Francesca Woodman’s photography should be judged for what it is, not for what it promised. Yet, once acquired, the knowledge that she committed suicide at the age of 22 is bound to influence how her work is seen. It deepens admiration at the talent of one so young and, yes, it does raise the question of where it might all have led. More perversely, it provokes an almost unconscious search for evidence of impending self-destruction in her powerful and often disturbing self-portraiture.
But there is more. Woodman felt drawn to Surrealism, and she followed the movement’s tradition of not explaining work. Since her death in New York in January 1981, the job of interpreting her highly personal photographs has fallen to admirers who not infrequently have their own agendas. Thus, she has been cast as a tragic figure a la Sylvia Plath. And she is portrayed as a bold feminist whose exploration of her own nakedness represented women’s rediscovery of their bodies.
It is perhaps fortunate then that her name is only slowly becoming known in the art world; many people visiting the retrospective of her work at the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art here through May 31 are seeing it for the first time without prior knowledge of Woodman’s life and death. Their strong reactions suggest that the photographs — 100 black and whites and a handful of blue prints — stand well on their own, and that her work needs no morbid, sentimental or political filter to appear interesting.
Woodman was born April 3, 1958, in Denver into a family of artists (her father, George, is a painter turned photographer, while her mother, Betty, is a ceramicist). She spent her childhood between Boulder, Colo., and Italy, where her parents have a second home outside Florence. At the age of 13, she showed interest in photography and her father gave her an old camera to play with. Almost immediately, her artist’s eye was apparent. In ”Self-Portrait at 13,” which is on display in the Cartier show, she sits at the end of a bench, her face entirely hidden by her hair.
The following year, she attended Abbott Academy in Andover, Mass., where she met Wendy MacNeil Schneider, a teacher who both there and later at the Rhode Island School of Design proved enormously influential in her development as an artist, notably by emphasizing ideas over technique. By her early teens, Woodman had already adopted her body as her principal subject. A certain fascination with fetishism is apparent in a mid-1970’s close-up of her naked body with clothespins attached to her breasts and stomach.
When she arrived at Rhode Island in 1975, she already seemed different from other students. ”She had a high squeaky voice, a long nest of blond hair and was clothed in layers of mysterious garments,” recalled Betsy Berne, a fellow student who would remain her friend until her death. ”I thought she was completely insane. This was in my youth before I openly embraced the truly insane.”
At the school, in Providence, Woodman was free to experiment. Her many long stays in Italy seemed to draw her to abandoned houses and crumbling walls, both for their texture and their symbolism. In ”Space,” ”House” and other series, she used them as settings for what were in effect performance self-portraits, at times crouched in a corner, at other times partly hidden behind fallen wallpaper, frequently making use of mirrors.
The Francesca Woodman who appears in these photographs, however, is stubbornly elusive. The use of women’s bodies to make feminist statements was fashionable in the 1970’s, but she seemed more concerned with her own identity than that of women in general. Indeed, she showed little interest in the feminist movement (”She is a feminist in a not too creepy way,” Woodman wrote of one artist she met). Rarely do her images reach out to shock; they are neither erotic nor voyeuristic. Rather, they are profoundly emotional in a trapped kind of way, almost inviting the viewer to help find her. Her face is often blurred or looking away or reflected in a mirror or simply not in the frame.
In 1977, Woodman spent a year at her school’s Rome outpost, where Edith Schloss was one of her lecturers on contemporary Italian art.
”When I met her at 19, she was already a mature student,” Ms. Schloss later wrote in an article. ”I, so much older, almost envied her her mysterious consistency. First I thought that everything was just drive and freshness of youth, but then I understood that here and there was the innate touch of genius.”
FLUENT in Italian, Woodman felt at home in Rome, with its ancient walls and ever-present sensuality. Her work there included ”Angel Series” and ”Eel Series,” both of which reflected her growing interest in Surrealism. (”This interest did not come from us,” her father recalled. ”We were distinctly anti-Surrealist at the time.”) And, again, on the rare occasions that she photographed her face, she seemed distant. In a double portrait with an Italian man, for instance, half her face disappears in shadow.
After graduating from Rhode Island, , she moved to New York, where she worked as a photographer’s assistant and dabbled with the idea of fashion photography. By then, 1979, she had built up a body of work, and the following year she spent the summer as an artist in residence at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. It was there that she began moving away from nude photography. ”In the last year of her life, she uses herself as a model very infrequently,” Mr. Woodman noted.
Had she exhausted her primary subject? Was she ready for a different exploration? Did the uncertainty of her life prove too much for her? Her father speaks of her as ”a very ebullient and sociable person with an amazing number of friends,” but also as someone ”of incredible sensibility in terms of experiencing and feeling everything.”
Ms. Berne remembers Woodman falling into a depression over her work and a failed romance in late 1980. ”I didn’t know that we were running out of time,” she wrote in a catalogue essay. ”I did my best to distract Francesca, but somehow her despair was deeper than I could fathom. She was a mixture of an innocent child who would never grow up and a bitter older woman who had seen too much. The two sides were never at peace with one another and there was always feverish impatience. Anyway, it was that winter that Francesca killed herself.”
She left 500 black-and-white prints, several thousand negatives, journals, letters and a small book, ”Some Disordered Interior Geometries.” Some of her photographs had been exhibited during her lifetime (her first one-person show was in Rome in 1978), yet over the last 10 years, interest in her work has grown, notably in Europe, where at least four retrospectives are being held this year, the ultimate proof perhaps that her art is not tied to the 1970’s.
So do her photographs chronicle a death foretold? Not in the sense that she plays with any imagery of death, but perhaps so in the fragility of her self-image, in the innocence that disguises the sexuality of her poses, in the way she pushes herself to the limit seemingly unaware of the dangers involved, like a moth flying ever closer to a candle flame. This is hindsight, though. The photographs, after all, show an artist carving a place for herself in life. And — why not? — it is worth wondering what she might have done had she lived.