Important Art by Francesca Woodman
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.
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."
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".