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Francesca Woodman Photo

Francesca Woodman

American Photographer

Movements and Styles: Surrealism, Modern Photography, Dada and Surrealist Photography

Born: April 3, 1958 - Denver, Colorado

Died: January 19, 1981 - New York City

Francesca Woodman Timeline

Important Art by Francesca Woodman

The below artworks are the most important by Francesca Woodman - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Self-Portrait at Thirteen (1972)
Artwork Images

Self-Portrait at Thirteen (1972)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this self-portrait at the age of thirteen, one of Woodman's first, she photographs herself turning her head away from the camera in a debut gesture of defiance against usual portrait photography in which we expect to see the face of the sitter. Woodman holds a rod to release the shutter which once intentionally blurred and out of focus transforms to become an otherworldly shard of darkness. Her face is covered completely by her hair and the space around her is composed of fragmented elements, including a door, the under lit bench upon which she sits, and an empty chair.

The work already possesses many of the qualities that define the artist's oeuvre more generally. By including the camera cord she makes it clear that she herself is the author of her image, and through the use of techniques of long-exposure, an unusual low perspective, and the play of extreme light and dark she shows that she is not making 'straight' and easy to digest photography. Somewhat paradoxically, through the use of a square format she introduces her interest in traditional 19th-century techniques to capture and print images.

Like many of her works, the photograph portrays a moment between adolescence and adulthood, exploring aspects of both presence and absence. For the art historian Chris Townsend these are works that "stop being about aesthetics, and they're about the properties of photography". This particular picture bears many similarities to a photograph taken by Duane Michaels in the same year, a black and white portrait of Joseph Cornell. The parallel affirms Woodman and Michael's shared interest in conjuring mystical atmosphere, and highlights the fact that Woodman was powerfully influenced by the work of others. Woodman had encountered Michael's work in exhibitions.

Photograph, Gelatin silver print - Miro Gallery, The Estate of Francesca Woodman

Untitled, Boulder, Rhode Island (1976)
Artwork Images

Untitled, Boulder, Rhode Island (1976)

Artwork description & Analysis: This picture, taken in Boulder, Woodman's hometown in Rhode Island, features the artist intertwined with the roots of a tree. Immersed in the water, the artist's horizontal naked body is supported by the undergrowth. Her long hair floats, whilst her fair skin provides good contrast to the dark shadows cast all around. In the background there are gravestones, revealing that the tree is situated on the edge of a burial site. Woodman's hair, her legs, and the roots of the tree all become serpent-like in their curves. As such the picture recalls the Christian creation story and Woodman becomes associated with Eve. Like the first woman on the earth she is an active agent for change, and pursues the forbidden fruit of knowledge to both a creative and destructive end.

The work unites life and death. There is a reference to birth as Woodman appears to emerge from a watery (possibly in-uterine) environment, but at the same time we imagine the end of life when buried beneath the surface. Both Ana Mendieta and Frida Kahlo also depicted themselves as trees. As such we recall the classical Greek goddess, Daphne, who when under attack, in a gesture of self-perseverance, transformed her body into a tree. Furthermore, the floating female body in water is also reminiscent of Ophelia, the Shakespearian character who fell from a tree overhanging the river and there floated until her death.

Woodman worked frequently outdoors as well as in the studio. This disrupts the typical Feminist reading of the artist's indoor projects of just a young woman protesting against the oppressive confines of her life. Such 'oppression' was generally linked to the artist's struggle against the expectation to be a 'good' or 'angelic' woman. Yet as a seeming paradox, Woodman felt a profound personal connection to nature. This link is 'problematic' for some intellectuals because it suggests that there is an 'essential' and intuitive way to be female, rather than supporting the argument triggered by Woodman's indoor works, that gender is wholly constructed and as such should be challenged. This though, is the feat of Francesca Woodman, to expose character as complex and multi-layered and not easily definable. Woodman also photographed herself close up to the gravestones here featured in the distance. The image recalls Woodman's interest in gothic literature, and the art critic James McMillian accentuates such connections, when he writes that these works unearth in him, "Poe's macabre humor as well as the death-driven juxtapositions prevalent in Emily Dickinson's poems."

Photograph, Gelatin silver print - The Estate of Francesca Woodman

From Space2 series, Providence (1976)
Artwork Images

From Space2 series, Providence (1976)

Artwork description & Analysis: Taken in black and white, Space2 features Woodman standing naked against a wall between two large windows, merging her body entirely with the surrounding environment by covering parts of herself with discarded wallpaper. She is working in a derelict building and art historian Chris Townsend has suggested that the work may have been directly inspired by a Victorian novella called 'The Yellow Wallpaper' (1892), in which a woman is forcibly confined to a room by her husband. As such Woodman exposes the idea of silencing and hiding women in domestic settings.

However, like Louise Bourgeois' in her drawings and sculptures of the 'femme maison', Woodman appears to absorb strength from her own disintegration. If the house is considered as a protective dwelling place it could then be considered substitute for our first dwelling place, that of the womb. Thus the themes of imprisonment, growth, and nourishment all combine. A house, like the body of a woman, is a vast field of memory; a derelict house holds within it as much haunting traces of the past, as it does future possibilities for what can grow in the dwelling. In this sense we are reminded of the interior plaster cast made of a whole 'home' by London based artist, Rachel Whiteread.

As part of her Space series, Woodman also includes images of her body 'trapped' inside a glass vitreen, and pictures in which she explores the dissolution of her body inside an empty room. Like the Surrealists, she explores notions of presence and absence, existence and non-existence, and repeatedly poses the question, Who Am I? Adding yet another layer to these discussions, art critic Ken Johnson also recognizes the influence of Deborah Turbeville (fashion photographer who Woodman admired), which he sees here in the "lushly shadowed and textured scenes".

Photograph, Gelatin silver print - The Estate of Francesca Woodman

On Being an Angel #1, Providence, Rhode Island (1977)
Artwork Images

On Being an Angel #1, Providence, Rhode Island (1977)

Artwork description & Analysis: Through the simple gesture of tipping her head back and then flipping the photograph over completely Woodman disconcerts the viewer's traditional way of looking at the world. In On Being an Angel #1, the artist reclines backwards, naked, exposing her shoulders and chest, as she looks straight into the camera. The space around her is dark, creating deep contrast to her highlighted body. Framed upside down, the artist appears to be floating, and utterly disrupts our usual sense of perspective. It is the first picture of the larger body of work that explores the Woodman's recurring interest of being an angel. The angel is an intermediate figure, a heavenly being that spends some time on earth, and it is this position situated between two opposites where Woodman often finds herself. Woodman is recorded to have said that she disliked the term 'self-portrait', and claimed that she merely used herself as a model for a matter of convenience, emphasizing that the importance of the work is always in her chosen themes.

As an 'angel' unable to get back to the heavens, there are strong undertones of frustration in this work. Indeed, in later photographs also part of the angel series, this frustration develops into aggression as Woodman writhes and screams in front of a paint-splattered wall. The violent gesture of paint throwing in these later works re-casts the angel series with a sacrificial and murderous quality that recalls the work of Ana Mendieta. Furthermore, Virginia Woolf famously writes of 'killing the angel in the house'. Woolf writes how 'the shadow of her wings fell on my page' and expresses the need to slay her because her goodness has been born following years upon years of subjugation of women. It may indeed be the case that Woodman similarly attempts to banish the angel as an attack on patriarchy and assertion of individual female strength.

The work also bares similarities with Man Ray's erotic Anatomies photograph (1929), a further inspiration for Woodman. As is typical, the artist depicts herself naked revealing her need for tactility and sensuality. The works possess a certain fetishism, which is a theme explored by Woodman.

Photograph, Gelatin silver print - The Estate of Francesca Woodman

Untitled, Rome, Italy (1977)
Artwork Images

Untitled, Rome, Italy (1977)

Artwork description & Analysis: This work - like most of Woodman's photographs - is untitled, marked only by date and location. Like a difficult theoretical or philosophical text, she does not gently lead the viewer to meaning but instead commands a certain level of active engagement to be able to understand what she is trying to do.

In this work Woodman makes her own wings using white sheets. The wings are suspended from the ceiling of a large warehouse where Woodman jumps into the air before them, captured in motion as she attempts to take flight. She further continues exploration of the theme of the angel, a messenger from heaven on earth, a concept that reminds us of the spirit realms, of prophecy, and guidance.

Angels have long since been associated with the personality type of melancholy ever since Albrecht Dürer made an engraving on the subject in 1514. Dürer's angel sits heavy and laden, not due to laziness but instead because of a frustration, bound to the mundane all the while when she has celestial ideas. This is a notion not only taken up by Woodman, but also by many other female Surrealists, and as such a major international group exhibition called Angels of Anarchy took place in Manchester, UK in 2009.

Following her initial experiments on the theme done in the US, this picture and all later images in the series were made in Rome. Woodman traveled to Rome after her graduation, and lived there for a year as part of the Rhode Island's School of Design's Rome Honours Program. Whilst in Italy, the young artist was deeply inspired by Baroque fountains, Italian architecture, and especially by the Surrealist and Symbolist books that she found at the Maldoror bookshop.

Art critic Ken Johnson describes her work as a: "borderline kitschy style, a heated mix of Victorian gothic, Surrealism and 19th-century spirit photography", of which this photograph is a good example. Alan Riding more emotionally suggests that Woodman is "inviting the viewer to help find her". For him, the work portrays a sort of 'disappearing act', a desire to de-materialize and portray the immaterial essence that defines her - being an angel.

Photograph, Gelatin silver print - The Estate of Francesca Woodman

Untitled, Rome, Italy (1977 - 1978)
Artwork Images

Untitled, Rome, Italy (1977 - 1978)

Artwork description & Analysis: This picture, also taken during Woodman's year in Rome, features the artist wearing a long black dress, standing against the wall of an abandoned building, pulling her hair up, as if defying gravity. In the photograph that follows in the same series, she jumps, contemplating her earth-bound existence in a similar way to the angel wing works.

Here the artist's hair rises above her, extended and tower-like as though receiving powers from above. Indeed, she is fascinated by flowing locks, both when loose and connected to the body, and when cut and detached. In earlier photographs she depicts a man lying on the floor with severed hair all around him, and in 1975 she made the work Lisa used to have long hair, in which her friend has severed strands all over her chest. The suggestion is usually (as has also been explored by Frida Kahlo and Rebecca Horn) that cutting one's hair is done in response to trauma, and specifically to the devastating situation of a failed love relationship. The cutting of hair serves to signify the loss of a much-sought connection, either this, or it is a gesture of severing ones childish tresses and becoming all grown-up.

Here particularly there is no severance but instead Woodman's hair becomes an aggrandizing force. Like the formidable architecture that surrounded her in Rome she becomes a supportive architectural feature, a column or a tower, therefore looking forward to her Studies for the Temple project that she started once she had returned home.

Photograph, Gelatin silver print - The Estate of Francesca Woodman

Untitled, Rome, Italy (1978)
Artwork Images

Untitled, Rome, Italy (1978)

Artwork description & Analysis: Suspended from a doorframe with her face turned and arms raised, this image is hauntingly Christ-like in appearance. The door itself bears the pattern of a crucifix and the artist dangles there as though nailed to the cross. In this sense, she positions herself as a martyr just as other artists had done before her (Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, and Frida Kahlo - for example), spending time on earth dispersing a message when all the while she must suffer for her efforts. Indeed, the work looks forward to the artist's suicide, for many lives are taken by hanging. Equally, she depicts herself in the bathtub, another common place to end ones life. Otherwise (having ended her life by jumping from a high window) she constantly depicts her-self mid-air, and in this sense, potentially gives 'clues' to the viewer that she is nearing her death, or at the least, maintaining a certain leitmotif.

Overall in this work, Woodman further explores liminal themes of the visible and invisible, the possible and the impossible, and the threshold between life and death. Next to the doorframe is a poster of geometrical shapes, as though trying to infuse a difficult emotional scene with a small taste of reassuring mathematical order. The art critic Kyle MacMillian writes of Woodman that "she wanted to evoke the elusive, the transient realm between what is and isn't". This view is further supported by the words of art critic Ken Jonhson who says that she "oscillates between the heavenly and the earthly", and is supported by art critic Elizabeth Gumport claim that Woodman's pictures "call to mind corpses, or ghosts, as if the wall between our world and the spirit realm had begun to fall".

Photograph, Gelatin silver print - The Estate of Francesca Woodman

Self-Portrait, birch sleeves (1980)
Artwork Images

Self-Portrait, birch sleeves (1980)

Artwork description & Analysis: This photograph depicts Woodman wearing a dress with a pattern reminiscent of tree bark; meanwhile she looks coyly downwards at the exquisite birch tree cuffs that protectively encircle her arms. As in earlier works, the artist becomes a tree, and further explores her interest in metamorphosis. French intellectual, Roger Caillois wrote in detail about such desires having studied the behavior of insects. He came to the conclusion that creatures camouflage themselves, not as one may think, as a defensive mechanism, but rather in response to a disturbance in their perception of space. He warns, that although useful for animals, taken to the extreme the process of mimicry can be dangerous for humans, for this level of metamorphosis between the self and the surrounding environment disrupts being able to exist as an individual in society. Suddenly ones sense of self dissolves into a feeling of connectivity to all that surrounds them. Sigmund Freud may have identified this feeling as the 'death drive', a longing for an earlier state of being.

More generally relevant to this work, art critic Ken Jonhson, claims that Woodman "plays out a high-low struggle between innocence and experience, the spiritual and the carnal and the angelic and the demonic", all the while emphasizing dualities and opposing emotions. Here we become privy to the artist's vulnerability, and her innocence. Ken Jonhson sensitively suggests, "It was not only her body that she exposed - she bared her soul". Here she even reveals her suicidal tendencies to the viewer; the beautiful tree bark on her arms is sadly reminiscent of bandages, and thus becomes an alternative natural covering for imaginary slit wrists. Woodman looks down hopefully, as though summoning the powers and comforts of nature as the only possibility to heal her troubled mind.

Photograph, Gelatin silver print - The Estate of Francesca Woodman

Study for Temple Project, New York (1980)
Artwork Images

Study for Temple Project, New York (1980)

Artwork description & Analysis: This photograph is part of an unfinished project called Study for the Temple project. The piece belongs to a body of work that began in the Spring of 1980 as part of a school project which was designed to explore the recreation of Greek temples through the use of draped female bodies, creating a connection between women as psychologically supportive structures in the same way that Greek statues physically adorn the temple of Diana in Athens.

The picture portrays a model (likely Woodman herself), draped in cloth, shielding her face with crossed hands, standing static against a white background. The artist becomes a living caryatid, at once aggrandized and burdened by the weight of a large imaginary structure.

Woodman was initially inspired by details of bathrooms in New York City that had been designed with classical references in mind. This image is also an example of Woodman's ongoing explorations with new techniques, themes, and subjects. Here in particular she experiments with large format diazotypes (a dry photographic process on paper that uses diazonium, UV light, and ammonia vapor), which is a technique that is also used for architectural plans and results in bluish and sepia tones. As usual for Woodman, there is a combination of interests in technique, medium, and theme - all at work simultaneously.

Diazotype - The Estate of Francesca Woodman

Some Disordered Interior Geometries, New York (1980-81)
Artwork Images

Some Disordered Interior Geometries, New York (1980-81)

Artwork description & Analysis: Here we see an open page of Woodman's last photographic book, Some Disordered Interior Geometries featuring two photographs from a collection of work collaged into an already existing 24 page geometry book (which she had found in her favorite bookshop in Rome, Liberia Maldoror). The book uses the artist's well-rehearsed device of pointing to a rational system as a way to expose, and better contemplate its opposite, ie the 'disordered' landscape of interior emotions. Indeed she attempts to bring a semblance of structure to chaos by using both reliable geometry and a linear book format. Human reality it seems is not as straight forward as mathematics, but Woodman uses the certainty of geometry as a way of thinking about abstract ides. Woodman had found five other old school books in the secondhand bookshop in Rome, but Some Disordered Interior Geometries was the only one completed and published, released to the public just days before her suicide.

Woodman loved the work of André Breton, and in particular his book Nadja and had said that she wanted her text and photographs to have a similar communication between one another as these elements do for Breton. Depicted here naked from the waist down with clothes strewn all around, she writes beneath her pictures, "These things arrived from my Grandmother... they make me think about where I fit in the odd geometry of time...". The work becomes extremely intimate. The fact that we are viewing a book, the act of holding such an object and turning its pages becomes a sensual experience, and as such recalls the tactile relationships between family generations. Art critic James McMillian writes that upon viewing Woodman's book works that a conflict is resolved and some level of angst dissipates.

Artist's book with 16 gelatin silver prints - The Estate of Francesca Woodman

Portrait of a Reputation (undated artist's book)
Artwork Images

Portrait of a Reputation (undated artist's book)

Artwork description & Analysis: This is another important bookwork by Woodman. It is undated and unpublished but well exposes her multitude of connections with Surrealism. This is an early photograph in the series in which she remains clothed and wears a single glove. As the series progresses she removes all of her clothes, and then finally, the glove. Once fully naked she outlines one hand across her chest. These handprints soon become solid prints, the index of her own self, touching her breast and groin. In the final images in the series, Woodman's body has disappeared altogether and all that remains are her handprints.

The handprints on the wall remind the viewer of primordial cave art, of the primary signature mark and early expression of identity of an ancient people. Furthermore, the handprints recall Ana Mendieta's Body Track series (1982) in which the artist drags down two red handprints from the top to the bottom of a large canvas. Finally, the inky fragmented body parts also make reference to the collaborative series made by Meret Oppenheim and Man Ray, Oppenheim at the Printing Wheel (1933). Like the Surrealists before her, Woodman shows interest in the process of making art and in particular here, how the negative and positive relate to one another in photographic development.

Also inspired by Surrealism is the use of the single glove. She did a further series of images with a friend in a café depicting a lost glove and this is one of the motifs well remembered from Breton's Nadja. There is a great sense of loneliness expressed by the arresting vision of a single glove. It as though longing suddenly occurs for the other glove and the imagination craves that the two objects be united. This seems to be a metaphor for relationships, as though the individual human without a partner feels a sense of mourning for attachment. This said however, apart from fleeting union, the reality of existence is that it is something experienced alone. Celebrity singer Michael Jackson, equally interested in questions of existence and in the meaning of the human condition, took up the same idea and only ever wore one glove.



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Francesca Woodman Photo

Related Art and Artists

Le Violon d'Ingres (The Violin of Ingres) (1924)
Artwork Images

Le Violon d'Ingres (The Violin of Ingres) (1924)

Artist: Man Ray

Artwork description & Analysis: Inspired by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's La Grande Baigneuse, Ray used Kiki de Montparnasse wearing a turban as a model for this piece. He transformed the female body into a musical instrument by painting sound-holes on her back, playing with the idea of objectification of an animate body. Throughout his career Man Ray was fascinated with juxtaposing an object with a female body.

Ingres's works were admired by many surrealist artists, including Ray, for his representation of distorted female figures. Ingres's well-known passion for the violin created the colloquialism in French, 'violon d'Ingres', meaning a hobby. Many describe Le Violon d'Ingres as a visual pun, depicting his muse, Kiki, as Ray's 'violon d'Ingres.'

This image is one of many of Man Ray's photographs that have gone on to have a rich afterlife in popular culture. F-holes have become a popular tattoo design amongst musicians, and fashion designers like Viktor and Rolf referenced the image to create their spring 2008 collection.

Gelatin silver print - J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Unica Bound (1958)
Artwork Images

Unica Bound (1958)

Artist: Hans Bellmer

Artwork description & Analysis: This photograph appeared on the cover of Le Surrealisme, Meme in 1958. It was one of a long series of photographic collaborations between Bellmer and his lover Unica Zürn. It takes his earlier doll-work to new heights as instead of manipulating the doll, he is now arranging a real, female body for his pleasure. Here she is just a torso, trussed like a joint of meat ready for the oven. With no face, no arms, and no legs, she is dehumanized. Worse still, the string is cutting into her flesh making it bulge. The accompanying caption read "Tenir au Frais" ("Keep Cool.") As part of a collaboration involving S&M imagery such as binding, bondage and straps, Zürn was at pains to present it as consensual. However her words are disturbing: she recalled that he was infinitely gentle, but she also said that the person "who is sketched by him, or photographed...by his pencil [sic] participates with Bellmer in the abomination of herself. Impossible for me, to render him greater praise." Her ability to consent to be manipulated in this way is drawn into question as she suffered from schizophrenia, was frequently institutionalized, and later committed suicide.

Gelatin silver prints & gouache on masonite - Galerie Berinson, Berlin

Untitled Film Still #13 (1978)
Artwork Images

Untitled Film Still #13 (1978)

Artist: Cindy Sherman

Artwork description & Analysis: Untitled Film Still #13 issues from Sherman's epic "Untitled Film Still" series (they did not actually derive from a larger movie) of the late 1970s, by which she first made a widespread reputation for herself as a witty commentator on the female role models of her youth, as well as those of an earlier generation. In this example, Sherman employs her own image as to suggest the central character in a 1960s "coming of age" romance, the young female intellectual on the verge of discovering her "true womanhood," or the prototypical virgin. Maturing in the 1970s in the midst of the American Womens' Movement, later known as the rise of Feminism, Sherman and her generation learned to see through mass media cliches and appropriate them in a satirical and ironic manner that made viewers self conscious about how artificial and highly constructed "female portraiture" could prove on close inspection.

Black and White photograph - The Museum of Modern Art

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Dr Rebecca Baillie

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Dr Rebecca Baillie
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