In December 2015, I visited Amsterdam for the first time. It was a truly memorable experience, not only because it was such a magical time of year to go, but because it was the first holiday in which I was able to dedicate entirely to viewing art. I went with my boyfriend and I am must say I am delighted to have a partner who is equally enthusiastic in spending countless hours in a gallery setting. We were fortunate enough for our visit to coincide with a major retrospective, On Being An Angel (18th Dec 2015- 9th March 2016) of American photographer Francesca Woodman’s work. This was exhibited at Foam, an institution dedicated solely to photography.
It was a show which I will remember for the rest of my life. Woodman’s work is incredibly raw and her photographic portfolio is composed predominantly of self-portraits. Walking around the exhibition was like peering into the soul of Woodman. Not only was her physical body exposed in multiple works, but so was her innermost self. Viewing the photographs was like catching a glimpse into her mind and world. Her aura was infectious and I was still thinking about the photographs long after I left the gallery; they truly made an lasting impression on me.
And so when the opportunity to write and research Woodman’s work arose within my current role as Digital Content Writer Intern for the National Galleries of Scotland, I was delighted. You can view the link below to read my piece and learn more about Francesca Woodman and her influences (in order to view this essay, you must first scroll right to the bottom of the page and click on the ‘plus’ sign at the right hand side, adjacent to the ‘more about this artwork’):
Although sexuality is inherent to Woodman’s work, it is not the primary objective given her predominantly raw treatment of it. There is a sensitivity to the way she portrays the female nude which distils the sexual components that are inevitably present. In some instances however she is more willing to be sexually explicit, as in the case of ‘Untitled’ (1980, pictured above). Through the framing of the shot and the absence of the lower half there is the suggestion of sexual occurrences. Her facial expression seems to emphasise this possibility. She also uses a fur-based prop which accentuates the smoothness of her skin and feminine elements such as the erect nipple. Contrast to this highly visible sexual component, there are more subtle depictions of the female form as demonstrated by ‘Untitled’ (1979-80, pictured below). In this instance the mirror reflection becomes the subject of the photograph and the body more of an aside. Mirrors are a common prop employed by Woodman, which highlight the theme of representation and self. Given all the connotations that a mirror holds, the presence of this object within her work furthers the exploration of bodily image and form.
Props were often employed by Woodman in constructing her photographs. Mirrors, doors, shells, tables, fabric and food are just a few of the objects that she utilised. These are all objects originating from the domestic realm, which demonstrates Woodman’s interest in gender. It is amazing to think that all Woodman required in constructing her images was a room, a tripod, some objects and herself. Such simple tools yet the results are so complex. Despite the minimalist assortment of items depicted, she pushed photography to its limits through the experimental use of slow shutter speed and interesting photographic stand points. Woodman’s work is sensitive yet interrogative in its dynamic exploration of the female figure. Although the tragedy surrounding her death will always be in the background to her work, that is where it will firmly remain given her compelling, iconic and beautiful oeuvre.
When we were in Amsterdam at New Year, my boyfriend and I were lucky enough to see ‘On Being an Angel’ at Foam the photography Museum. ‘On Being an Angel’ was an incredible retrospective of American photographer Francesca Woodman’s work which ran from 18th December 2015 – 9th March 2016. I had never come across her work before so I was incredibly lucky to witness it in this collective way. It was raw, it was subtle and it was beautiful. Woodman generally took herself to derelict locations and created what you could I suppose call a body of self-portraits. Her portfolio is vast and sensitive, mostly shot in black and white with long exposures. Viewing it in the form of a retrospective was interesting as it allowed you to more fully comprehend her progression as a photographer and artist. I wrote a piece about Woodman’s work with the intention of submitting it for an art writing prize, but ended up submitting something else in the end. So instead of leaving the written piece dormant on my laptop, I’m instead going to publish it in two installments on my blog across two days.
It can be a curse to the artwork when an artist dies young, as from that point onwards their work will inevitably be read in relation to their premature death. Eva Hesse is a prime example of this, as the rhetoric surrounding her body of work never fails to mention the brain tumour that took her life at the age of merely thirty-four. Francesca Woodman’s work does not escape this morbid reading either given her suicide aged twenty-two. Woodman had not long left her student days behind when she killed herself and consequently her work became imbued with tragedy; with an attempt to try and solve the mystery and turmoil surrounding this ‘lost girl’. Yet in her work Woodman was far from lost as she had an aura that has become iconic to her powerful photographs. They are all to an extent self-portraits, as the majority of Woodman’s photographs are composed by her placing herself within a chosen environment. Despite the settings being a critical element to her compositions, they do not feel forced. Quite the opposite; her placement within the surroundings feels like the most natural thing in the world, even if it does happen to be in an apparently derelict room.
By photographing herself in abandoned-looking places Woodman creates a sense of both hopelessness and emptiness which are highlighted through her solitude in the space. There is a melancholy to the majority of her images, particularly the ones in which her expression can be depicted, as a smile is a rarity. Yet for Woodman photography was no smiling matter, but instead a personal exploration of the female form, gender, sexuality and self. The nude figure was a common motif throughout her work which created an explicit sense of vulnerability. By posing naked Woodman was peeling back not only the physical layers, but also the psychological. She was exposing herself to her audience by allowing her body and self to be truly scrutinized; although more often than not the body in Woodman’s photographs tends to be slightly obscured. Whether this is through a material covering of the body, awkward placement of self, or unusual camera angles; there was rarely a clear and easily read depiction of the figure.
Woodman instead favoured this sense of ambiguity; a body that is both present and absent simultaneously. ‘On Being an Angel’ includes a lot of photographs that evidence this theme of Woodman’s. When confronted with her work throughout this exhibition there is a lot of contemplation involved in the reading of it; her pieces are not designed for easy digestion. Instead they are complex and demanding, forcing the eye to engage and to question what it is seeing. ‘Space 2’ (above) is the perfect example of this as Woodman has chosen to incorporate the wallpaper as a physical prop to obscure her body. We are left wondering where her body begins and the wall ends. There is also a very sensual component to this piece, as the placement of her hand draws attraction to the area surrounding her groin. The angle at which her other arm holds the wallpaper is also sexually suggestive as the viewer’s eye travels up the diagonal of the wallpaper almost expecting to see a hint of side-breast.