowing the printed page to be visible through the image. Woodman takes power from choosing what the viewer is allowed to see – the process of covering, uncovering and recovering sections of images or book pages is also used in regards to her own body.
If surrealism can be described as a visual, oral or physical montage of unsettling juxtapositions, then Woodman’s work certainly subscribes to this definition. We see the artist using a variety of motifs that have been associated with the Surrealist Movement, including birds, gloves (another method with which to conceal and reveal the body), mirrors and phantom-like figures, which the artist sometimes shrouds in white sheets or large sections of dusty, floral wallpaper. Her photographs are characterised by wraith-like female figures and ghostly presences which begin to dissipate like vapour. She referred to these long-exposure images as Ghost Photos, and her work has been likened to the spirit photography that gained popularity after WWI. Setting her phantoms against the backdrop of crumbling walls in derelict buildings and using delayed exposure times, Woodman created blurry shapes and distorted the features of her protagonists, allowing them to appear stationary when in motion and fragmented yet whole.
More often than not these ‘phantoms’ are nude with their faces obscured, and often the models bear a striking resemblance to Woodman herself. The women are objectified and creature-like, becoming part of the fabric of the abandoned buildings in which they roam. Woodman’s work is nightmarish, and toes-the-line between rationality and hysteria – do these images predict the artist’s own inevitable self-effacement? Woodman’s early death by her own hand at the age of 22 allows us to question her creative motives, and an 1980 entry from her diary displays her clear desire to “disappear”: “I finally managed to try to do away with myself, as neatly and concisely as possible […] I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, some work, my friendship with you and some other artefacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things.”
In 1980, Woodman was diagnosed with profound depression, an illness that would plague her for the rest of her brief life. She survived her first suicide attempt in the Autumn of the same year, but in January of 1981, she was found dead after jumping from the window of a building on the East Side of New York.
3. Leonor Fini (1907-1996) was a painter, designer, illustrator, and author. She has been described as a sorceress, an extravagant cat lady, and famously ‘the woman who rejected Salvador Dali’, but ultimately Fini was one of the most important and overlooked artists of the 20th century.
Born in Buenos Aires, Fini only lived in Argentina for a short time before fleeing to Italy with her mother to escape her abusive father. Living in Trieste allowed Fini to spend much of her youth surrounded by Mannerist and Renaissance art, both of which shared mutual themes of wealth, decadence and power, and would prove to be a source of great inspiration for the artist in later years.
From the age of 13, Fini would visit the local morgue and study the corpses, an experience that would help her to capture the human form, and develop the distinctive and ethereal humanoid figures that became her trademark. These early artistic encounters, combined with studies into psychoanalytic theory, informed much of Fini’s work throughout her artistic career.
Though Fini resisted joining the more unified ranks of the Surrealists, her work was certainly of the Surrealist canon. She depicts otherworldly creatures, strange landscapes, scenes of alchemy, occultism and desire. Often, Fini would use her work to respond to the male-gaze, objectifying the male form and allowing the female viewer to take a more dominant role. Fini’s description of her own work and demeanor sums this up perfectly:
Myself, I know that I belong with the idea of Lilith, the anti-Eve, and that my universe is that of the spirit.
Her reluctance to join a particular group or adhere to any artistic label was characteristic of Fini’s desire for autonomy. Wishing to subvert typical gender roles, Fini abandoned the femme fatale and innocent virgin prototypes, instead creating goddesses reminiscent of greek mythology, and female figures that could not be categorised or defined morally or sexually. Themes of fertility, female empowerment and magic run through her work, and Fini often depicts the figure of the Sphinx, a half human, half lion hybrid.
In the early forties, Fini accepted Peggy Guggenheim’s proposal to appear in the show ‘Exhibition by 31 Women’ held at the Art of This Century Gallery in New York. The 1943 exhibition brought together work by women of different ethnicities, age ranges and artistic practices, and explicitly highlighted Guggenheim’s fascination with surrealist art. Fini exhibited alongside the likes of Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning and the extravagant Leonora Carrington, with whom she would form an intense and lasting friendship.
Fini was photographed by a several famous artists (most notably, Henri Cartier-Bresson), often in erotic or provocative poses, adopting the role of the sexually empowered female – a character we see in much of her painted work. Sometimes Fini appears in elaborate costumes, adorned in jewels, feathers and furs, looking like a high priestess or otherworldly creature. Never one to separate life from art, Fini often draped herself in lavish costumes and was rumoured to have attended a party in celebration of the Witches’ Sabbath, wearing nothing but “knee-length white leatherette boots and a cape of white feathers”.
Her talents appear to be endless. In addition to being a artist and designer, Fini also created costumes for ballets, theatre productions and operas, as well as designing the bottle for Schiaparelli’s perfume ‘Shocking’. In 1949, she conceptualised the ballet Le Rêve de Leonor (Leonor’s Dream), which was later choreographed by Frederick Ashton. During the 1970s, Fini turned her attention to writing, and penned three novels: Rogomelec, Moumour & Contes Pour Enfantes Veluand L’Oneiropompe. As an illustrator, Fini’s work accompanied the writing of authors like Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire, as well as the Marquis de Sade’s salacious novel ‘Justine’ (1791).
Fini was married once, briefly to Federico Venezianio, but she never married again and was openly bisexual at a time when sexual fluidity was still a taboo.
Marriage never appealed to me, I’ve never lived with one person. Since I was 18 I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community – a big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and one with a man who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.
For the remaining years of her life she lived with her lovers Konstanty Aleksander Jeleński (a polish writer) and Stanislao Lèpri (a surrealist artist) and (most importantly) her persian cats. She died in Paris in 1996.
EDIÇÃO COMEMORATIVA | CENTENÁRIO DO SURREALISMO 1919-2019
Artista convidada: Toyen (República Checa, 1902-1980)
Agulha Revista de Cultura
20 ANOS O MUNDO CONOSCO
Número 141 | Setembro de 2019
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