Words like haunting, ethereal, spooky, eerie spring to mind when viewing the ghostlike images of Francesca Woodman. Indeed that is the kind of language that pops up in all the reviews I have read, turning her into a cliché – the doomed romantic icon.
Diane Arbus and Sylvia Plath belong to the same canon.
The trouble with this is that it takes away from serious consideration of the work on view, and Woodman deserves better.
If you’ve ever tried to do self-portraits, you’ll quickly discover how difficult they are. It’s hard to shoot yourself in an unselfconscious fashion and to think of new ways to capture your image that don’t seem tired.
Woodman used all of her considerable technical acumen and imagination to create a series of constantly stimulating, beautiful and sometimes disturbing portraits.
There’s an element to her work that is almost like a child playing imaginary games by herself. In many hands this would have seemed nothing more than childish but Woodman allies it with an old world, almost Victorian sensibility. One of the things I kept thinking of when looking at certain images was Alice in Wonderland, a book that was Victorian but strangely surreal like much of Woodman’s work. (Interestingly, while spending a year in Rome she discovered some surrealist texts in a local bookstore and become an avid fan.)
Of course, when looking at a room full of self-portraits its hard not to see someone who is totally self-absorbed. Or perhaps, considering Woodman choose to live away from her college in Rhode Island in an abandoned dry good store, a sense of someone who is a bit of a loner.
However, I tend to feel her portraits are more to do with the nature of identity than with any sense of self-love. The questions she asks with her work seem to be ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I?’’ What is it to be human?’
Tragically she never got a chance to explore these questions for very long. At 22 she committed suicide by jumping out of a New York loft window.
I’m sure many men who viewed the work felt like me on seeing this young vulnerable, often naked and isolated person, a feeling bordering on love. ‘If only we could have been around to save her’ we think to ourselves. This is of course is at once sexist and vaguely ridiculous but also at the same time poignant. It speaks of someone reaching out to us, affecting us, touching us, and perhaps even accusing us with their art.
In the end she is forever beyond our help, trapped in the body of her work, a 2-D image long since vanished from the face of the earth.