Darkness Visible

Darkness Visible

The remarkably gifted artist Francesca Woodman abruptly ended her brief life and career on January 19, 1981, leaping to her death from a window in her New York studio.


The remarkably gifted artist Francesca Woodman abruptly ended her brief life and career on January 19, 1981, leaping to her death from a window in her New York studio. Francesca was 22 years old. The work of her eight productive years, to which a small show at the Marian Goodman Gallery on West 57th Street is currently paying tribute, would have been magical and enigmatic whatever her fate, but the suicide caused viewers to wonder if it was foreshadowed in her images, which were mostly of herself. The relationship between an artist’s life and work is always tentative, even when the life seems obviously to have been the subject of the work, as in the case of Marcel Proust. The best reason for reading his biography is to learn how different the life and the great novel are, despite the internal relationship between the two. The difference between the author and the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past is a matter of intricate interpretation, though both are named Marcel. And, of course, the novel does not end with the death of its narrator; it ends, rather, with his resolution to begin to write it. “Death is not an event in life,” Wittgenstein said. “Death is not lived through.”

Whether or not Francesca’s suicide is projected in her art, the work seems revelatory of her inner life, not only because she is typically the model for the photographs of which it is made up but because of the way she pictures herself. The photographs are of a young woman, often nude, often wearing the kinds of vintage clothes or intimate garments that Francesca’s friends say she wore. They typically show her alone in the largely empty rooms, with stained, peeling walls and the odd piece of secondhand furniture, that she used as studios or living spaces or both. So people have pored over the prints with forensic eyes, looking for diagnostic clues. I must say the “evidence” strikes me as pretty crude. In one she shows herself in a bathtub, which a hermeneutical sleuth pounces on as metaphorically–a coffin! But models have been shown in bathtubs from Degas through Toulouse-Lautrec to Bonnard, without anyone thinking that mortality is a subtext. Or did the critic have in mind the fact that Seneca committed suicide in his bathtub, fearing a worse end at the hands of his dangerous disciple, the Emperor Nero? In fact, there is very little evidence in the photographs of one of the most important truths of Francesca’s life: that she was a photographer, and indeed the very photographer who took the pictures. In a portrait taken in her studio in Providence, Rhode Island, she sits behind a large, boxy camera on a tripod. But it is by a friend, George Lange. The camera, so far as I have been able to discover, is never a prop in any of her sparsely furnished spaces. There are not even overlooked signs, like a telltale cable, except in the very early picture Self-Portrait at Thirteen, taken when she could have been as old as 17, judging by the date. It is a self-portrait as a 13-year-old girl, whose chief feature is her hair, which covers all her other features, and whose most conspicuous garment is a cable-knit sweater. It is a cable-knit image: The cable is deliberately left in the print to make the pun. Francesca was as fastidious about planting signs and meaning as a Flemish master. If there were so much as the shadow of a camera, it reflected an artistic decision. As it is, the photographic apparatus is always external to the image, though certainly internal to her life.

I have referred to Francesca by her first name, though I never knew her personally. I did get to know her parents, George and Betty Woodman, both of them important artists in their own right. Betty is one of the major ceramists of our time, and I have written about her work on several occasions. George had been part of the Pattern and Decoration Movement of the late 1970s, but is today best known for his own frequently exhibited photographs. By 1986, Francesca’s work had become very widely known, with major exhibitions everywhere. She was the subject of studies by major critics, European and American. Her work, which seemed almost obsessively addressed to her gender and sexuality, coincided with the intense intellectual preoccupation these themes had awakened throughout the art world. The circumstances of her death gave her life an almost Rimbaldian aura. It is impossible to view her work without being drawn into the vast questions it raises about life, art and the meaning and embodiment of sex.

The Woodmans have assumed the responsibilities associated with shepherding their daughter’s artistic estate as her fame has spread and, alas, have had to deal with the inevitable myths that attach to artists whose work cries out for–yet also suffers from–biographical explanation. I have never discussed their views on Francesca’s death with them, but I have a pretty vivid sense of her life. She was born in Colorado, where her parents taught art at the university in Boulder. It was and is an artistic household–her brother Charlie is also an artist–and Francesca grew up artistically literate, to the point that one need hardly seek outside the culture of her home to find such influences as may have inflected her imagery. The family is Italophile–hence her name–and in 1969 purchased a house near Florence, where they continue to spend part of each year. Francesca attended the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, spent a year in Rome and finally moved to New York. She made her first photographs when she was at boarding school, and seems to me to have been instantly an artist. In that respect she reminds me of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose first photographs have an immediate authority, though he was suspicious of the importance of photography as a medium. Their somewhat cognate visions were already present at the beginning. Francesca’s vision always informs her work, in Boulder, Providence, Rome and New York. It is like a personal signature. One has the sense that she could have done nothing but what she did do. Her work unfolds over time like the oeuvre of a brilliant and precocious poet, like Keats or Rimbaud, whose voice is present in every line.

The photographers of Francesca’s generation–Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin come to mind especially–all used themselves as subjects, in varying ways. Like Francesca, Sherman used herself almost exclusively as her model, but her photographs are in no sense self-portraits, and are importantly not of her. Particularly in the Untitled Film Stills of the late 1970s, Sherman’s photographs are of the different personas she assumed as masks (which is what “persona” originally meant): young girl mooning over a letter, jaded housewife, young dancer, nurse, vagrant, office worker, vamp, aging glamour girl and so forth. By contrast, Nan Goldin has never portrayed herself as anyone but herself in what is often referred to as “Nan’s world.” Thus she shows herself with a black eye, hung on her by her boyfriend, Brian; or in a train going someplace for rehabilitation; or making love. Even when Goldin appears in the costume of a dominatrix, it’s a picture of herself dressed up, not standing in for a dominatrix, the way Sarah Siddons stands in for the Tragic Muse in Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait. The same rule applies to Mapplethorpe, who, even when he portrays himself as a faun or as a young girl, is always recognizable as himself. Francesca is closer to Sherman, it seems to me, in that she never shows herself as herself. The difference is that she always shows herself as the same character–the character of a young woman in various mise-en-scènes. The work, in other words, has a subtle fictive dimension, which is all too easily overlooked by those in search of biographical clues about her tragic end. We have to distinguish between Francesca the artist and “Francesca” her character, as we do between Marcel Proust and the narrator “Marcel”–or between Franz Kafka and the protagonist of The Trial, “Josef K.”

Why, then, did Francesca always photograph herself, if not to reveal herself? Asked this question, she replied that she was always available; it was easier for her to show what she had in mind than to try to get a model to do it. But my conjecture is that she invented a character, whose fictive life was in many ways a metaphor for her own inner life. She adored the novels of Colette, who published a series of largely autobiographical works in which the central character is named Claudine: Claudine à l’école, Claudine à Paris, Claudine en ménage, Claudine s’en va. I have given Francesca’s character the name “Francesca” just to underscore the problem of sorting out what pertains to the artist and the young woman in the photographs. Let’s then say that there are four short pictorial novels–Francesca in Boulder, Francesca in Providence, Francesca in Rome, Francesca in New York. Interestingly, Francesca rarely if ever shows “Francesca” as an artist. It’s not clear what exactly “Francesca” does, in fact. The picture could almost be seen as dreams that “Francesca” has, or as symbolic enactments of her inner thoughts and feelings. She is nearly always by herself.

The gelatin silver prints are quite small, which goes with the extreme intimacy they establish with the viewer, implying that they could be printed as illustrations in a book and held in the hand. They are characteristically in sepia or silver tones, which give them a slightly dated, almost Victorian feeling, as if to establish the fictive “once upon a time” framework of a fairy tale. I love one of the Providence images, done sometime between 1975 and 1978, where “Francesca” is shown at the extreme right, wearing what looks like a short robe–it may be a dress–over a nightgown. She is looking out of the photograph at us, but her arms are extended toward the dark corner of the room, where there are two doors, one of which opens onto darkness. Her expression, slightly triumphant, is like that of a magician, opening a door by an act of telekinesis. Her cheek is illuminated by a light behind her, but the light seems to be dissolving the hems of her garments, as if she is disappearing–or is somehow only partially materialized. She looks like a child, with long blond hair, on the cusp of adolescence. It is an exceedingly magical image.

In another print her legs, arm and belly–which is all that we see of her–are naked. She seems to be emerging from the wall, tearing the flowered wallpaper into large, uneven pieces as she achieves embodiment. In yet another, she is lying on the floor next to a window, dissolved in light, with only her legs fully emerged into actuality. It is like the portrait described by Balzac in The Unknown Masterpiece, in which only a single foot is legible.

Francesca was at home in the darkroom, unlike her peers among the 1970s photographers. Mapplethorpe was successful enough to have his own darkroom technician, though he was fastidious about his prints. He was a collector of vintage photographs, with a keen sense for the aesthetics of surface. So far as I know, Sherman and Goldin always had their work developed and printed, though they naturally were concerned with controlling how the prints came out. But Francesca needed to intervene in order to find ways of representing the spiritual state of her character. The final effect is that of a photograph taken in the parlor of a medium, in the midst of a séance. Whether Francesca Woodman explicitly entertained such beliefs is something I cannot speak to.

What I think it safe to say is that a recurring motif is “Francesca” undergoing some form of metamorphosis, from one state of being into another. In a set of images made when she was resident at the MacDowell Colony, she pictures herself in a stand of birch trees. Sometimes she appears nude, with strips of birch bark around her arms. At other times she is wearing a dress, but without arms–already a trunk. In other images she wears the dress and displays her arms encased in birch bark. It feels as if she is enacting the myth of Daphne being transformed into a tree. In one image, she shows herself holding a small cylinder of birch, the way a saint is shown with the attribute of her martyrdom. One could not have spent much time in Rome without soaking up such ideas. In one of her Roman images, she stands, with only her parted bare legs showing, with her feet planted at the ends of two roughly dug trenches, which reflect the legs, as if she has risen from the ground. I am deeply moved by an image in which she has flattened herself, nude, against a wall, with dirt on her legs, as if she has undergone resurrection. The expression on her face is almost beatific.

This beautiful, haunting installation at the Marian Goodman Gallery will be on view only until November 13. But her images are not difficult to find on the Internet. In the gallery’s catalogue, Francesca Woodman: Photographs 1975-1980, the photographs are, unless otherwise indicated, reproduced at their exact size. This will give you enough visual information to see what she was getting at, though of course it is difficult to reproduce the exquisite surfaces of the photographs themselves. In 1980 she began to work in a larger, even a much larger format. The catalogue reproduces Girl With Weed, printed on blue-print paper. It seems to be a narrative, told in three sequential images, in the last of which The Girl, naked and triumphant, holds the weed up, like Salomé holding the head of John the Baptist by his hair. The intimacy has, of course, been forfeited. It is impossible to say whether its sacrifice was leading to something greater.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy