Monday, 5 May 2014

Francesca Woodman, on being an Angel

In forums, when not classified by camera model, users are presented with genres, like Landscape, Portrait, etc. That is how camera users see Photography, with documentation as the general category. We are just recording things for future memory.

Of course there is also a third way, to see it historically: Naturalism, Realism, Avant-Garde, Conceptual, Globalization. You might refine it, or adopt another sequence. Surrealism sprang out of the Avant-Garde beginning of the 1920s in Paris and had a remarkable long life, moving to America and New York in 1940 and lasting till the 1970s, with F. Woodman as one of its last heralds. 

Meanwhile Photography  had entered the MOMA in NY and had become an art.
When I began to approach critically Woodman's work, I was struck by the lack of awareness shown by the first reviews. Essentially she was dubbed a feminist, or at best a body artist, who had died in turbulent times. They had missed her seminal Italian year, when she bloomed from art pupil to full blown artist. The fact that she reached her accomplishment here in Rome at 18een, while dying at 21 in NY didn't make things easier.

It was only years later that criticism began a more refined approach. Meanwhile she had reached somehow cult status, both in the US and Italy, being dubbed the 'Rimbaud' of Photography. This put her indirectly in the Surrealist sphere, Rimbaud having been among the main inspirers of Breton and comrades. Woodman has stated explicitly her admiration of Breton's 'Nadja'.

Woodman is reported as saying "Vorrei che le parole avessero con le mie immagini lo stesso rapporto che le fotografie hanno con il testo in Nadja di André Breton" ("I would like words to have the same relationship with my images as the photographs have with the text in Nadja by André Breton").

 But among her influences there was also surrealist photogs. Duane Michals, Diane Tuberville, and the Man Ray of the Meret Oppenheim's pictures. Delving even earlier she was inspired by Gothic Fiction, Roman Baroque and Bernini's statues. Some of her studies on compressed perspective remind very much of Giotto. She might have seem him during her yearly holidays as a child near Florence. Giotto invented perspective, what luck for a future photographer to get it from the horse's mouth.

Francesca began her activity v. early at 13, spending  her time at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She was also immersed in Italian art every summer by her parents, both artists, and she spent her second year of primary school in Italy, until she reached Rome with her RISD grant for 1977-78.

It's at the Libreria Maldoror, a minuscule Surrealist bookshop in the heart of Medieval Rome, where she had her first show, that I must have crossed her. Nearby the wonderful Baroque Piazza Navona   you could both find Maldoror, the occupied building of the 'femministe' (Women Liberation Front) , and the second hand shops where she chose her neorealist clothes. I remember that the slogan with those ladies was: 'Il corpo e' mio e me lo gestisco io'- the body is mine and I will Take care of it". A program that Francesca was going to adopt entirely, by being her favorite model.

She was also inspired by the Italian conceptual artists at Galleria Ferranti,  nearby Maldoror, and later Postavantgarde painters who let her use one of the large rooms in an abandoned Factory. Thus, she got in touch with Sabina Mirri (painter), Edith Schloss (poet), Giuseppe Gallo (painter) , Enrico Luzzi and Suzanne Santoro. I was acquainted with the first three, all remarkable young artists at the time.

 In the factory at S. Lorenzo she shot  her seminal 'On being an Angel' work in Rome, when just 18. A whole constellation of influences was in place, but nevertheless her work was far more original than her critics initially made it after her death in 1981, when she wasn't there anymore to correct their hits and misses about her. She could be a cultured artist and yet deceptively simple too, playing a Victorian innocent maid, a clever child the way Charles Liddel's Alice was. 

The only Art Book  she made in her short life was 'Some Disordered Interior Geometries' appeared in 1981, a few days before her death. Her parents have given access to only 700 pictures, all outstanding but her estimated production from 13 to 22 has been estimated to 10,000.  Even given for granted that a photographer must always select his/her work, we know therefore a v. little part of her work. Her work is kept by the Woodman Estate. Some 170 are being sold through galleries. The known production therefore poses a problem.

The majority of her pictures are from contact sheets of 6x6 cameras, notably an old Speed Graphic, and a Rolleiflex. The SG allows multiple formats too.

The contact shots being v. small and square confer both intimacy and a confined  space to the subject - only in her later years she planned an installation of large photographs, an installation simulating the friezes of a Greek Temple).
I related in a first post how I was sent an illustrated invitation, by her. I could make out a square with a naked body exposed to the full sunshine  from a factory window. And this reminded me later of Bernini, The Ecstasy of Santa Teresa, in Rome. Did she see it, or was it a personal rediscovery of how to tell pictorially a female orgasm?

An invitation sent to me: therefore I feel authorised to use images here for learning purposes.

Religious and sexual drives have one and the same origin  according to Bataille and other French Surrealists working towards Convulsive Beauty and a new History of Eroticism. Thus there is a common iconography across cultures. There are also common interdicts.

Without stating it so explicitly Freud posited it with its fundamental enquiry on dreams and the incest complex, when the child goes through a mirror experience because of the denial of his sexual drive, towards the mother or the  father. His Ego doubles and splits, in order  to avoid what Lacan will call 'The Thing' - the forbidden one.

The theme of mirrors and splitting is omnipresent in Francesca.
Hysteria was also part of the constellation, and was the main study at the Salpétrière hospital where Breton had been a nurse: were transe, orgasm, and religious ecstasy one and the same thing? Breton took an interest, because he believed that the sublimation of the sexual drive would have made art revolutionary: 'la Beaute' sera convulsive ou ne sera pas'.

By visiting each Summer Florence and her public Renaissance Gallerie, Uffizi and Pitti, Francesca must have been well aware that an excess of light was akin to the visitation of an Angel, and the total awareness of the artist, visited by inspiration. Nakedness in the Renaissance was also a metaphor of truth.

As Dr. Eva Rus remarks in her paper, the theme of the mirror is indeed omnipresent both in the work of F Woodman and other Female Liberation's authors. It is a theme that both frees the body and protects it with mirrored, multiple identities. It can also encage however.

In Feminist parlance, by exposing her naked body to a mirror, she re-appropriates it. She echoes male desire, but she also detaches herself from it.
Both David Bate and Eva Rus have discussed the implications of this important theme. It is a counter to the paradox that Breton and he early  Surrealists  had come against with their theories about Woman and sexuality, both a Goddess and a public woman, with Sadism and Courteous Love taken in the same stride.
Rus mentions that by her work,  Francesca was speaking for women, not just for a woman, playing with male desire, but not ending in it, exploring instead womens' sexuality, and identity down to the unspeakable, and the excessive (Rus). 

One's own shadow, duplication, wish to disappear, and condensation of dream figures are all part of the Surrealist imaginary, suggested by Freud. You can all find them in Francesca's figures. She played with the whole range of the Freudian symptoms to reenact myths. So we go from the passive interpretation of the unconscious drive by the early surrealists a' la Nadja, to active impersonation of dream figures by Francesca - the mark of genius! 
In some pictures one wonders if turning rapidly about herself she didn't achieve a trance like a dervish, and disappearance into space - blending the frame and the object in another dimension.

Despite the excess, let me remind that Francesca has aptly described her work as solving visual ideas as if they were equations 

 "I had this idea to illustrate physically literary metaphors  and to make physical metaphors for moral ideas (the reputation). However by working slowly at other projects, I lost the peculiarity of this idea and I came out with a group of images that didn't illustrate any specific concept, but are the story of someone who is exploring an idea […] Let's  follow a figure who tries to solve the idea as if it were a mathematic problem, and to fit it inside an equation. Two months later […] I was back to the original theory for illustrating 'Self-deceit' […] the thing that I found most interesting was the feeling that the figure, more than hiding from itself, was absorbed by a thick and humid atmosphere".

Do you understand the description? Visual artists are often deceptively simple, but they cannot explain what they choose to illustrate in another way.  This is how I basically see her work, since at the time I was a performer myself. First you empty the scene, the physical space around you and in your mind. Then you begin testing visual hypotheses in this virtual space. You use chance associations, even dreams  to suggest the solution, how things must fit spatially.
In Self-Deceit the object of the camera, the model, literally navigates between two mirrors, the second being the camera, and in  this virtual space it becomes again a subject - with multiple directions and identities it can choose from.

The camera however is not only a mirror but a a perspective machine.  For Francesca thus the problem, as for every photog, must have been to fit a 3D space in the bidimensional plane, and in her medium format a  6x6 square at that. 
In some shots her caged body  acts to as the bridge between the illusory three dimensions of the perspective and the plane of the photo. Often the frame beheads her, as in the first picture, and here:

It immediately reminded me of the problem faced by Francis Bacon, when fitting a soft blob of a body, a monster inside a perspective cube, drawn with sharp lines, cutting as blades.

Francesca could do the same by fitting a mirror at the end of the frame and by moving rapidly in front of the objective with slow shutter speeds.  "Me and Francis Bacon and all those Baroques are all concerned with making something soft wiggle and snake around a hard architectural outline." So I wasn't wrong after all.

Again, did she use the rapid movement just to disappear, or to achieve some sort of transference through the looking glass, like Alice?

Let me end here with one of her most interesting pictures, where she transforms herself like Daphne  into  a tree, in a pond in Providence, USA. You can easily compare it to Bernini's work, which Francesca must have seen while in Rome.

In symbolic terms the scene is interpreted as the nymph transforming herself into a tree, to flee a rape by Apollo. It might also be interpreted as another metaphor of desire imagined by Bernini, where woman becomes again unconstricted nature, to escape male desire. Is that what Francesca had in mind with her Providence surprising picture? Or did she want to be"absorbed by a thick and humid atmosphere" and disappear in a protective womb?

Besides the psychological interpretation, as photogs. we might wonder how Woodman solved the technical problems. Where did she place her Speedgraphic, in the water, on a tripod? Did she frame exactly the roots under which she would then have placed her naked body like Daphne? Did she use flash lights? What a fascinating way to work, for a girl who was just 18, and yet already so mature.

So we know a few things now about Francesca's very original  approach to photo work, but in the next instalment I would like to explore better her symbolic world with Dr. Eva Rus from the U. of Birmingham. I found it to be a most fitting paper about Woodman,  after I read so many mundane comments that missed the artist, and only described the woman.

Francesca went so deep in her photographic performances and metaphors that it is difficult to imagine anyone as her successor - although she has many imitators.  Perhaps that explains too her cryptic statement before she took her life. She was really an angel who departed before people took notice of her, except a few fellow-artists.

"I have parameters and my life at this point is similar to the sediments of an old cup of coffee, and I would rather die young, preserving what has been done, instead of confusedly rubbing out all these delicate things,

She threw herself from a skyscraper in NY,  after a long depression, insufficiently cured by analysis, allegedly because of a grant application having been rejected.  

Others mentioned she had wanted to become a Fashion Photographer, like her admired Tuberville. Perhaps Vogue rejected her? -  an issue complicated by problems with her boyfriend.

My next enquiry would rather be if in her 'descente aux enfers', descent into hell, she had not rather reached something monstrous, a figure of the unconscious which was unbearable, like those wrathful deities that Tibetan Buddhism tries to exorcise and exalt at the same time. This was the monster in 'Yet another leaden sky':

  Francesca could use elegant metaphors, like the momentous arrival of a turtle in a room. Her double hides from it, and  is literally cornered by the monster in a shortened perspective, and as a result it loses its face. It wears the black veils of melancoly. It is an emblem that needs to be decoded, and yet keeps a high degree of ambiguity.


1. I have avoided nudity, which is difficult with F. Woodman, to respect the guidelines set by my tentative sponsors, Amazon and Google. On another plane, belonging to the same generation of Francesca, we can both have a (sad) laugh at it. By a paradox you can see all the pictures of her lovely body, by doing a Google search :)

2. I propose you to solve an enigma. Because of her short life, and because she worked with film (120 format mostly) I cannot be sure if we see now her actual prints, or negatives that were printed by the Woodman Estate. This would also tell us how much she postprocessed in a film darkroom.
My impression is that she did just contact sheets, and solved all the problems before pushing the shutter button. That is, she used slow shutter and double exposure to achieve her disappearing acts. The S. Lorenzo lofts with big industrial windows would have offered all the natural light she needed.
Keep in mind that I have somewhat enlarged the original 6x6 size to better analyze the details. In the 'Daphne' shot, the contour  of the tree seems to have been relighted, since it has a kind of otherwordly glow. Relighting however was standard processing in film times.

3. The bare facts of her life by Wikipedia

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