In The Frame: Francesca Woodman's Self-Portrait Legacy

Her artistic career may have been short—she was taking photos for only nine years of her life—but Francesca Woodman left behind over 800 images when she died in 1981. She commands enough attention, 30 years after her death, to merit a retrospective at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, which will move on to the Guggenheim in 2012. What is the lingering hold that she has over art lovers?

With an abstract painter father, a ceramicist mother and a brother whose medium is film, it’s unsurprising that Woodman turned to art as a means of expression, yet it was not to be her salvation. Woodman, who suffered from depression for years of her life, died at just 22 after jumping from a Manhattan building. She’s one of those figures who achieved true fame and recognition after their death, but her father insists that her work should not be seen as tragic. For the purposes of this post, I want to put it under a feminist lens and identify the ways in which she can serve as an artistic role model for women everywhere, rather than trying to find her faults and foreground her trauma.

[Francesca Woodman, Rome series, 1976]

Woodman’s subject matter was herself, often nude or clothed in wispy dresses or pale shirts that hung off her frame. Most of the images you’ll find from her are in monochrome, which adds gravitas and depth, and picks out the harshness of light in her settings. An early self-portrait aged 13 (when she began picking up the camera) has shards of light appearing to fall from her hands, and she’s hiding in the semi-darkness. Her chunky knitted jumper adds bulk but also conceals her further, adding an extra layer between Woodman and the viewer as she recoils towards the edge of the picture plane. She was to continue experimenting with intimacy and staging throughout her career, using a glass box in the series “Space” and focusing on the hidden in her “Providence, Rhode Island” photographs.

[Francesca Woodman, House #4, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976]

From a feminist perspective, Woodman was exploring issues of identity and visibility with her own body, challenging everyone’s perceptions, including her own. She tried to blend into the background in the Rhode Island shots, taken in dilapidated rooms, and we see her picking up the wallpaper and the furniture to disappear beneath it. She’s in an atmosphere of former domesticity, crawling into the dirty fireplace and relishing the peeling paint; Francesca Woodman is certainly no “angel of the house,” (as the Victorians of an earlier era famously perceived women). Neither is her body something to be trussed up in male-approved clothes or to be embellished with make-up. We see her as she wishes to be seen, not as a false presence or a glamorous emblem, and even her nudity feels natural rather than forced, without the obvious goals of a topless model to titillate. Here it’s just about peeling off another layer.


[L: Francesca Woodman, 154 Rome Series, 1975-6. R: Francesca Woodman, Self Portrait Aged 13, 1972-5]

This is by no means militant feminist art, nor perhaps even deliberately political work. As incredibly clichéd as it sounds, this is a personal journey, and it’s one that the viewer can easily become engrossed in. We want to see what she does next, whether she engages further with us or pushes us away, holding us at arm’s length. We can become inspired by Francesca Woodman’s relaxed attitude towards her own body and her endless experimentation with it.

[Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976]

One sad aftereffect of Woodman’s death is that her then-boyfriend, Benjamin Moore, owns much of her work. Rather than giving it to her family or keeping it for sentimental value, he regularly sells it or lends it out. Clearly there’s a positive way to view this, that he is trying to keep her art alive, but I cannot help feeling cynical about him making money off of his dead girlfriend. The art writer Will Brand said of the matter that, “Moore’s relationship with Francesca Woodman was clearly a factor in her emotional state,” which makes this profiteering all the more uncomfortable. It also seems unfair that such a liberated female figure in life could be controlled by a man after her passing. I would like to see Woodman’s photographs untainted by the influence of Moore, to truly appreciate them.

Whatever you think of her brief career as a photographer, Francesca Woodman has contributed a vast amount to female self-portraiture and her work sets a great example for other artists. It shows us that our bodies are our own, and nobody can tell us otherwise.

by Polly Allen
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

woodman has been so influential/important to so many people

the impact of woodman's self-portraits on my own aesthetics cannot be understated. i can't remember the first time i saw her images, but i have loved every single one i came across, before knowing anything about the person creating them. the more i learn about her the more in love i fall with the beautiful art she made.

i'm not reall a photographer, but i do take a lot of self-portraits. every once in a while her influence on me will really manifest itself, like in these ones:

thanks for the awesome profile on her, polly, and perhaps it can be an introduction to a new generation of feminists who will be influenced by her.

Love her.

I love Francesca Woodman's work. I have been a fan of her photography for years. I have a book of her works on my coffee table. She did amazing things with her body and a camera. It is very sad that she died so young. Thank you so much Polly Allen for writing this piece about Woodman. I was overjoyed to see it and read it. Love you Bitch Media! Keep up the good work.

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