Inessential views of art and photography.
So Patri and I decided to each choose a photographer that we love and write separate-but-connected entries here. That she chose Ana Mendieta and I chose Francesca Woodman, without any discussion with one another beforehand, explains a lot about our mutual connection to each other through photography, and to photography through each other. The parallels between Mendieta and Woodman mirror the parallels in our own creative interests: a fascination with the Surrealists; a visual sense of the macabre; a playfulness in image making; strong links to feminism (deliberately in Mendieta’s case, by later appropriation in Woodman’s); a degree narcissism; the (nude) body as a subject matter; and finally, the exploration of self-identity. What is your take on Woodman’s and Mendieta’s work? Tell us in a comment below!
Bodies became for female artists in the 70’s a popular tool and subject matter of their work. They all were drawing our attention to the body, not as a place of sensuosness and eroticism, but as a site of contestation. Female bodies were de-eroticize. Female bodies weren’t female anymore: they were foremost human and they acted as political weapons.
Anyone familiar with feminist body politics in art should recognize both Mendieta and Woodman’s names and work as they have become icons of the feminist revival of the art photography canon. This goes as far back as Claude Cahun’s contributions to the Surrealist Movement in Paris in the 1920s. More recently, both are tied-in critically to many other female photographic artists of the Second Wave that blossomed in the late-70s and early-80s, including Jo Spence, Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman. Despite this, a much more common – albeit critically limiting – connection is also made between Mendieta and Woodman – that they both died suddenly and early in their lives. Woodman died in 1981 from a suicidal fall from her apartment window and Mendieta in 1985, also from a possible suicidal fall from her apartment (although her partner at the time was tried for and acquitted of her murder.) It is my opinion, however, that far too much critical emphasis is placed on these facts, which threatens to limit to a large degree the scope for understanding their work.
It was a hot summer day in 2010 when I first encountered Ana Mendieta’s work. “Untitled Rape Scene” (1973) was part of the collective exhibition “Modelos para amar” hosted by MUSAC. I can still recall the powerful feeling that went through my whole body when I saw Mendieta’s photographs. They were bare, explicit, difficult to digest representations of rape and sadly they have not lost any relevance.
For me, viewing Woodman’s art, I see far more signs of youthfulness, vitality and life than those of death, despite her use of a darkened and twisting aesthetic, and I felt this way when I first viewed her images while a student and without the knowledge of her death being a suicide. Where this comes through best is within her series of images photographed while studying in Rome in the summer of 1977. During this time she had connected with a small and intimate group of artists and bohemian counterparts in Rome, where they had occupied an old pasta factory and used it collectively. Most of Woodman’s photographs from this time were taken in this place and in this context, yet she is singularly alone in almost all of them, playfully exploring identities of herself in ways that are shockingly beautiful and strangely esoteric. Her education in classical art is clear here and it appears, to me anyway, that she deliberately attempted to tie classical Roman influences to her non-classical Roman setting. The images are most often with her youthful face and/or body masked, hidden or blurred, interacting playfully and sometimes vulnerably with her surroundings. All of them appear to collapse and blossom at the same time, in the manner of the old Surrealists, and I believe this, more than anything, is what establishes Woodman’s power as an artist at even such a young age. There is a duality to them, a naivety mixed with loss. A youthfulness contained and turned in on itself, convulsively.
The feminine, being a woman, belonging to a certain cultural and national order, living in-between and dying are the themes that prevail in Ana Mendieta’s work. Apart from my visceral attraction to feminist, radical, political artwork, her work still haunts me because of its experimental and playful charachter. Ana Mendieta was a prolific and multi-faceted artist. Her video-art work and her photographs go beyond the known comfortable boundaries of both media and explore new venues. Her self-portraits with a sheet of glass are an example of this, as it is her video-art piece “Body, I am”. Also, I am drawn to her use of blood, dead animals and earth in her work. To me, this ensemble of materials highlights not only the deep connection we have (and are continuously loosing) to our surroundings, but it is a manifesto of our existence: we are cruel omnivorous mammals and we all carry the death within us since the moment we are born.
When I see Woodman’s images I am transported to this beautifully convulsive place, which I know I cannot have or exist within. I know this place didn’t exist for her in reality but through her lens it came to life. And like her, I long for it, in my own life. It’s a longing for the absolute certainties that Modernism offered, of artistic expression taking us to utopian places. Her work erupts with a searching desire, so youthful, for something to believe wholly in, despite knowing the failings of all of the Modernist movements in the end, of all of the ‘isms’. I feel this connection to her, as like her, I am naïve and a dreamer. But unlike her (although maybe it comes through in her images) I know the emptiness of these desires and that trying, truly believing, will only drive me mad. Yet I am still left empty and wanting, and maybe she was too. Her images haunt me with a past and future she could not, and I cannot, have, yet continue to want. That space in the Mediterranean sun, that elusive Temple of Apollo… I think she got as close as any artist ever could through her work that summer in 1977, and this is why I will always love her and her photographs. Why are you interested in her work? Tell us in a comment below!