Surrealist Isolation

Gertrude Abercrombie, Francesca Woodman, and 'solitary Surrealism'

First, I wish to apologise for my recent silence. My beloved little black cat recently passed away after a sudden, month-long illness and decline, so I went from caring for her to grief. If you sent a kind message, thank you. I am fortunate that my other darling cats have done everything possible to make me laugh and comfort me daily. Given everything, I let this newsletter slide, but after slowly catching up, I have a new instalment for you this week.

March marked a year of staying home, an entire year of being indoors aside from walks and provisions, or only heading to work if required by your employment place. Despite not going out, so much has changed in and around all of our lives.

During those first lockdown days and weeks, I began sharing daily posts of women artists whose work explored themes of isolation, confinement, 'social distancing', and the body-as-interior — one of the first images I shared was Louise Bourgeois' The Femme Maison (1946–47). As well as Bourgeois, I posted work by Leonor Fini, Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, and images from the photographer Francesca Woodman's 1976 Providence, Rhode Island series. 

In this collection, Woodman startlingly and explicitly becomes one with her surroundings. The photographer blends her body with that of the interior, so she conceals herself under wallpaper or emerges from walls, portraying the female body as otherworldly and toying with conventions of domesticity. She inverts the expectations and stigmas of being a ‘woman in the home’. Woodman produced these photographs in a small size, heightening the claustrophobic sensation one may experience when isolated in a small environment all day, every day. As the National Galleries Scotland website states:

Woodman uses a prolonged exposure to create an ethereal, transcendental quality in the tradition of Surrealism. The photograph is not a self-portrait in the conventional sense, as it explores the possibilities of representation instead of revealing the artist's identity.

One of my favourite works by Woodman includes those taken in her New York apartment in 1979. In these rare photos, where powder blue and pink dominate, Woodman contorts her body in a series of poses reminiscent of classic sculpture. She had just returned from Rome, where she had spent time studying the Florentine masters and honing her composition skills (her work became noticeably more precise following this stay). Woodman did not see Italy's influence on her art while living there and would only realise its potent effect on her return. In 1980, she wrote a letter from New York to her Rome-based friend, the painter and critic Edith Schloss,

“It's funny how while I was living in Italy the culture there didn't affect me that much and now I have all this fascination with the architecture, etc."

Aside from Woodman, there was one particular artist I found myself returning to time and again when considering themes of isolation and social distancing: Gertrude Abercrombie.

While I've seen numerous articles about how Edward Hopper's painting captured the mood, isolation and loneliness of the past year, nobody has come closer, personally speaking, than Abercrombie. Abercrombie's images are otherworldly yet felt so deeply real, so profoundly familiar. There is a dreamy sense of Surrealism with a touch of hallucination, exactly how I've been feeling. Abercrombie's world consists of women, cats, owls, moonlight, and night walking. Owls hold women's gowns as they away, or the dresses cling to trees. Women wear crowns. Rooms house empty chairs, tables, and chaise lounges — a sense of domesticity not so much disrupted but achingly quiet and still. Abercrombie once said, "I am not interested in complicated things nor in the commonplace, I like to paint simple things that are a little strange." I have seen her work, numerous times, described, aptly, as 'solitary Surrealism'.

Abercrombie was born in Austin, Texas, in 1917. Her parents worked for an opera company, and the family travelled extensively around America and Europe while she was a child. When World War I broke, the family left Berlin and moved back to the United States, eventually settling in Chicago. As a young woman, Abercrombie studied Art Institute of Chicago, undertook a year-long commercial art course at the city's American Academy of Art, and worked an in-house arts job at Sears department store. She made art her full-time vocation in 1932 when she was 22 years old.

Abercrombie's life was rich and busy. A regular on the Chicago Jazz Scene, befriending musicians Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughn, and Sonny Rollins. Her first solo exhibition in New York bewitched attendees, but she returned to her beloved Chicago. She was soon referred to as "the queen of the bohemian artists" and the "Queen of Chicago" after staging a show at the Art Institute's Chicago Room. 

Still life paintings, landscapes, houses, animals — especially cats — are Abercrombie’s frequent motifs. She paints women alone in rooms, communing with cats, or walking alone at night, the full moon as her source of light. In both instances, an animal companion will be by her side. To continue the above quote, she once said, "my work comes directly from my inner consciousness, and it must come easily." Her paintings are not so much automatic creations in typical Surrealists fashion, and neither are they overtly methodical. They are gracefully uncluttered yet richly detailed, quietly calming with an almost soothing presence.

One of Abercrombie’s most potent paintings in the current climate is 1949's Woman in a crumbling cell, a work that has tapped into what so many of us have been thinking and feeling. In the picture, a woman stands with her back to our gaze in a three-walled room. The room is outside, and if she turns around, she can leave, pick up the pink flower on her way if she desires. But instead, she remains looking out and clinging to the bars of her cell/room. 

Over the next couple of months, lockdown measures are due to ease, more people will receive their vaccination, and the world will continue its attempts to recover from the past twelve months. Collectively, after a year of not going out, we will be making our ways into the world again. Self-isolation art may wane in circulation, replaced with paintings and photographs depicting scenes of merriment, gatherings, and collective joy; an influx of posts of friends and family finally reunited after an entire year apart year. But this doesn't mean Abercrombie's work will be any less relevant or any diminish in potency.

I will leave you with this lovely, most perfect example, titled Interior with balloon and black cat from 1951. A female figure, maybe Abercrombie herself, sits in quiet contemplation, holding a green balloon. Nobody is in the room with her apart from her tiny black cat on her lap, her hand gentling resting on her lovely little feline as she sits on her stool. I ponder if she is having a quiet solo celebration for herself and her animals or if the balloon is a clue she has returned home after celebrating with friends. It feels so especially significant as we transition back to 'normal' or ‘regular’ life. While appearances differ (go with me on this), it could be a depiction of me silently cheering the end of a genuinely heinous time of life and quietly welcoming the next chapter.   

Love Letters During A Nightmare is a series of newsletters by me, Sabina Stent, about things I adore. It’s free for now, but from next month you’ll have the option to choose and select the paid subscription (if so desired), which will grant you access to additional posts and contribute towards my research fund. The main essay will remain free of charge. In the meantime, if you enjoyed reading and would care to buy me a coffee, you can do so via my Ko-Fi Page. If not, please subscribe via the button below. Thank you for reading.