Surrealism is a male domain, or so men say, and the outright misogyny of many of its well known images obscures the surrealist woman. Hidden in plain sight, with a nod to the rapidly unfolding science of the mind. Even so, one image and one name keeps popping up: catwoman, a/ak/a Wanda Wulz. This is the tale of my search for the woman behind Cat Woman
and where it has taken me.
For more than a century the Wulz family ran the preeminent photography studio in Trieste. Founded in 1860 by Giuseppe Wulz who specialized in documentary images, Fotografia Wulz became known for its portraiture under his son Carlo (1874-1928). Carlo had two daughters, Marion and Wanda (1903-1984), both free spirits with cameras.
If strange convergences and unbidden messages from the subconscious are elements of surrealism then the Wulz family, Wanda particularly, were early and exuberant practitioners. Even their father must have found some playful sense lacking in his portraits of the bourgeoisie. Just look at the infant Wanda in a green-grocer's basket.
Close in age, Marion and Wanda remained close into adulthood, part of the family business that supported their creative autonomy. They would have been hard pressed to find another setting so congenial. Although individuals took these pictures it must surely be more accurate to call them collaborations. From Marion we have images of Wanda as an aviator and as a one-woman jazz band.
The Wulz studio became a meeting place for artists and writers of Trieste in the 1920s, drawn no doubt by the two fiercely talented and attractive Wulz sisters. The writer Italo Svevo was one, along with young painters including Giuseppe Garzolini, Alfredo Tominz, Umberto Verduta, and their wealthy neighbor Piero Fragiacomo.
There was another member of the Wulz family - Pippo-the-cat. Often Marion's subject, he was Wanda's cat. Looking at Wanda's self-portrait and The Cat Without Me and then at Cat-woman we find no sentimental mimicking of personalities between pet and person, but a simpatico of claws.
"The last breath of civilization expires on this coast where barbarism starts," wrote the French diplomat Chateaubriand, not very diplomatically, in 1806. Posted to Trieste, the great diplomat was not pleased to be so far from Paris.
Exactly one hundred years later when the Irish writer James Joyce came to teach at the Berlitz School of Languages, he eked out time to write A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Nevertheless, Joyce considered his fourteen years in Trieste a time of misery, averring that its isolation ate his liver. While there he also tutored a talented local writer, Italo Svevo. There are those who believe this was the best thing Joyce ever did for literature.
But there were others who came to stay. Dante wrote parts of The Divine Comedy there and six centuries later the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke composed his Duino Elegies (1922) during visits to Castle Duino. Originally a Roman watchtower, then expanded in medieval times, the castle belonged to Rilke’s friend Princess Marie von Thurm-und-Taxis Hohenlohe. Local lore claims that Rilke was inspired by disembodied voices he heard calling to him as he walked the windy cliffs overlooking the city. And no less tortured a soul than the painter Egon Schiele made frequent stays in Trieste to escape the claustrophobia he felt in Vienna..
Trieste first appears in the pages when of history when the Romans annexed it. During the heyday of their empire, the nearby Venetians raided Trieste regularly, too, causing the beleaguered city to seek protection from the Hapsburgs. Yet when Garibaldi's newly united Italy stopped a few miles short of the city, its citizens were seized with a melancholy strain of nationalism, known as irredentism. United by a secret deal among the Allies following World War I, the people of Trieste provided a safe haven to Jewish refugees from throughout Europe during the 1930s. Trieste has long been a favorite place of exile for deposed royalty.
Connected to the rest of Italy by a narrow strip land along the Adriatic coast, Trieste is closer in spirit to its Balkan neighbors than to the Mediterranean world. Further isolated by the Alps hemming it in on the north and subjected to dry winds sweeping down off the escarpment, Trieste is often covered with a layer of dust, like furniture left in an untended room. With its mixture of Italian, Slavic, and Germanic influences, Trieste could be both cosmopolitan and backward.
Multiple personalities are grist for psychiatry and Trieste adopted psychoanalysis with the zeal of a convert, notwithstanding Sigmund Freud's professional failure there as a young man. In Silvia Bonucci's novel A Voice In Time (2005) the emotional claustrophobia of the period 1900-1940 is dramatized through the decline of the Levi family. Closer in spirit and in time to Fotografia Wulz is Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno (1923), the diary of the repetitive compulsions of an old man, written down at the urging of his psychiatrist. Like Zeno Cosini, with his mistresses and his inability to quit smoking, Trieste may appear outwardly unappealing but is also lovable.
For further reading: La Trieste dei Wulz: 1860-1980 by P. Costantini, et al, Fratelli Alinari, Firenze.
Images: unless otherwise noted, all images are from the collection of the Alinari Archives, Museum of Photography, Florence.
1. Wanda Wulz - Cat Woman, 1932.
2. Wanda Wulz - Self-Portrait, c.1932.
3. Wanda Wulz - The Cat Without Me, 1932.
4. Carlo Wulz - title attributed: Baby Wanda In A Basket, c. 1904.
5. Marion Wulz - Jass-band, 1920.
6. Carlo Wulz - Portrait of Marion, 1927.
7. Daniel Boudinet - Villa Fragiacomo In Trieste, Mediatehque, Paris.
8. Piero Fragiacomo - Marina con barcho, Galleria Tommaso Marcato, Milan.
9. Egon Schiele - The Harbor at Trieste, 1907, Neue Galerie Am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz.
10. Ugi Fiumani - The Golden Hour, c. 1900-1930, Museo Revoltella, Trieste.
11.. Wanda Wulz - Three Hats, 1935.