Ukrainian-American avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren died 50 years ago today. This seems a good opportunity to examine what to my mind is a bafflingly unexplored moment in her early career, one which unites Deren – a hugely influential film poet – with the most revolutionary artist of the 20th century as well as its most important patron.
The common thread is Witch’s Cradle, a silent, unfinished film of around 12 minutes’ duration dating from 1943, co-directed by Deren. When exactly in 1943 it was made is uncertain, but it would appear that it pre-dates even Meshes of the Afternoon, the film she made with Alexander Hammid in the same year which established Deren, previously known only as a dancer, as a vital force of non-linear filmmaking. That alone would prevent the footage from being a mere cutting-room curio, but it is her collaborator who also ensures this fragment’s status as an important document of filmic Modernism.
French artist Marcel Duchamp’s long association with America began in 1913 when he exhibited his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 in the Armory Show in New York. After living in the city during World War I, he returned for its sequel and remained there for much of the rest of his life. How exactly he came into contact with Deren is unclear, but they both moved in a circle of war-time émigrés which also included André Breton and Anaïs Nin.
Of course their collaboration was not Duchamp’s first encounter with film. He appeared, playing chess, in René Clair’s 1924 Surrealist film Entr’acte, and two years later produced the hypnotic, swirling patterns of Anemic Cinema with Man Ray. What survives of his work with Maya Deren is little more than an extended screen test – experiments with lighting effects and rudimentary illusions, such as that of a white string moving of its own volition. The wobbles, scratches and jumps of the unedited footage have a compelling period allure.
The location for most of the film’s scenes is pivotal, and here we come to the third in our troika. In 1942, Peggy Guggenheim opened her gallery Art of This Century in New York in what was once a tailor’s workshop (and which has since returned to its fashion roots as this fascinating radio piece explains). She proposed not only to exhibit the most forward-thinking artists of her time, many of them represented in her own unparalleled collection, but also determined that the interior would be just as cutting-edge. To this end she engaged designer and architect Frederick Kiesler, who installed curving walls, extended arms to hold canvases and, in one space, white ropes suspended from floor to ceiling.
The importance of Art of This Century as a catalyst for Modernism in the US cannot be overestimated, particularly its role in popularising Surrealism and in launching the careers of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and other Abstract Expressionists. In early 1943, Guggenheim presented an exhibition of 31 women, the first show devoted exclusively to female Modernist artists, including Frida Kahlo, Hedda Sterne and – of all people – stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, who herself had an important collection of contemporary art. It also featured Dorothea Tanning (amazingly, still with us at 101), which caused Guggenheim to ruefully reflect that she “should have had only 30 women in the show” after her husband Max Ernst left her for the younger artist.
At the end of that same year came the first Jackson Pollock show and between those events, presumably, came Deren and Duchamp’s shoot. Witch’s Cradle shows Kiesler’s innovative rope hanging system extended ad absurdum to become an impenetrable web. It echoes a Duchamp installation of the previous year shown at First Papers of Surrealism, the first major Surrealist exhibition of in the US, entitled Sixteen Miles of String featuring the eponymous length of twine (or did it? The knot of contradictory reports inspired New York art writer Andrew Russeth’s project 16 Miles of String, which seeks to document exhibitions, performances and other ephemeral artistic activity in the city.)
Duchamp himself is seen briefly in Witch’s Cradle; Deren doesn’t appear in front of the camera (as she would in almost all of her later films). The female presence is Pajorita Matta, seen in some shots with a pentagram on her forehead, ringed with the words “the end is the beginning is the …” and so on (depending where you start and how many times you rotate), in mirror-writing. In his book Alchemist of the Avant-Garde, John F. Moffitt maintains that the occult heavily influenced Duchamp’s work; Witch’s Cradle would appear to be an important manifestation of that influence. Deren’s own interest in ritual and altered states of consciousness would later lead her to become an initiate of Haitian voodoo.
Here, then, is the intriguing artifact of mid-century film art, Witch’s Cradle: