Imaginary Goddesses

By Brendan Seibel

She hears them whispering in Parisian flea markets and Cracovian antique shops. Artist Annette Fournet finds women trapped in ambrotypes and daguerreotypes, senses their latent magic, and frees them from glass plates and metal frames. They are goddesses.

The origins of Fournet's The Goddess Series stretch back as far as some of those antiquated photos, to the 19th century's Symbolist art movement. Fournet’s dreamy, photography was influenced in part by the arcane magic of Symbolist paintings, the renderings of women as Chimera or Sphinxes. But reflection led her to reconsider the artists’ inspiration. Symbolists were “afraid of women,” says Fournet, who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee. “They saw women as vampires because they’re taught (this is coming out of Victorian England) that women don’t have a sexual nature.”

Fournet began summoning her goddesses as national discourse grew ugly. “Women were starting to have a hard time, the whole #metoo thing,” she says. “The political climate seemed so anti-woman.” Inspired by pictures of pomegranates and the rancorous news cycle, she infused the mystical, esoteric qualities of Symbolist art into an old photograph of a woman and created the work she named Persephone.

Goddesses Persephone and Fortuna.

Fournet's goddesses appear piece by piece, layer by layer, conjured through an Epson flatbed scanner and Adobe Photoshop CC. Her source materials include glass plates, tintypes, frames, and strips of fabric, which she compliments with online imagery.

A little magic touches each piece of a goddess, beginning with the photographs themselves. “I photo-airbrush to give them complexion because they’re blue-green, dreadful colors,” she says. “They have to have a skin tone and I have to give them a blush and I have to give them eye color. That’s one of the most fun parts.”

As a photographer, Fournet created images through traditional darkroom alchemy, until the demands of teaching made her set aside her beloved Diana cameras. These days, her sacred rites are performed in her home office. Every crown of thorns or dress of flames is constructed digitally, then goes through a process of dodging and burning, tweaking colors, and perhaps correcting flaws in the source image.

Goddesses Mona and Vesna.

Sometimes Fournet wants to explore a concept or mythology, but usually the women in the photographs determine their own fates. “What kind of goddess would she be?” she asks herself. “Then I do research on the goddesses. I try to find the emotion or attribute this person suggests, or whatever I’m feeling that I can project on this image.”

The work expresses the goddesses’ magical properties through colors and textures, allegory and symbolism. Visions can come at the cusp of sleep, as happened with Invidia. Fournet pictured a coiled snake and was reminded of how envy can sit in your heart, ready to strike at any moment. She thought about how envy clings to your heart like ivy clings to a wall, and how envy burns hot like a dress of flames.

For Oizys, Fournet turned inward to express grief and despair. “I started thinking about splatters of rain on glass being tears, and the hourglass being time,” she says. “When you’re depressed, time is elongated. I remember being very depressed, living in New York's East Village when it was still the crack epidemic. I was living in this tenement slum and I would come home from work and lie on the bed and watch the late afternoon sun come in the window and go across the room. I still have memories of that, and I think those are good things to keep with you because they are so intense you can use that in your art later.”

Goddesses Invidia and Oizys.

The Goddess Series is ongoing. Fournet has a special interest in finding Slavic gods and goddesses, part of her lifelong fascination with Eastern Europe, which she first visited during the waning days of the Soviet Union. For the past twenty-five years she’s lived part-time in Prague but next summer she may only have time for a monthlong residency in Buenos Aires, where, when she’s not busy soaking up tango, she’ll prowl flea markets and antique shops looking for future goddesses to share with a world in need of their power, strength, and beauty.

January 7, 2019