“Thru 6/13: 120 works of photographer francesca woodman (nsfw), who committed suicide at age 22 in 1981, go on display at the Guggenheim.”
Jillian Stienhauer writing in the Paris Review (1) picks out this prosaic statement, an exhibition announcement in a New York “what’s on” guide, as a sad summary of Francesca Woodman’s legacy. Articles and essays (including this one) begin by connecting her work to premature death as if her tragic suicide at the age of 22 explains everything. Betsy Berne, a close friend from her college days, suggests it might explain something about the women but probably very little about her art. “She had an illness, depression, that’s all there is to it” (2).
The course notes ask us to consider the accuracy of Susan Bright’s view that “it is difficult not to read Woodman’s self portraits …. as alluding to a troubled state of mind” (5) so I am not so much falling into the trap of starting with her suicide but scrambling to climb out of it to try and understand her work in a wider context, perhaps even, the context she envisioned. Corey Keller, the curator of her 2012 Guggenheim Exhibition, is quoted as saying “History is by necessity written backwards; its narrative takes shape with an ending firmly in place.” And, therein lies the problem of Francesca Woodman, we all know the ending so it is just a matter of aligning a selection of facts and assumptions that support our own narrative so it flows neatly between the teenager with her first camera to her final plunge from a New York loft in 1981.
Francesca Woodman was born in 1958 into a family of artists, father George then a painter, now a photographer, mother Betty a ceramicist and an older brother, Charles, who became an assistant professor of electronic art. This might be better phrased as a family of “serious” artists, George graduated from Harvard and holds a Masters in painting from the University of Mexico; George and Betty can include on their join CV exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the V&A and the MOMA (3). From an early age Francesca was encouraged to find her own artistic niche, George is quoted as saying “The children were raised with a strong work ethic and the idea that art was a serious business. You don’t go off and do hobbies on a Sunday. You make art.”(1) One imagines that Francesca was surrounded by art, the discussion of art and became part of the world of art practitioners and teaching academics from a very early age. By the age of fourteen she was a fledgling photographer and it appears that the family believes that any given medium only has room for one Woodman, George is keen to point out that he only turned to photography after Francesca’s death, Charles openly states that still photography was closed to him so he explored the moving image.
There is no suggestion that she was a sad child, quite the opposite, her sense of humour and fun is mentioned by both friends and family and we see the wit and humour in her work but my impression is that she was a serious student of art. Betsy Berne says that she came to college, the Rhode Island School of Design, as an already accomplished photographer, way ahead of her classmates and Mark Durden (4) goes as far as to label her as a prodigy. Reviewing her images on-line I am struck, not by the much discussed feminist-political agenda or that she took her own life, but by the sophistication of these images. We are of course forced to view them out of context in the sense that they are rarely found in the coherent sets that we know she created but it is possible to piece enough of some series together to see that she extensively explored a broad spectrum of art forms within a short period of time. In Auto Focus (5) Susan Bright considers self portrait in five categories; autobiographical, body, masquerade, studio / album and performance. Interestingly she talks of Woodman within the autobiographical section which is where the “alluding to a troubled state of mind” quote originates and as she argues that self portrait is often read as a form of “expressive therapy” we can easily connect the dots of her theory.
However, I am unconvinced that autobiography is Woodman’s main theme. The body is one category that could be used to label her work, if labeling is the mission, especially if we look at her photographs in the context of exploring the interaction between the body and space. Laura Larson (6) points out that she nearly always used a square format and believes that the way this format creates a constricted space is significant. It is noticeable that she often places her models in the left or right third of the frame so that the two thirds of “empty”, yet shallow and contained, space leads the viewer to the human subject asking us to recognise and analyse the relationship that is formed. Given that she features in the majority of her photographs and models stand-in for her in most of the others there are many other perspectives on “the body” in her work. The feminist viewpoint, as proposed by Abigail Solomon-Godeau and much quoted elsewhere is that her work is a comment on the “male gaze”, a feminist theory originating in the mid-70s (i), that femininity is a cultural construct and that Woodman is appropriating and subverting stereotypical female forms. Margret Sundell (6) offers a succinct and illuminating summary of Solomon-Godeau’s analysis of Woodman’s work. A point that I will return to later.
After “body” Bright offers “masquerade” as a category and whilst we do not have the obvious role playing that can be found in Cindy Sherman’s work there is a consistent theme of investigating performance art and photography. We are offered few insights into the roles that Woodman was playing but there appears to be an appropriation of cinematic and theatrical techniques, some deeply historical such as the use of masks, sets that appear designed and directed, movement captured in balletic shapes and gestures, a general sense of staging. There is also, in her later work, an exploration of the body as a statue which speaks not just to modelling or role play but directly links her work to Roman-Greco art.
The links to “studio” are more tenuous but, as discussed above she was a set designer and worked nearly exclusively indoors using sophisticated lighting, all attributes of studio photography. Finally, and Bright’s last category, we have “performance” and it is clear that Woodman can easily be placed in thus category for all the reasons mentioned in masquerade and studio. Beyond this David Campany (10), who uses the phrase “the theatre of self” suggests that she was constantly experimenting with the idea that “self” can be performed as opposed to revealed, conceiving these experiments in the same way that a musician approaches exercises and set-pieces, a view, that if correct, continues to support the building argument that Woodman was using disparate art forms as inspiration for her work.
Beyond the limitations of these categories and seeing her work as a constant exploration of visual art in its broadest sense it is important not to allow the philosophical debate distract from appreciating her refined skills as a photographer. Appropriating Campany’s analogy and turning her back from a musician to a photographer we can see a progression through a series of visual exercises:
- juxtaposition: evidenced by the relationship between the “perfect” young female form and the inevitable decay of architecture;
- the unphotographable: represented by the march of time on the surfaces she uses as props and the questions this raises about the future of her body;
- metamorphosis: regularly visited in pictures where her body appears to dissolve into the architectural sets around her and, by the use of movement blur, into thin air ;
- seriality and repetition: displayed in many of her series;
- appropriation: of stereotypes
And, all of these exercises are completed with style, wit, irony and no little skill. It is no surprise that, according to Berne, she was the exceptional student of her time at The Rhode Island School of Design . “She was way more sophisticated than the rest of us …. she had been making this very good work from the age of 14.”(2) It would be wrong not to return to the feminist interpretation of her work. The conversation documented by Margaret Sundell (6) looks at this subject in some depth but what struck me the most was that many of the arguments put forward by Solomon-Godeau are the same arguments that were used to analyse Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (7). The fundamental difference is that we can read Sherman’s reaction to these ideas and her own explanation of her motives (ii). Whilst Sherman wants her work to be seen as feminist she does not project herself as a politicalised feminist “The work is what it is and hopefully it’s seen as feminist work, or feminist addressed work, but I’m not going to go around espousing theoretical bullshit about feminist stuff.” (8). Woodman’s mother states that Francesca was apolitical, “Everyone was tied in knots about politics in the 70s, but she wasn’t interested.” (2) but her friend Betsy Berne believes that she was a feminist although happy to poke fun at them.
We are left to draw our own conclusions but, it appears, that the most significant appropriation happening here is that her work has been captured by the political feminist movement in the same way they have appropriated and potentially misrepresented Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin. The most balanced view I found is that of Meaghan Thurston (9) who argues that the feminist interpretation of her work is valid but it isn’t the only matrix through which her work should be assessed.
Is my lasting impression of her work that it “alludes to a troubled mind” ? No. My conclusion is that Durden is probably right in calling her a prodigy, which admittedly is s status that has some history of troubling young minds, but I see her more as a product of her upbringing, an intense artist who had an exceptional awareness of the history of, not just her art form, but of sculpture, music, painting and performance. A brilliant young woman who set out to explore her medium in the context of that history using self portraiture as a convenient and readily accessible genre.
Notes on Text
(i) This is not the place to investigate feminist theory too deeply but the “male gaze” was, and is, the idea that the camera puts the viewer into the role of a man. The idea is built partly on the evident truth that most images of the female form are created by men to be viewed by men and is closely connected to sexual objectification. (ii) I looked at Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills and researched her motivations in an earlier essay to be found here.
(4) Durden, Mark ( 2014) Photography Today. London: Phaidon Press.
(5) Bright, Susan (2010) Auto Focus: the Self Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames and Hudson
(7) Sherman, Cindy (2003) The Complete Untitled Film Stills (note that the photographs for this series were taken between 1977 and 1980 but not published as a complete work until this book in 2003) London: Thames and Hudson.
(10) Campany, David (2003) Art and Photography (abridged, updated and revised in 2012. 2014 reprinted edition) London: Phaidon.
(1) Stienhauer, Jillian (2012) Finding Francesca Woodman (accessed at The Paris Review 27.4.15) – http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/05/23/finding-francesca-woodman/
(2) Cooke, Rachel (2014) Searching for the Real Francesca Woodman (accessed at The Guardian 27.4.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/31/searching-for-the-real-francesca-woodman
(3) ITVS (2011) The Woodmans (accessed at ITVS 27.4.15) – http://itvs.org/films/woodmans/photos-and-press-kit (
6) Baker, George; Daly, Ann: Davenport, Nancy; Larson, Laura; Sundell, Margaret. (2003) Francesca Woodman Reconsidered (accessed as Academia 27.4.15) – https://www.academia.edu/4248217/The_Art_Journal_Francesca_Woodman_Reconsidered_A_Conversation_with_George_Baker_Ann_Daly_Nancy_Davenport_Laura_Larson_and_Margaret_Sundell_
(8) Saner, Emine (2011) Cindy Sherman. Top 100 Women: Art, Film, Music and Fashion (accessed at the Guardian 30.3.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2011/mar/08/cindy-sherman-100-women
(9) Thurston, Meaghan (2010) At Home in Dust: Francesca Woodman’s House Series Revisited (accessed at Forum, University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts 27.4.15) – http://www.forumjournal.org/article/view/658/942
Tate Francesca Woodman 1958 – 1981 (accessed at Tate 27.4.15) – http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francesca-woodman-10512
Loos, Ted (2011) Sharing a Guarded Legacy (accessed at The New York Times 27.4.15) – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/arts/design/francesca-woodman-retrospective.html?_r=0