Art versus life: Francesca Woodman

  • 15 August 2011

Francesca Woodman's intimate and disquieting photographs are now on display at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull as part of the ARTIST ROOMS tour. Are they any more than a prolonged suicide note? Laura Cumming argues not...

Francesca Woodman’s intimate and disquieting photographs are now on display at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull as part of the ARTIST ROOMS tour. Are they any more than a prolonged suicide note? Laura Cumming argues not...

The prodigiously gifted American artist Francesca Woodman brought her life to an abrupt and violent end on a January day in 1981 by leaping from the window of her New York studio. She was 22 years old. At an age when most artists are only just beginning to find form, to discover their strengths, perhaps even to hit on the right medium, Woodman had achieved all this and more in her shockingly brief career. She left behind one of the most singular bodies of work in 20th-century photography.

She also left generations of admirers with a lingering question: was the suicide foreshadowed in the images? For these photographs are mostly of Woodman herself, and commonly characterised as intense, enigmatic and tinged with darkness, isolation and melancholy. Here she is slipping through a hole in an old gravestone or sinking in black water beneath the tangled roots of a tree. Here she is wrapped up in a sheet or disappearing into sepulchral shadows. It would be very easy to perceive these photographs as personal, agonised and full of foreboding, an extended suicide note.

And if one is not to understand them as autobiographical, then how should one interpret the young woman, very often naked, almost always alone in the corners of abandoned rooms that appear to be falling apart? One clear answer is that the art should never be confused with the life, or vice-versa, that the creative act is misunderstood if one sees it as nothing more than a transcript of reality. But Woodman’s case is complicated by the fact that the woman in these photographs is the artist herself, young and beautiful and dressed in the kind of vintage clothes she apparently liked to wear, sometimes accompanied by the boyfriend who left her not long before she died. She is the model, or perhaps one should say she is the actress performing the role, creating the character in these one-act dramas.

Francesca Woodman was born in 1958 in Denver, Colorado, to a family of Italophile artists who owned a house outside Florence, where they spent most summers; you see its tall windows and classical doorways in some of the pictures. She took her first photograph at the age of thirteen. The young Woodman is wearing a cable-knit sweater. Her face is turned away into deep shadow – already, the lady disappears – and you cannot immediately recognise what she is holding in her hand. It is the cable release for the shutter and it repeats the twists of her hair and the pattern of her sweater in a neat pun. But it’s so blurred with vibration as to look, at first, like a shaft of white light passing between Woodman and the camera, as if the nature of photography itself were her true subject. Not many artists have left juvenilia we – or they – would ever want to return to. This image is exceptional: a vision of a girl who is present, but far beyond grasp.

Woodman went on to study at Rhode Island School of Design. She had her first show at the exceptionally young age of 18, and even sold several of the works – silver gelatin prints on a small scale that became her trademark, in delicate tones of sepia and silver-grey. One of her methods was to set a long exposure time and then move ever so slightly, so that the image took on the familiar blur one sees in so many 19th-century photographs. She was making a strength out of what had once been a weakness, exploiting the slow release to spectral effect. In one photograph she is shaking her head, arms held out as if trying to hold herself steady in the wind. The face is a blur, a cloud of mysterious anonymity. In another, crouched down and apparently about to reach out or topple forward, she vanishes in a frisson of anxious motion. Who she is cannot be stated for certain, or perhaps even perceived. Woodman is the model, but these are by no means conventional self-portraits.

Where she stands, or lies, is something of a mystery too. Woodman’s scenes show a world unchanged by time, a world as it might have looked through the earliest cameras. Peeling plaster, bare floors, dust, old stonework and odd props such as mirrors, gloves and sheets, give no sense of particular era or place. You see her legs and feet among leaves and friable walls, the derelict structure in which she stands looking as soft and fragile as the photograph itself. A door, fallen from its frame, tilted on its axis, leans against the wall with her naked body half-hidden beneath it. She crouches inside a haphazard brick fireplace, and pulls a great flap of old wallpaper over herself like a blanket. One has the sense of a figure retreating into the material of the building as if it were a lair, or treating it like camouflage. It is sometimes quite hard to see her at first in the picture. And though there are allusions to Surrealism, particularly to Hans Bellmer’s splayed dolls and Magritte’s veiled faces, what emerges is a highly original imagination at work, an artist creating elaborate fictions using the medium of her own body. She curls around a bowl containing what might be a coiled eel or an inner tube, woman encircling symbol; she sits naked beside what appears to be a shadow of her former self, shed like clothing on the floor. This photograph, taken on Rhode Island in 1976, is one of very few images where we see the artist full-face as well as full-frontal. She sits on a chair, knees drawn together, vulnerable and alert, with this curious cipher of a woman flattened to a black patch on the floor. A burned-out case, perhaps, or is she a woman descending into hell?

The photograph belonged to Benajmin P Moore, Woodman’s boyfriend, who appears in a double portrait with the artist taken when they were together in Rome, two beautiful young people straight out of a movie by Visconti. Almost all of the Woodman photographs in the ARTIST ROOMS collection were acquired directly from Moore, and this print bears an intimate message from her to him. It is an unusual photograph, therefore, in that it shows Woodman for once as simply herself: a real young woman, one half of a real, if ill-fated, couple. Anyone who wants to discover Woodman’s autobiography in her work will only find it for sure in a few rare images like this. As to the idea that her photographs must represent a death foretold, my sense is that this is not true. Woodman was once asked why she was always photographing herself, if she did not intend to represent herself directly. She answered that it was because she was reliably available at all hours, unlike a model, and that it was in any case easier for her to express what she had in mind than to instruct someone else. And what she had in mind was a persona, the character of a young woman alone in an enigmatic world, self-concealing and yet fleetingly revealed before the lens, trapped in her body as she is trapped in these buildings, in this strange and ephemeral dream of a life.

It has taken many years to assemble the totality of Woodman’s archive. She was both prolific and prodigious in a field not known for its underage stars, leaving almost 800 images from a career that began in adolescence and lasted barely eight years. Her work is now in the permanent collections of museums all over the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Tate Modern, and she has inspired as many fellow artists as art historians. It is a slender pedestal to bear such a great weight. But Woodman deserves her posthumous reputation. She found a way of making photographs that departed so far from documentary reality as to be closer to fiction, metaphors played out in a black-and-white world that conveyed her own inner truths. It is often said that if Woodman had not committed suicide, she might have become one of the great American photographers of her age, to rank alongside Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman. But she was already there by the age of twenty-two.

This ARTIST ROOMS exhibition is also part of Art In Yorkshire, a year-long celebration of the visual arts in 19 venues throughout Yorkshire, supported by Tate. The Ferens Art Gallery shop is offering a 10% discount on production of the National Art Pass.