BY Eleanor Nairne in Reviews | 01 MAR 11
Featured in
Issue 137

Francesca Woodman

BY Eleanor Nairne in Reviews | 01 MAR 11

‘There is the paper and then there is the person.’ This line is written by hand across the bottom of Francesca Woodman’s Charlie the model 4 (1976–7), a photograph taken in Providence, Rhode Island. The sentence relates to two basic features of the image: the subject, Charles Francis Moccio, who had worked as a life model at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) since 1954; and his prop, a sheet of person-sized paper, which he waves across a long exposure so that it dissolves into the daylight streaming from behind him. Perhaps the line also refers to the photographic paper itself, as a surface on which the artist could ‘develop’ personae. Like Woodman’s images, her words offer a host of different meanings depending on where the reader places the emphasis.
The sequence of 10 photographs in which Charlie appears, which opened the exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery, begins with a close-up of a female hand holding a glass ball against the curvature of his spine, and ends with him slumped in the corner, pressed against a pane of glass. In between, Charlie strikes a number of poses with the vitreous items littered across the stage – a sheet of Perspex, a mirror, a fishbowl – his face lit up with laughter. Woodman appears in the seventh frame, her head blurred by rapid movement with only a long plait left in silhouette. The ‘Charlie Series’ is laced with a wit captured best in Charlie the model 4: the model’s name has been smeared across a mirror to his right but is barely legible, save for the ‘ha’ which is brought into relief by the reflection of his portly profile. Charlie’s grin confirms that he is in on the joke, wriggling free from the life model’s traditionally static role (at RISD, he was famed for being able to hold poses for three hours and for his ability to stand on his hands for up to 20 minutes). In an inversion of Hans Bellmer’s la poupée, the femme enfant liberates her middle-aged, male mannequin.
Understandably, comedy remains something of a taboo in the reception of the work of Woodman, who committed suicide at the age of 22 by jumping out of a window in Manhattan. The first of three major touring exhibitions was held at Hunter College, New York, in 1986, five years after her death, and her photographs have since attracted considerable critical attention, with Phaidon publishing a monograph in 2006. The daughter of artists Betty and George Woodman, she began taking photographs at age 13 and went on to produce some 800 images, although only a fraction of these have been reproduced. Her first self-portrait, taken in 1972, establishes what would become a characteristic style: the artist sits nonchalantly in a domestic setting with her face averted, the foreground blurred into a charcoal haze and one hand holding the shutter-release cable.
This overview comprised almost 100 photographs, which were selected by Victoria Miro from a 2010 retrospective at Espacio AV, Murcia (which toured to SMS Contemporanea, Siena, and Palazzo della Ragione, Milan). The majority of these are untitled, known only by their location and date; Woodman is naked in almost all, with the odd thrift-shop item (a patterned dress, stocking or fur stole) adding a fetishized counterpoint to her ‘natural’ state. Distorting, erasing and hiding her body, she rubs dirt into her thighs so that they blend into the peeling paintwork of decrepit interiors and makes a pair of bark manacles so that her arms match the branches of a birch tree. It is all too easy to look at these photographs through the lens of her life and see the self-effacing attempts of an adolescent suicide; as art historian Carol Armstrong has pointed out, Woodman’s work invites ‘the mythology of the Ophelia syndrome’, with all the attendant clichés of female madness and morbidity.
The bare-brick walls and exposed ceiling beams of Victoria Miro Gallery situated her in a different space: the studio. This spoke to Woodman as a student artist, who was studying and practicing photography to varying degrees of success. Hung in clusters of two and three, the photos took on a cadence that accentuated their experimental quality: upstairs, for example, in one of two rare colour prints from 1979–80, Woodman arches her reflection to correspond to the edge of a mirror, which is laid into a brick chimney-breast. The pun between the human and architectural breast demonstrates a witty game also played in the match of her pistachio green dress to the walls, and in her fleshy calves that blend into the pastel-pink skirting boards. Like her Surrealist forbears (Claude Cahun particularly), Woodman engages with photography as a magic art of illusions, which demands both rehearsal and fortuity. Her photographs possess the irruptive energy of a young artist willing to use all the resources at her disposal, beginning with herself. When fellow student Sloan Rankin asked her why the photographs were relentlessly autobiographical, Woodman replied frankly, ‘It’s a matter of convenience, I am always available’.

Eleanor Nairne is Curator of Collection and Public Programmes at Artangel. She lives in London, UK.