The brief for this exercise is to look at works by Francesca Woodman, Elina Brotherus and Gillian Wearing and answer the following questions…
How do these images make you feel?
Do you think there’s an element of narcissism or self-indulgence in focusing on your own identity in this way?
What’s the significance of Brotherus’s nakedness?
Do you think any of these artists are also addressing wider issues beyond the purely personal?
I think Woodman’s images are complex and compelling. It feels wrong to classify them as somehow reflecting her ‘troubled state of mind’ as Bright intimated; just because many of the images are in a surrealist style and hide her face, or use movement and slow shutter speeds to render the figures making them appear like spirits or ghosts, I would suggest its almost lazy to make a reactive, knee-jerk correlation between her untimely death by suicide and some underlying dark menacing problem that pervaded all of her days when she was alive. She was undoubtedly immensely talented and she clearly not only composed images, but intricately and intelligently planned the build of them with layers and textures and movement. I don’t think an incessantly troubled mind could have the mental ‘space’ or capacity to engage in that amount of almost obsessive effort. Her parents equally don’t see her art as a reflection of a depressive state of mind. In an interview described by the Guardian, her mother Betty says:-
“Her life wasn’t a series of miseries. She was fun to be with. It’s a basic fallacy that her death is what she was all about, and people read that into the photographs. They psychoanalyse them. Young people in particular think she’s talking about them, somehow. They see the photographs as very personal. They’re often funny.”
I’ve looked through a number of Woodman’s images online and three of her images stand out for me:-
The image above left reminds me of the Dutch Vermeer/Hooch paintings because of the patterned floor and the subject sat inside what could be a drawing room with the light coming in from the window. The addition of the swinging female nude is obviously where the similarities stop. I like the photograph top right as it appears that the house is enveloping or almost devouring the body, and the image below it is just quirky because of the placement of the angles of the leg, arm and mirror. So very clever!
Her photographs make me feel totally unimaginative and obvious in my photography efforts by comparison so I shall make a mental note from now on to avoid planting myself next to photographic icons! I liked her blunt and practical response to a question posed to her on her frequent use of herself as a model. She said “It’s a matter of convenience – I’m always available”.
Brotherus’ images in her series ‘Annunciation’ are difficult to look at. They are desolate photographs of what the artist calls her ‘involuntary childlessness’ as she travels the painful path of repeatedly unsuccessful fertility treatments. Her nakedness accentuates the rawness and difficult exhibiting of Brotherus’ emotions. She is clearly willing her body to change with a successful conception and yet with every image, it appears more withered and broken. I think the hardest images to look at however are the 3 images of her sitting at a family dining table. It appears to be the place she returns to after each iteration of failure. It is symbolic – a single person sat at a family dining table and returning to it perpetually. The room is also immaculate and starched, underlining the childlessness, the lack of family chaos she so obviously craves. The archway I think is also symbolic of the religious overtones in the series.
I can’t relate specifically to Brotherus’ pain of childlessness, although I have not had children myself, and I’ve witnessed successful attempts at IVF for friends therefore I find the images difficult to connect with. There’s is clearly an anger bubbling within the photographs and in the commentary she has written to support the series she explains:-
“The clinics don’t necessarily rectify an unfounded optimism but rather let you understand that most of the people walk out with a baby when they continue the treatments long enough. After all, they are salesmen of hope”.
To me this does extend the scope of her intention of her images wider than the pain she feels herself, to one of publicising the mental health issues surrounding failure connected to IVF. The ‘salesmen of hope’ implies peddling false promises, a less than realistic sales pitch. She clearly wants other women to understand what life is like when the process does fail.
In a later series ‘Carpe F*cking Diem’, Brotherus also explains more about why she uses self-portraiture so much in her work:-
“Using myself as a model , with various degrees of autobiography, is something I have done for so long that my own figure has become my tool. It’s like a word in my vocabulary. Now I use it to have a failure to have a family with kids….. I don’t have children so I don’t need to adopt any preconceived role of an adult. I can give normality the finger..”.
I cannot help but be drawn to her abrasive, political character and the name of this image ‘My dog is cuter than your ugly baby’ continues to bubble with her anger and pain but at the same time marks a sense of her leaving it behind her and moving on. Brotherus’ images are stark, with strong messages, and they unnerve you with the sheer weight of their honesty and sometimes brutality. They are difficult to digest and maybe that is exactly the way she wants it to be.
All I can really do is admire Wearing’s tenacity and stamina. The silicone masks she used in the images depicting different members of her family, took a team of people, including a sculptor, painter and wig-maker, 4 months to create. The masks were then glued to her face leaving it red raw when it was removed. In her own self-portrait aged 17, she managed to source an authentic passport photo booth curtain and was told that it was the last one the company had. Aside from the created images, the scientific endeavour to create this images was a feat in itself and her level of perfectionism is something I think that many of us could only dream about achieving. The images show her wearing masks of her mother, father, sister, grandmother and then made self-portraits whilst wearing them. She deliberately left a bit of space around the eyes in each mask so that the viewer could ‘see the tell-tale signs‘. She believed ‘.. it holds a sense of the uncanny that makes you think there’s something more going on‘.
I understand that Wearing wanted to explore the role her family played in who she has become, but I don’t get a sense of who that person is in the self-portraits or the link she has with those family members. To me these images have the intention to shock (and they are frequently charged as being ‘sinister’) and are seeking to stand out for that reason. I find the images technically incredible and I applaud Wearing’s sheer British barminess, but for me the photographs focus on the science that generated them, rather than giving any specific messages about the subjects in them or their impact on her life. There seems to be little ‘story’ or conclusion to what the result was after this exploration of self, although this probably sounds overly critical.
By way of a summary I don’t find any photographs in the series narcissistic, no images are presented to beautify the subject as a self-portrait. Each seems to have a separate theme which is not actually the subject of the self-portraits (surrealism, IVF failure and family history respectively), and therefore this criticism could not be levelled at any of the artists.