Surreal women looking at the self: exploring the relationship between Francesca Woodman and Claude Cahun

This paper centres on the relationships that Claude Cahun nee Lucy Schwob (25 October 1894 – 8 December 1954) and Francesca Woodman (April 3, 1958 – January 19, 1981) had with themselves and how it is invested into their auto-portraits. Despite their chronological lacunae, they are linked by, in the words of Posner: ‘the quest for self-knowledge’ one that: ‘drove the first generation of women Surrealists [such as Cahun] and has continued to challenge the two later generations of women artists [such as Woodman]’ (Posner 1998: 157). Moreover, these photographers are bound together with monochrome puddles of narrative, symbolism and surrealism and the idea of duality draws the two together. With these artists, there is a contradiction between the public and the private, their works are both imposing and intriguing for the reader. Whilst the pictures are in dialogue with the viewer about issues of the personal, there is an essence for issues such as fantasy, the female space and sexuality. Thus, Cahun and Woodman provoke a relationship about themselves, society and ourselves.
Firstly, narrative has a presence in both artist's work. On viewing, we may be reminded of our own affiliations to past literature and myths as Woodman and Cahun use rich symbolism to investigate their own agendas. Both women had backgrounds divested in the arts. Cahun, born in Nantes, France ‘into a wealthy Jewish intellectual family [...] was surrounded by artistic influence, her uncle, Marcel Schwob, was a Symbolist writer [and] an acquaintance of Oscar Wilde, whose Salome would have a great impact on her’. (Ball-Snellen 2014:1). Woodman was too, born into an artistic family with a mother who worked in ceramic sculpting, her father, photography. Cahun's affiliation with fantasy and language is evident in her literary works, her series: ‘entitled Heroines [...], took the shape of monologues by famous women from Eve to Helen, Sappho, Penelope, Salomé, and also Judith, in the tradition of Ovid’s Heroides [...] her stories desacralise these Heroines in an effort to humanise them [...] and to suggest that humanity is not heroic, [...] Cahun’s distortions of these mythic stories make the reader realise how two-dimensional these women have become’. (Conley 2004:2). Cahun challenges two dimensionality both in her prose and her photography. Cahun also challenges Surrealism, her affiliated movement. As whilst Surrealism advocates contradiction and ambivalence, Cahun furthers this. Posner writes that: ‘For many women artists, particularly those influenced by Surrealism, self representation is a far more complex and conflicted issue. The historic male Surrealist idealized woman as muse and conceived of her in the varies and contradictory roles of virgin, child, celestial creature, on the one hand: [and] sorceress, erotic object ad femme fatale, on the other. She was the femme-enfant, whose natural, easy access to her own unconscious allowed her to serve the innocent guide to man’. (Posner 1997:157). This is a fitting description for Cahun, as she takes ambivalence much further than what the historic male Surrealist imagined, which may be the reason for her hostility towards being defined by one movement. Her unconscious is impossible to label, her selves are connected and unconnected, a melodramatic devil, a doll and a hairless, suited gentleman are just a minute selection.. Cahun is a personification of Bellmer's quoation: ‘The body is like a sentence which invites dissection in order that its true meaning may be reconstituted in an endless series of anagrams’-Hans Bellmer (Chadwick 1998: 108). Cahun explores herself (selves) and breaks down constructs of gender, fuelled by literature and imagination, by exploring the multidimensionality that one can be, whilst still being woman. In addition to this, Cahun creates new pieces of fantasy that, when viewing with Barthes' Death of the Author (1967) in mind, may spark endless ideas in the viewer about magic, theatre and storytelling. Cahun's photography concurrently expresses the multiplicity of the self, but comments and challenges the boundaries set to women, sending a message on a wider scale about the stories women can write for themselves, rather than being restricted to the classical conventions of Western culture and canon that has written time after time the same female characters.Woodman's writerly essence is both echoed in her work and on her work. Figure 1 exemplifies her relationship with language. In various photographs, Woodman jots down personal messages or details of the photographs loosely across the print.
On a personal level, when seeing this image-text exhibited and tangible, there was an overriding sense of intrusion and sense of secrecy, as though someone had ripped away entries from a diary. This highly private, even introverted work displays a sense of exploration and visual tracking of the self. This may be due to the digital age we live in, it would be true to say that we are unaccustomed to reading the handwriting of a stranger. It may be that it becomes more uncomfortable against the visual portal into Woodman's emotions and narrative of the self. Despite aiming to analyse and consider her work without being the shadows of her short life, this discomfort may partially stem from Woodman's suicide at twenty two years of age,. Yet, in On Photography (1977) Sontag considers Diane Arbus and the notion of sincerity that comes with death and photography, Woodman may also be considered in the same way, she writes: ‘Diane Arbus' photographs were already famous to people who follow photography when she killed herself in 1971; but, as with Sylvia Plath, the attention of her work has attracted since her death is of another reader- a kind of apotheosis. The fact of her suicide seems to guarantee that her work is sincere, not voyeuristic, that it is compassionate, not cold. Her suicide also seems to make the photographs more devastating, as if it proved the photographs to have been dangerous to her’. (Sontag 2008:38). Woodman invests rawness and the importance of being in her photographs, a possible attempt to make sense of the contradictions in her life and mind. This is highlighted by the use of a naked body, little or no makeup and a black and white palette. These factors make Woodman's self portraits overtly honest, this is something that Barthes explores further in Camera Lucida (1980), when considering the significance of monochrome pictures. Barthes states: ‘I always feel [...] colour is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph. For me, colour is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses). What matters to me is not the photograph's life (a purely ideological notion) but the certainty that the photographed body touches me with its own rays and not with a superadded light.’ (Barthes 1981:34). Having photographed at a time when colour was readily available, it could be that Woodman chose to keep her photography monochrome for these reasons, nonetheless they retain this ideological notion of un-interfered light and truth.Tying with Barthes' allusion to photographic corpses, Woodman's prints connote a ghostly narrative which begs to be interpreted further than just a personal investigation or visual memoir of the self. Rugg notes: ‘this double consciousness’ and: ‘[an] awareness of the autobiographical self as decentred, multiple, fragmented, and divided against itself in the act of observing and being; and the simultaneous insistence on the presence of an integrated, authorial self, located in a body, a place and a time’. (Rugg 1997:2).
This awareness of being and observing is so pungent in Woodman's work but whilst she explores herself in an truthful manner, narrative remains. Indeed, it is widely noted that Woodman was heavily influenced by literature, in particular the Ovidian tale of Apollo and Daphne, on which Tutter believes: ‘forms an allegorical locus for the transitions and tensions of adolescence and young adulthood’ and that ‘Woodman's employment of this myth and related themes is also expressive of a preoccupying topos of regressive longings. Seamlessly extending Ovid's transformation of the metamorphic myths into poetic epic, her work [aims] to make sense of change, of loss and of life itself’. (Tutter 2011:1). Both Woodman and Cahun invest and revise Ovidian and traditional literature to narrate themselves. Another literary influence for Woodman stems from Victorian literature, a time where there was a surge in female writing and a direct rapport between female authorship and the Gothic.
On this subject Armstrong suggests Austen, the Bronte sisters, Joyce Carol Rice as influences to Woodman, she writes: their peculiar ghostly, time worn spatiality- their photographic spatialization of the literary topos of the "madwoman in the attic" [..] has led to one of the dominant understandings of this work, addressing the "nightmare of femininity" in which the female body is over and over again engulfed by space, devoured by the house, at once subjected and lost to the claustral confinement that was the feminine condition of our mothers and grandmothers, if it is no longer necessarily our own’ (Armstrong 2006:350). Figure 1 directly alludes to these notions, Woodman is engulfed by the wallpaper, her hands pressing on a cold bare wall. On first viewing, Woodman's images seemed to pair with the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper. This fin de siècle text follows the mental decline of a female narrator and questions the entrapment of a generation of Victorian women, the unstable voice gradually crawls, tears and becomes the wallpaper (domestic space) that has entranced her throughout her confinement, which was prescribed by her husband.
Figure 1: Francesca Woodman, Then at one point, I did not need to translate the notes; they went directly to my hands, Rhode Island, 1976.
Woodman's visual-textual work is in direct dialogue with such themes. As Armstrong states, these were the issues of grandmothers past, but Woodman renovates them to express ideas about herself and can be interpreted as reassessing the notion of feminine space. Although women may not have been as domestically confined in gothic spaces (such as attics) like before, there was, in the 1970s, and is still the constrictions of a patriarchal civilization that cripples women's mindsets. Women therefore are still physiologically trapped, in the attics and prisons of their minds, due to invisible restrictions placed on them daily. Furthermore, the softness of these images provoke ideas of ghosts and the past, but her youthful, nude brings the issue into a contemporary sphere. Secondly the lack of heads and facial distinction in her series, as exemplified by Figure One suggests ideas on mentality and psychology. Woodman may therefore be exploring her inner conflictions, psychological turmoil and claustrophobic headspace. At the same time, she is utilising her body that would have been going through a series of physical metamorphoses at such a young age. Ovidian ideas of transformation go hand in hand with Armstrong's description of an ‘echo of images and topics past concerning female madness and morbidity- it is here that a pre-Raphealite Ophelia comes to mind -and of the course, the suicide’. (Armstrong 2006: 365). Figure 2 in particular reverberates this Ophelia figure.
Woodman therefore explores her body and her mind in a Surrealistic fashion, and whilst the viewer cannot make sense of it, one is left to wonder whether Woodman herself could. Her photographs therefore do not provide answers but ask questions about herself, to herself. Her distortions and concepts are somewhat suffocating yet eerily, invasively beautiful all the same.
Figure 2: Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Boulder, Colorado 1976.
Cahun's use of space also ignites ideas on the self and duplicity. For, whilst Cahun has now gained scholarly attention, for the most part of a century her work was quite unknown. Cahun's and Moore's work therefore was something quite private, uninhibited and their spaces, whilst exploring ideas of the selves, also tell us something about their relationship. The theatrical cove of their home, their props and their camera lens allowed them to practise and record their unconventional love and unconventional ideology. With figure 3 in mind, Cole states: ‘the image can be read as a scene of domestic harmony that conveys a child like sense of security or comfort and references the nurturing environment she and Moore created for each other [...] freed (at least to a certain degree) from patriarchal expectations of wifely behaviour and motherhood- expectations that often inflected Surrealist scenes of domesticity with uncomfortable, even sinister, overtones- Cahun and Moore were more likely to have seen the home they shared as a haven form, rather than a prison of social demands of femininity’. (Cole 2005:348).
Figure 3: Claude Cahun, Self Portrait in a Cupboard, 1932.
Both Woodman and Cahun use interior and spaces to subvert the traditional place for the female. With Cahun however, it must be remembered that Moore was often an active part of the photographic process, including Cahun's self portraits. Thus, these photographs can be read as symbolic for their love and sexuality. The images could be an extended metaphor for their private dialogues, ideas and fantasies- sexual and non sexual. This unearths again the duplicity of closeness and openness. As whilst Cahun and Moore photographed these explorations and activities, it must be remembered that it was done in a sphere of seclusion and acceptance with one another- which once printed and displayed, becomes part of the public domain and consciousness. Sontag, in On Photography, records the quotation: ‘Photography is a tool for dealing with things everybody knows about but isn't attending to' by Emmet Gowin.’ (Sontag 2008:2000). Cahun and Moore can be accredited as using photography to deal with the taboos of their lesbianism, feminism, gender fluidity and political activism, significant when considering that these women were captured by the Nazis for their heretical behaviour. But, rather than deal, it may be agreed that they play with these issues of the self and the wider sphere, making them amusing, uncanny, striking, horrific; all of the multiples of the self and life, that sometimes people and do not attend to, but are aware of, even if subconsciously.
Cahun and Woodman also deal/ play with these issues by the technique of mimesis. Luce Irigaray states: ‘to play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It means to resubmit herself’. (Irigaray, 1985: 76) Again, there is a duplicity with the lens and the mirror, firstly, these women are regaining the masculine gaze by seizing control of the lens, as Chadwick records: ‘it is in the nature of the self-portrait to produce the subject as object, but, as Luce Irigaray has noted, the process of objectification that enables the woman to describe herself as if from outside the body’. (Chadwick 1998:8). Secondly, they directly discuss their related agenda including the mirror or a reflection in their works. Figures 3, 4, 5 are just a some of the images from Woodman and Cahun that display this.
Figure 4: Claude Cahun, Untitled, circa 1925.
Figure 5: Claude Cahun, Untitled Self Portrait, 1929.

One of Cahun's most striking tropes is her gaze. In almost all of her self portraits, she stares into the lens thus at herself and her lover- regaining her gaze and sharing it with Moore, and thirdly to an outer entity: us, the patriarchal society, used to gazing on the female form unrequited. Alternately, Woodman does not stare back, rather her use of the mirror is self investigatory and Lacanian, deemed by Armstrong as: ‘in a blank slate or in a regressive state, crawling on all fours like an infant or an animal, to investigate her "mirror stage"- like the ground of all identity and difference’ (Armstrong 2006:257). Yet, whilst Woodman tries to make sense of herself, she ricochets classical images of narcissistic and/or attractive women that the viewer may gaze upon, but with a black symbolism that draws on the phallic, sexuality, nature and death, comprehended in Figure 2.
Cahun and Woodman therefore share and conceal their identities, play with and struggle with the relationships they have with themselves and subvert and divert the viewer from usual cultural discourses. Narrative, space and reflection ooze within their works. Elkin writes on Cahun that: 'her evasion of literary genre is coextensive with her evasion of sexual genre' (Elkin 2008:1). This may be furthered to a psychological genre, in regards to Woodman. For both women present ambiguities in an attempt to make sense of, but not to give an answer to, issues that are too complex to label. Thus, a final duality is that whilst their photography is soft and shaded, like visual whispers, they simultaneously shout to viewer about issues still ignored today.

Team Credits

Robyn Sian Cusworth

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  • essay
  • woodman
  • photography
  • cahun
  • claude
  • francesca
  • feminism
  • writing
  • portraits
  • self
  • culture
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