Recovering a forgotten archive
Blog by Etain O’Carroll
Ania Ready interprets the work of feminist writer Sophie Gaudier-Brzeska in a new literary photobook and exhibition as part of Photo Oxford 2023
It was only by chance that Ania Ready came across the archive of Sophie Gaudier-Brzeska (1872-1925), a feminist writer lost in her partner’s shadow, plagued by the stigma of time spent in an asylum, and largely forgotten in the literary canon. The chance encounter led to a seven-year project which involved reading hundreds of manuscripts in English, French and Polish and travelling to rural Poland, Krakow, Lviv, Paris, New York, London, and Wotton-under-Edge to piece together her life.
Her research and visual interpretation of Gaudier-Brzeska’s archive resulted in beautifully crafted black-and-white imagery which has now been published with extracts of the manuscripts in a cleverly designed book. Here, Ready explains her motivations and the challenges she faced along the way.
Veiled from I Also Fight Windmills, available as a special edition print.
A literary discovery
Ready came to photography from a literary background and first came across Sophie’s work when she was contacted by a Polish film producer who had translated the only publication of Sophie’s work into Polish. “At the time I used to run literary events in Oxford,” Ready explains, “and this story of a migrant woman from Eastern Europe who travels to Paris, New York and London to find employment and fulfil her creative ambitions of becoming a writer intrigued me right away.”
As the partner of the French modernist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Sophie’s work was mainly read in order to extract details of his life, but once introduced to it, Ready saw something far more significant. “Many of the themes in Sophie’s work mirrored those in mine: a shared Polish heritage, experience of migration, belonging and alienation,” Ready continues. “She was known to so many artists and influential literary figures in London in the 1910s, but she was never recognised as a writer in her own right. She showed some work to Ezra Pound but nothing came of it. Later, when W.B. Yeats read extracts of her writing (after Sophie’s death), he thought that she had a talent and would have been a great novelist. However, that in itself didn’t lead to any further research into her literary texts for decades to come.”
Visually responding to a written archive
Ready began to explore the idea of a visual response to the archive, planning to bring Gaudier-Brzeska’s story, as well as her writings, the attention she believed it deserved. It soon became a passion project and a way to address the injustices of the past. “My ambition was to take Sophie out of her partner’s shadow and acknowledge her as a writer in her own right. I admire her work and believe she should be better known. But I had no idea what I was getting into at the time.
“Sophie's archive is trilingual, which is a wonderful linguistic and literary achievement, but at the same time poses a significant challenge for research. Sophie often wrote a draft of a text in one language and then rewrote it in another language. I speak Polish and English so I had to rely on help from friends, translators or previous researchers to access her work written in French. Sophie was a true European, and being able to handle a Slavic, a Romanesque and a Germanic language gave her access to different cultures and modes of expression.”
Double from I Also Fight Windmills
Bringing old work to light
With the publication of her literary photobook I Also Fight Windmills and an upcoming solo show of her images as part of Photo Oxford Festival, Ready brings Gaudier-Brzeska’s story of displacement, loneliness, exclusion, thwarted ambition and incarceration to a whole new audience. Figuring out how to unlock the brilliance of Gaudier-Brzeska’s archive for new audiences was a challenge however.
“I wanted to share Sophie's thoughts and preserve her work,” Ready explains, “Her archives are in three languages and four collections across the UK and France so accessing them is difficult and time consuming. I hope what I have achieved with this exhibition and book is a way to activate the archive by giving it a different, visual life.” Alongside the imagery, Ready includes audio recordings in English and French of Gaudier-Brzeska’s work in the exhibition, done by voice-over actor Verity Kirk, while her book includes more texts in their original languages.
Manuscript of Sophie Gaudier-Brzeska's work. Available as limited-edition print
Marrying photos and text
Ready collaborated with designer Victoria Forrest from Vika Books to bring her project to life. “I found marrying the text and the photographs really difficult. Putting excerpts from Sophie’s archive together with my images felt a bit flat. The photographs often became illustrations when set against her haunting diaries and sharp, autobiographical texts which was not what I wanted to achieve.” Forrest, however, came up with the idea of a book within a book with imagery printed on thick, white paper, and the text on smaller, yellow pages that mirrored the original writings.
Longing for Home from I Also Fight Windmills
“I was amazed how well Victoria addressed the problem. She made sense of all these layers of the project and gave it an original shape. Fonts echo Sophie’s neurotic handwriting and erratic typewritten texts, some are upside down or falling off a page to stress the point Sophie was making. It was really fascinating to see how Victoria gave them a new life.”
On the Way from I Also Fight Windmills
Many of the themes touched on in the exhibition and book mirror those experienced by migrants today and despite the difference in time Ready sees multiple parallels. “I’m hoping that a whole new audience will discover Sophie’s work for themselves - through her own words and through my photographic take on her and her literary alter egos’ lives. It was really fascinating to recreate and enact heroines from over a hundred years ago, despite the passage of time, they still feel very contemporary, they are very direct and honest about their mental struggles, social injustice and gender-related disadvantages.”.”
Images from I Also Fight Windmills will be on display at the ronapainting gallery in Oxford as part of the Photo Oxford Festival from April 13th-29th.
Exhibition opening: 13 April, 2023, 18:00 - 20:00
Artist talk: 15 April, 10:00
Meet the Artist in the gallery: Tuesday 18 April afternoon; Thursday 20 April morning, Wednesday 26 April lunchtime, Saturday 29 April
Ania Ready (born 1979) is a Polish-British photographic artist based in Oxfordshire, UK. She has an MA in Literature and Linguistics from the University of Gdańsk, Poland. Her work centres around notions of belonging and alienation, memory and amnesia. She has a special interest in the topic of femininity and madness. Her main focus is photography, but she also engages with other art forms like collage and alternative, cameraless photographic processes. Ania has exhibited her work internationally in group and solo shows at Modern Art Oxford, Pitt Rivers Museum, Irving Contemporary Gallery, Auckland Photo Festival in New Zealand, Riga Photomonth in Latvia, INTERPHOTO Photo Festival in Poland and many other places. This year she’s published her first book ‘I Also Fight Windmills’ (VIKA Books, 2023).
Etain O'Carroll is an Oxford-based writer and photographer with an interest in arts, culture and travel.