Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, Vol 2, No 2 (2008)

A Swimmer Between Two Worlds: Francesca Woodman’s Maps of Interior Space

Katharine Conley


Francesca Woodman's emphasis on practice and the narrative quality of her photographic series links her to surrealism. With the caption to one of her Providence photographs she visually explores André Breton's definition of automatic writing by reformulating it as a kind of play, at once musical, textual, and visual: "Then at one point I did not need to translate the notes; they went directly to my hands." Michel Foucault's reformulation of Bretonian automatism as a kind of writing concentrated on experience helps to situate Woodman clearly in the surrealist tradition. She takes a turn reformulating surrealist activity herself in the manner of other surrealists like Robert Desnos who contributed to the "surrealist conversation" by providing his own definitions of terms. Like Breton, whom Foucault dubbed a "swimmer between two words," Woodman's photographic series function like visual narratives, making of her a swimmer between two worlds where the concentrated energy lies in the in-between spaces.

Woodman's experiments with space and time in her Space2 and On Being an Angel series further invoke surrealism's exploration of the liminal spaces between waking and dreaming that has led to its characterization as anamorphic. Like women surrealists before her, she concentrates on the body as the locus of automatic experience; like Desnos, she at times conceives of that body as transparent, as functioning like a "nocturnal bottle." She thus links the physical body with its psychic interior allowing her images to be read as maps to inner space.

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