Portraits to dream Retrospective – an intriguing double act

<span>‘Almost postmodern’: Francesca Woodman’s self-portrait on 13, 1972.</span><span>Photo: Courtesy Woodman Family Foundation/DACS</span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/jEZWdX9C8Q3yup0FiFbG8g–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTk3Mw–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/e5c3d3d0d49964edc3e 5bc3f4b78e296″ data-src= “https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/jEZWdX9C8Q3yup0FiFbG8g–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTk3Mw–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/e5c3d3d0d49964edc3e5bc3f 4b78e296″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=‘Almost postmodern’: Francesca Woodman’s self-portrait at the age of 13, 1972.Photo: Courtesy of Woodman Family Foundation/DACS

Just over 100 years separate the creative lives of Julia Margaret Cameron and Francesca Woodman, one a Victorian pioneer of imaginative photographic portraiture, the other a 20th-century American artist who created performative and mysteriously elusive self-portraits. Although neither of them received the recognition they deserved during their lifetimes, at first glance they seem to be defined more by their differences than their similarities. But now an ambitious exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery brings together the work that both photographers have created in their short but incredibly productive working lives.

Cameron (1815-79), who came from a privileged colonial background, came to the medium late, having been given a camera in 1863 at the age of 48. A self-taught photographer in an emerging male-dominated medium, she created her body from her work in the last fifteen years of her life. Woodman (1958-81) was educated at the art academy and came from an artistic family: her father was a painter and photographer, her mother a ceramicist. As a precocious teenager, she became fascinated with photography at a private boarding school. In 1972, at the age of 13, she printed her first completed self-portrait by hand. Her intensely productive creative journey lasted just nine years and ended shockingly when she took her own life at the age of 22. .

Cameron and Woodman’s respective methods were to some extent determined by the technology available to them. Cameron used a bulky box camera on a tripod and painstakingly made prints from glass plate negatives. Woodman typically used relatively lightweight medium format cameras and pressed her small silver gelatin prints by hand in a darkroom. And yet, as this expertly curated show illustrates, the two shared certain defining preoccupations – not least their embrace of post-production processes as a conduit for their restless imaginations. As curator Magdalene Keaney puts it in her illuminating catalog essay: “Neither was concerned with producing technically perfect prints, and darkroom manipulation was shared as an integral aspect of creative image making.”

Cameron’s angelic creatures are rooted in Christian iconography and classical mythology. Woodman’s angelic self-projections are altogether more earthly

The subtitle of this exhibition, Portraits to Dream In, refers to their shared interest in portrait art as a means of imaginative experimentation and transformation. Often seen as a genre defined by its limitations, Keaney notes that in their work it is instead a vehicle to explore “a wide range of ideas related to photographic making, appearance, identity, self-representation, the muse, gender, archetypes.” and storytelling”. We tend to think of these creative pursuits as essentially modern – certainly more Woodman than Cameron – but they are present, albeit in a less mischievous and provocative way, in the latter’s often idealized allegorical portraits, drawing on literature, myth and religious iconography .

The show begins with a combination of the first portraits that each of the artists was satisfied with. Cameron’s is a close-up of a young girl in half-profile, taken in 1864 and titled with obvious satisfaction: Annie, my first success. Interestingly, the tone differs from Cameron’s numerous portraits of angelic young women, with the girl’s sideways glance and calm expression lending an unadorned naturalness. In addition, Woodman’s 13-year-old self-portrait seems almost postmodern, an indistinct study in gray in which her face is hidden by a mop of hair and her process is literally and figuratively foregrounded by the release cable that extends from her hand to the foreground at the bottom right of the frame in an ever-growing haze. As the first statements of intent go, they couldn’t be more different, even though they all announce upcoming trips.

Keaney has structured the show around loose thematic titles, some of which are self-explanatory – Picture Making, Nature and Femininity, Models and Muses – and others more indicative of the unlikely pair’s shared interest in ethereal subjects: The Dream Space, Doubling, Angels and other alien beings. The creative dialogue that follows, across eras, styles, subjects and approaches, is always fascinating, if sometimes a little weak, highlighting both the differences between the artists and their creative connections.

The section that discusses their shared fascination with the angel archetype is a good example of this. Cameron’s angelic creatures are rooted in Christian iconography and classical mythology, whether it is an elaborately dressed and beautiful-looking angel mourning at Christ’s tomb or an almost pre-Raphaelite Venus removing the wings of the boy Cupid. Woodman’s angelic self-projections are earthier and more untamed, while her wildly animated body is in constant motion. In one image, she floats with outstretched arms under makeshift wings as bleached sunlight streams from a large window into her spartan studio.

In one deliberately overexposed print, titled About being an angelWoodman frames her curved body from above, her mouth open and her naked torso bathed in white light. The sense of carnal ecstasy is somewhat undermined by the ordinariness of the setting: the camera equipment on the bare floorboards in the background and the dark silhouette of an umbrella leaning against a bare wall. As with all her most haunting images, there is a hint of the surreal here; the feeling that although she is powerfully present as a guiding spirit, as a subject she is elusive: a shadowy figure, made unclear and unknowable by her continued use of the self-portrait as a form of self-concealment.

Portraits to Dream In is characterized by surprises: the always surprising portrait of Cameron Iago (Study of an Italian) dramatically disrupts the plethora of images of idealized femininity and childhood innocence with its somber intensity. One room contains a triptych of large-scale diazotype color prints that Woodman made toward the end of her life, in which she takes the form of a caryatid: a draped female statue that the ancient Greeks placed in their temples. They float above space like the ghosts of an unrealized future, emphasizing the momentum of Woodman’s creativity and its sudden, terrible end.

There’s a lot to take in here in one viewing, but the intriguing pairing of two disparate female pioneers is a quietly subversive way to re-explore their work, from a perspective that elevates and contrasts their imaginative strategies rather than their respective life stories. While Julia Margaret Cameron’s guiding presence is palpable in all her portraits – their compositional skill, elaborate scenes and allegorical resonance – Francesca Woodman is a more complex and shape-shifting author of her own mystery. She once said, “You can’t see me from where I look at myself.” As this creative pairing makes clear, it will remain that way.

• Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron: Portraits to Dream In is at the National Portrait Gallery, London until June 16

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