Francesca Woodman’s suicide in 1981 at the age of 22 brought an abrupt end to her short career as an artist and photographer. Following her death Woodman has become world renowned for her mesmerising self-portraiture work.
OCA quotes Susan Bright on Woodman’s work as “alluding to a troubled state of mind” and indeed this is the prevalent critical narrative but I believe that this simplified description does not recognise the overall significance of Woodman’s contribution and indeed her parents, themselves artists’, refute the claims that the work reveals a troubled person and a close friend commented that, “she had an illness: depression. That’s all there is to it.” (Cooke, R. 2014).
Remembering that Woodman’s main body of work is from her university career she was clearly a young person who was growing as a woman, a person and as an individual and exploring what this means through her self-portraiture. Francesca Woodman’s work is clearly deep, complex and searching and it can be dark and ghostly at times but it is also playful, youthful, experimental and provocative.
Katharine Conley (2008) argues that critics have successfully “established Woodman’s credentials as an accomplished practitioner of photography within post-surrealist and post-minimalist traditions, an artist who used technique effectively to disturb the typical parameters of space and time for her medium.” Conley sets out that Woodman was posing the question of who am I this being the opening question of Nadja the book by Andre Breton the founder of the Surrealist movement.
Figure 1. Providence, Rhode Island (1976)
Above is the third image referencing music and playing the piano implying that Woodman wished for her work to be read in a linear fashion as music would be. The other two images each carry captions, the first, “And I had forgotten how to read music,” and the second, “I stopped playing the piano.”
The above image appears with the caption, “then at one point I did not need to translate the notes; they went directly to my hands,” which implies a reference to Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism where he defines “psychic automatism in it’s purest state, by which one proposes to express-verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner-the actual functioning of thought.” Woodman confirmed that she recognised Breton’s automatic writing was a” veritable photograph of thought,” (Conley, p231. 2008)
This critique is either ignored or disrupted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as the catalogue for the Francesca Woodman exhibition places these 3 images at plates 58, 60, 61 with plate 59 being independent of this music metaphor play.
Perhaps this is a minor example of how art critics can misconstrue the artists’ intentions in their reading of the work and therefore the artist in general. In the same way that Susan Bright claims that the work is of a troubled mind much has been made of Woodman’s suicide more often than not dominating interpretations of her work. Bryan-Wilson (2011. P189) argues that this in part may be due to what Berger (1972. P46) set out in his theory of women as the surveyed.
In terms of the self-portraiture within her work Woodman was not exclusively focussed on herself as is generally accepted as her mother commented that she was usually her own subject and model as a matter of convenience, “because she was always available,” (Cooke, 2014).
In one her journals Woodman notes, “I am interested in the way people relate to space, the best way to do this is to depict their interactions to the boundaries of these spaces. Started doing this with ghost pictures, people fading into a flat plane- becoming the wall under the wallpaper or of an extension of the wall onto floor.” (Townsend 2006, cited in Conley, 2008: 236). This provides an insight into how Woodman was interested in broader themes beyond her own autobiography.
Francesca Woodman’s body of work is coherent in style and form but is also extremely varied and to describe the body of work merely as ‘ghostly self-portraits’ is probably an injustice.
I originally came across Francesca Woodman in early 2015 whilst studying OCA1 Expressing Your Vision and at that time I interpreted her work in the usual narrative of dark, troubled and complex.
Over a year onwards, I have read a broader range of critical interpretation and have been able to actually see some of Francesca Woodman’s work recently at the Tate exhibition Performing for the Camera (2016). In this exhibition her images appeared alongside other artists from the 1970s in an exploration of body and matter in relation to time, motion and space.
Seeing some of the surreal and performance art photography from the 1960s and 1970s has changed my view of Francesca Woodman’s darkness and has made her work more accessible to myself by placing in it a recognised context of photography’s history.
I can begin to interpret how she explored her body, often obscuring her face or parts of her anatomy and whilst not necessarily overtly political her work is often recognised as “art informed by feminism”. (Bryan-Wilson, 2011, p191).
The point being that whilst the autobiographical perspective of her self-portraiture work offers a useful starting point I believe that there is a wider perspective than just purely Francesca Woodman’s personal story.
Berger, J (1972), Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.
Bryan-Wilson, J (2011) ‘Blurs: Towards a Provisional Historiography of Francesca Woodman’ In Keller, C (2011) Francesca Woodman San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. P 187-195.
Conley, K (2008) ‘A Swimmer Between Two Worlds: Francesca Woodman’s Maps of Interior Space’ in Journal of Surrealism and the Americas 2:2 (2008) 227-252 (online) At:
Conley, K (2008) Chris Townsend Francesca Woodman. London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2006)
https://repository.asu.edu/attachments/108266/content/JSA_VOL2_NO2_Pages227-252_Conley.pdf (accessed 28 June 2016)
Cooke, R. (2014) ‘Searching for the real Francesca Woodman’. In The Guardian (online) At:
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/31/searching-for-the-real-francesca-woodman (accessed 28 June 2016)
Keller, C (2011) Francesca Woodman San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
List of illustrations
http://www.americansuburbx.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/P020-1-2-1-Custom.jpg (accessed 28 June 2016)