Francesca Woodman’s playful darkness.
Francesca Woodman died on this day in 1981. Digital subscribers can see a portfolio of her early work in our Spring 2014 issue.
In 1912, the essayist Randolph Bourne wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that the ability to think “was given us for use in emergencies, and no man can be justly blamed if he reserves it for emergencies.” If the photography of Francesca Woodman can be reduced to one defining feature, it’s that she provides emergencies. Woodman’s emergencies are not loud or particularly dangerous; they don’t require alarms or intervention. But they do ask us to think, to ponder the urgency of an unorthodox kind of desire—a desire that insists, I am here, naked and soft, on one side of a wall, and I want to be over there, on the other side, where an equally naked and soft orchid flirts with me. This situation is serious.
For Woodman, who died in 1981 at twenty-two, convincing viewers to accept this predicament as crisis-worthy was a body-centered ambition. Feminist critics have long noted how she used her body to simultaneously court and reject “the male gaze.” Others have suggested that she posed as an unabashed object of seduction as an attention-grabbing tactic. Both claims seem generally credible. But what’s difficult to reconcile fully is how Woodman’s pictures—most of them, at least—tend to slowly sap her body of eroticism. The surrounding drama, in all its preoccupying power, overwhelms the potential for seduction. The extent of Woodman’s nakedness ends up reflecting no more or less than the relative need, under the particular circumstances, for clothing. “I am as tired as the rest of you of looking at me,” she once wrote in an undated letter. When clothes are involved, as they often are, they are necessary to the photo’s narrative.
Art photographs are often described as having an “in-between” quality—the idea being that there are invisible moments between objects or events that a well-executed photo makes visible. But there’s nothing in-between about Woodman’s photography. She’s inside or out. The ambiguity of place is resolved by the photo’s internal drama. In one notable outdoor example, she’s entwined among, and gently resisting, a soft tangle of riverine cypress roots. In another, she’s playfully restrained by birch bark cupped around willingly surrendered arms. These are beautifully composed photos—perhaps too beautiful. They breathe a little too easily, and the tension feels whisked away before it’s allowed to settle in and simmer. Inside, though, the energy becomes more palpable and effectual. Woodman’s indoor shots invest the crises at hand with the uncompromising hardness of walls, corners, and floors. Placed in a decaying home, she becomes disjointed, emotionally and physically feral, and periodically restrained, crawling, lurching, spinning and leaping in response to something that her eyes, which very rarely meet ours, hunger to understand.
Woodman killed herself by jumping from the window of a Lower East Side loft, a tragedy that inevitably suggests a grim foreshadowing in the 180 prints (out of over eight hundred) now available for us to see. But to do that, to read history backward, would be an interpretive mistake. Woodman’s parents, both professional artists, noted that their daughter was suffering from depression, and that her work, rather than providing a portentous road map to suicide, was incidental to it. More so, to channel Woodman’s Rimbaud-like burst of creativity, most of it done while a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, into a preestablished narrative ending with her death would be to overlook the hope and humor—and playfulness—evident in many of her prints.
Rather than forecast impending doom, Woodman’s doors, mirrors, and windows offer sly escape hatches. In Self Deceit #1 (1978), she turns the corner on all fours, feline-like (looking for that flirtatious orchid?), and suddenly finds herself staring into her own lithe image. The sharpness of her desire, refracted by the cold mirror, is quickly defused by the almost slapstick kind of reaction one experiences with such sudden recognition. In another photo (Untitled, 1977–78), Woodman hangs Christ-like from the top of a doorframe, arms set in a perfect V, swaying before an old door with a small note stuck to it. The arrangement suggests that this inconvenient moment of crucifixion will soon pass, that the inevitable resurrection will follow, and that, once this little story is over, she’ll finally get to that note.
One more example: In a photo under which she wrote “it must be time for lunch now,” Woodman crouches below a window, resting a fork on her upturned palm, her body cowering under an unframed canvas (or piece of cloth) painted with bending forks. She peers up as if crawling out of a cave. It’s a wonderfully strange image, one in which Woodman simultaneously nods to the bending objects of surrealism while indicating that, you know, she wouldn’t mind a bite to eat. The wry sensibility informing such contrasts was hinted at in a comment she made in her journal. “Today,” she wrote, “I came home from Newport seething with ideas and a new hat.”
If Woodman’s blurred, black-and-white idiom is most conspicuously rooted in the surrealist photography of Man Ray and André Breton, it’s also animated by gothic nineteenth-century literature—a genre she is said to have appreciated. Her interior photos, notably the ones where she (or her model) pace amid disintegrating walls, directly evoke Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), in which the increasingly apprehensive narrator crawls around the room, tearing the wallpaper to shreds. A series of outdoor graveyard shots, which Woodman took while living in Boulder, as well as many of her darker housebound images (made in Rome and Rhode Island), suggest Poe’s macabre humor as well as the death-driven juxtapositions prevalent in Emily Dickinson’s poems.
As if to bookend this literary connection, the most recent release by Elena Ferrante—Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey—published by Europa Editions (which has long been criticized for the cheesy covers of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series), redeems itself with a gauzy Woodman photo on the cover. Titled House #3, the photo shows Woodman ducked beneath an open window, her body titling to the floor as her dress flies in the opposite direction. (In the Neapolitan series’ first book, My Brilliant Friend, there’s an unforgettable defenestration scene.)
In its entirety, Woodman’s work confronted nothing less challenging than the implacable nature of geometry. But her last project—images from her collection imposed on the pages of an old (1900) Italian geometry schoolbook—sought resolution to this problem. Titled some disordered interior Geometries, it was the sixth and last photographic book she made, and the only one to be published. In nearly all of her indoor photos from the seventies, there’s at least a suggestion, if not explicit evidence, that she was negotiating, or raging against, angles—ultimately, that was the gist of her emergency. The softness of her body repeatedly refused to conform to the hardness of the room. So she turns and whirls, hides, crawls along the walls, or, as a last resort, turns our gaze to the folds and expanses of her own flesh. But in some disordered interior Geometries, the angst dissipates. When the iconic images of her earlier work, with its distressing catalogue of hard spaces, is situated on the page a geometry textbook, all those hard spaces are somehow abstracted and penetrated by Woodman’s photos. Her image of herself—once the center of an emergency—becomes the peripheral spectator to a perfect match.
It’s a very smart move. Her father recalled that when he gave Francesca her first camera, when she was thirteen, she immediately had “fifty million ideas.” some disordered interior Geometries was just one of them. But it was also her last. A few days before the book came out, she was gone.
James McWilliams lives in Austin, Texas.