Francesca Woodman

Monday, 8 October 2012

Woodman (1)
Francesca Woodman in a self portrait. Untitled 1977-78 (Rome)

I saw a documentary film last night on photographer Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981. Watching this documentary, I realised how problematic it is to view the extraordinary art she created through the lens of her suicide. In one scene, her mother discusses an image Woodman created by experimenting with flour she collected after a truck had an accident and spilled some on the road. In the film, we see a video of Woodman lying naked in the flour and then standing up. You can hear her elated and exhilarated voice exclaiming how happy she was with the way the image turned out.

I can understand why for many this image she created with the flour, and her many other images, came to represent a ghostly absence, in light of the way she died. But her mother made a significant point: she doesn’t view this image as a symbol of absence, but one of presence; one of creation, experimentation and Woodman’s dedication to her craft.

Woodman (2)
Photo by Francesca Woodman. Untitled 1977-78 (Rome)

I wonder if it’s doing Woodman and her art a great disservice by approaching it through absence. Looking at her photography, you could argue that her images convey themes of loss, hiding, disembodiment. Her style of photography, unique at the time when she created it, is now endlessly copied with the constant ‘dream-girl-as-glamorous-death’ pose. I’ve seen fashion magazines emulate her style repeatedly with bored-looking models. But I don’t think her work is about death or trying to dissolve herself, I think it’s about creation and trying to understand what you’re capable of doing with your own body and art by experimenting with it.

As I was listening to her mother speak, I thought that approaching Woodman’s work through absence is a way of erasing her, and erasing the power of her images through a romantic grand narrative of the tragic young artist. We seem to love this cliché, culturally, but it can sometimes be a form of deflection, and it can kill off what a piece of art can do and say, and how it can grow with new audiences. I question myself too – when I deflect the power and meaning of a work in the here and now, and its affect on me, by relating it back to some tragic biographical story of the artist-figure: am I closing off what it has to say, and what I can bring to its meaning? Am I really so scared by what the work makes me feel, that I need to protect myself with a general stereotype of the artist?

Anyway, here’s a clip from the film, which I’m now tempted to buy:

All images are from here.


Gracia said...

I know little of her work but I agree with how you have described it here... "I think it’s about creation and trying to understand what you’re capable of doing with your own body and art by experimenting with it." Yes, that's it to me too.

Of docos recently seen, I saw Carol Morley's Dreams of a Life about Joyce Vincent whose death went unnoticed for 3 years. I was slightly underwhelmed by it, but would be interested to know what you thought of it if you've seen it. To me, it focused on Who when I was looking for How.

Enjoy Romeo & Juliet soon. Exciting!

cluelesspixie said...

I love Woodman's work... Approaching art through the author's story very often means doing it a great disservice and I believe that indeed is the case here. The art seems to be somewhat greater than the narrative. It can hardly work that way.

Sally said...

This is just how I feel about Sylvia Plath - her work is stereotyped as all gloom-and-doom and her death seems to overshadow everything people interpret about her. Of course it's a very important element of her life story, but there's so much more to her voice than that.

Bethany said...

This post is really lovely, Hila, and I feel like it's so true not just of art, but of life and personal loss. Loss, at least in my experience, mars our ability to love the past and present for what they are outside of that loss. Every memory is warped by it, and we remember those moments as foreshadows, when they may not have really been foretelling anything at all. And every present moment is hallowed out of its joy because that person we really loved isn't here to experience it with us.

Rambling Tart said...

I looked at these images before reading your words and felt a bit sad, but after reading your words they make me smile. I can see her scurrying around so excited as she tries out various poses and framing and lighting. Her work was created when she was ALIVE and must be viewed that way. Beautiful. :-) Now you've got me wondering how many other works of art I view through the death of the artist instead of their life.

Diana Sudyka said...

I was so excited to see you post about Woodman! I too have sometimes found it hard to not see her work though the filter of her tragic death, even with having the awareness that it is a mistake to see her work as being about a certain absence as you mentioned. The documentary, especially the parts where you can hear her voice, really helped move her powerful images out of that shadow. I was hesitant to watch the movie at first, worried it was going to exploit her suicide, and her family, but I found it more illuminating and moving.

I was lucky enough to see her recent retrospective show at the Guggenheim NYC. She was simply an extremely ambitious, brilliant artist that was far ahead of her time.

SARAH said...

Your thoughts here bring new meaning to morte d'author (or artist, in this case). Perhaps killing the author/artist, so to speak, makes us more vulnerable too, leaves us less room to read the work as a narrative of some other person's tragic life and forces us to see ourselves in it instead.

thepathtoyourdoor said...

Serendipity, I also saw this film this last weekend and it has stuck with me ever sence. She did beautiful work.

Odessa said...

Wow, powerful images. And yes, it always makes me sad when people talk about great artists and writers emphasizing their tragic deaths, as if that's the only reason to take their work seriously.

Anonymous said...

Same with Plath: many reduce her work to an explication of her death. Plath herself said that the personal was a means of accessing more universal themes... her work is about war, modern life, motherhood and also death. It is deeply feminist in it's challenging of prescribed feminine roles. The work is the important thing in and of itself; let's not reduce women artists to the sum total of their flesh and blood.

Hila said...

Gracia: I haven't seen it, but I understand what you're saying - I want the 'how' too. The 'who' seems to overwhelm sometimes in art.

cluelesspixie: I think there's so much going on in her work that can't simply be attributed to her biography - or, to a small portion of her biography.

Sally: I agree, I have to admit to rolling my eyes whenever those theories are trotted out about Plath's work - it's so much more.

Bethany: I know exactly what you mean, I've felt that too - and I'm not always successful in moving beyond that feeling.

Rambling Tart: that's exactly how she seemed in the video - all excited about what she was creating. It was actually quite sweet to listen to her excited voice.

Diana: oh she was, wasn't she? How lucky that you got to see her recent retrospective, I would have loved to have seen it. I had no expectations watching this documentary, but I walked away from it feeling so incredibly moved by the glimpse into her ambition and artistic process.

Sarah: yes, I get what you're saying - and I think that vulnerability can be quite confronting at times.

thepathtoyourdoor: It's probably screening on televisions around the same time!

Odessa: I agree, a work of art is a dialogue between the artist and the audience - it's not just the artist on his/her own.

Anon: "It is deeply feminist in it's challenging of prescribed feminine roles" oh I so agree about this! I think Plath's work is so often reduced to how she died, and that seems like such a simplistic interpretation of it.