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How Francesca Woodman Turned Two Cultures into One Art

The duality is right there in her name: Francesca Woodman. Woodman, daughter of two successful artists and a promising photographer herself, cherished childhood memories of family trips to Tuscany and returned to Italy as a college student to study art. The exhibition Francesca Woodman, at the Guggenheim Museum, New York through June 13, 2012, gives the young artist, who committed suicide in 1981 at just 22 years of age, her biggest retrospective yet, with 120 photographs, artist books, and recently discovered short videos presenting the width and depth of her short but full life and career. At the same time, Isabella Pedicini’sFrancesca Woodman: The Roman Years: Between Flesh and Film examines just how “Italian” the Italian-American photographer truly was and how Woodman took the two cultures embedded in her name and created a single, transcendent art.

Woodman began taking photographs at 13. She quickly formed a unique style using herself as her main model. These enigmatic self-portraits involved different props Francesca often used to obscure her face or body. She grew up in Denver and Boulder, Colorado, but went with her family to Italy each summer. In 1975, Woodman began studying at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. As part of RISD’s honors program, she continued her studies in Rome in 1977 and 1978, putting her fluent Italian to good use in meeting local artists and writers. In 1979, Francesca moved to New York City with hopes of furthering her photography career. A failed relationship and frustration over the rejection of her photos pushed Woodman into a deep depression. She seemingly recovered, but more rejection (including, according to her father, an unsuccessful application for an NEA grant) drove Francesca to leap to her death from the window of her New York City loft on January 19, 1981, a few months shy of her 23rd birthday.

 “What parts of [Woodman’s] personal narrative matter to our understanding of her art? Should her suicide go unmentioned, be a foot­note, or be understood as a driving force in making sense of her art?” asks Julia Bryan-Wilson, associate professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley, in her catalog essay, “Blurs: Toward a Provisional Historiography of Francesca Woodman.” The artist’s life and, even more so, her death haunt her work, but Bryan-Wilson calls for the fuller, rounder appreciation of this young woman: “What about other facts of her life (ones potentially un­related to her death), such as her family background, her friendships, her art education, her mentors, or her formative times abroad? These are all seri­ous questions that address our understanding of how lives shape art, and vice versa, and that are especially fraught when the subject is a woman.” Woodman’s gender and tragic end easily made her a feminist icon posthumously, even if she didn’t identify herself as a feminist while alive.

Even more persistent than the feminist label is Woodman’s posthumous power to resist it. This power originates in the pictures themselves. “[I]t could be said that Woodman’s images, in which the central figures are often out of focus, ghostlike, or hard to locate, in some respects solicit the multivalent literature they have generated,” Bryan-Wilson continues. “Woodman’s images themselves actively enable—and, with their ambigu­ous bodies and open-ended narratives, perpetually destabilize—their own multiple histories of sense-making and oeuvre construction.” Just when you think you have Woodman pegged, she slips from your grasp—a frustrating and fascinating quality that explains much of her quickly growing appeal.

In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman,” by SFMOMA Associate Curator of Photography Corey Keller, Keller describes how the photographs embody this elusiveness. “Within these atmospheric and sometimes gothic settings the photographed body is dematerialized: pressed into cupboards and cabinets, camouflaged against walls, or dissolved into a blur of movement,” Keller writes. “The performances she staged for her own lens are rarely narrative; they are mysterious, suggestive, richly evocative, even allegorical.” One of Woodman’s more mysterious photos is Untitled (shown above), a photo taken in 1976 while she studied at RISD. (This image and many others can be seen here.) The nude Francesca appears to have risen from the floor, where flour has been spread. A ghostly void remains where he body had lain.

This photo seems connected to one of the newly discovered videos from Woodman’s student days. In Trace, Woodman walks into the frame wearing a fur coat, removes the coat, applies white paint to her naked body, lies down on the floor, gets powdered, and then rises to look at her outline in the void. Jennifer Blessing, Senior Curator of Photography at the Guggenheim, examined this video and others in the show. Blessing sees Woodman in Trace as “a Venus in Furs, an S&M feminist (which is not an oxymoron), hinting at the power dynamics of striptease.” Interesting reading such as that fill the catalog and add to the intellectual power of the exhibition.

While the Guggenheim show focuses on Woodman’s whole career, Isabella Pedicini’sFrancesca Woodman: The Roman Years: Between Flesh and Film sees Woodman’s time in Rome between 1977 and 1978 as “a fundamental rite of passage as a woman and as an artist” that resulted in a “new maturity” in all the work that followed. Whereas the exhibition, being an inclusive review, can’t avoid Woodman’s ghost, Pedicini’s book dodges spirits in pursuit of Woodman’s spirited life. Pedicini describes Francesca’s approach to food in Italy as “visceral and joyful,” but that lust for life extended to all experiences. She found new friends at the Maldoror bookstore that stimulated her art and introduced her to European modernism. For Pedicini, however, Italy’s classicism truly transformed Woodman’s art from “the residual symbolism” of the American photos to “clean, almost unadorned settings which overflowed with her body.” She sees Woodman emulating Piero della Francesca’s “quietude…, in which the monumentality of figures contrast the emptiness of space” and Giotto’s “architecture, elaborate and simple at the same time.” The whole Renaissance lends Francesca’s photos “an elegant sacredness,” Pedicini believes, “deeply touching in its directness and… cast in a profoundly spiritual dimension.” Pedicini includes in her book a sequence of photographs by Enrico Luzzi giving a “behind the scenes” glimpse of Woodman’s working method. Combined with interviews with friends Woodman made during her Roman working holiday, these photos remind us of just how young and alive she was.

When I read Francesca Woodman’s father’s suggestion that her rejection by the NEA led to her suicide, I couldn’t help but think of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, Adonaïs, the elegy he wrote for John Keats in 1821 believing that a bad review, rather than tuberculosis, killed Keats. In that poem, Shelley writes, “Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep/ He hath awakened from the dream of life/ ‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep/ With phantoms an unprofitable strife.” If the exhibition Francesca Woodman and Isabella Pedicini’sFrancesca Woodman: The Roman Years: Between Flesh and Film agree on one thing, it that we the living are “lost in stormy visions” still when it comes to understanding Woodman and her art. But with their efforts, we’re no longer struggling “an unprofitable strife,” but are at last seeing Woodman in the flesh, even if her photos blur and even hide the body they profess to reveal. Francesca Woodman is not dead. With this exhibition and book, Francesca Woodman awakes to the dream of posterity.

[Image:Francesca Woodman. Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 14.1 cm. Courtesy George and Betty Woodman. © 2012 George and Betty Woodman.]

[Many thanks to the Guggenheim Museum, New York, for providing me with the image above and essays from the catalog to the exhibition Francesca Woodman, which runs through June 13, 2012. Many thanks also to Contrasto Books for providing me with a review copy of Francesca Woodman: The Roman Years: Between Flesh and Film by Isabella Pedicini (translated from the Italian by Margaret Spiegelman).]


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