Girl, Seeming to Disappear

Francesca Woodman's work presents femaleness without satire or an agenda

IN 1986 at Wellesley College I took in a large posthumous exhibit of the photographs of Francesca Woodman, whom I had once known. Sometimes memory ages its flavors as slowly as wine does. Those Wellesley photographs (and those I had seen in 1981, in a booklet published just before Woodman's death, under the title "Some Disordered Interior Geometries") embodied what I lately have come to regard as Woodman's cool experiment with life, for they depicted a series of games with the female body -- posed nude against a crumbling plaster wall or curled in a corner near some debris; flitting across the path of the camera from left to right or glimpsed through a windowpane darkly.

Some of those photographs were bold, some painfully regressive. The often nude body -- usually, it seemed, that of Woodman herself -- sometimes served as a mannequin for flea-market dresses, sometimes draped itself in flowers, old wallpaper, birch bark. One striking fact was common to nearly all the photographs: the body seemed associated with no face. Either the face blurred in motion while the body stood or lay still, or the body was beheaded by the frame, or, most often, the head twisted away from the camera as though allowing the image to take form behind its back. One remarkable photograph showed a bare-backed woman holding up the skeleton of a flatfish as a sort of surrogate for her spine, while the bare wall that dominated the picture exposed its own inner skeleton of laths; the woman's body was draped in cheap cloth of yet another skeletal pattern. In regarding these shattering photographs, I was reminded of the way the young Francesca, in her parents' house, had seemed to see beyond me as though finding her focus somewhere else, off up the mountain, in the middle distance.

I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, but seldom returned after my adolescence. In the mid-1970s I found a way of visiting the University of Colorado every spring by getting invited to a week-long saturnalia called the World Affairs Conference, which brought together four or five score invitees from all over the world to stay in homes with Boulder families and, by day, to argue in college classrooms with one another in a sort of intellectual catch-as-catch-can.

I didn't meet Francesca the first time I went to the conference, but I was assigned to board with an art professor named George Woodman. He and his wife, Betty, had requested a second poet after playing host to Howard Nemerov a couple of times. I found myself stashed in a comfortable guest room in the Woodmans' briskly contemporary one-story house, glass brick and white stucco, situated above Boulder on the lower slopes of Flagstaff Mountain. The interior walls of the house displayed a number of paintings, geometric and rational in their forms, yet supple and enticing in their subtle varieties of color. These were George's work; their shapes were mathematically calculated according to ineluctable rules, yet their surfaces swayed seductively.

In the corners of the house and ranked outside on terraces stood a large number of ceramic objects: jars and amphorae, huge serving dishes and glittering jugs, empty or full of flowers, bellied and pregnant in their shapes, glowing with a rich variety of glazes -- the work of Betty Woodman, whose potter's wheel resided in a separate studio behind the house and whose kiln lay within a few steps of the kitchen door. The kitchen itself was full of Betty's dishes -- cups and saucers, pasta dishes and dinner plates, pitchers and ewers, casseroles and basins. Every meal in this hospitable house -- George and Betty both cooked -- was served on utensils that had been the subject of loving artistic attention, like the objects displayed on the walls or in the corners. Bookshelves held poetry and novels that the Woodmans relished and volumes of scholarship that George had found worth investigating. The house was often full of music as well, and the view, eastward over the roofs of Boulder toward the Great Plains, glistered in the spring, when daffodils pushed their way up outside the picture windows, buried to the neck on some mornings in snow. Boulder still smelled like home to me, and I soon came to love this house and its inhabitants. I was back in a place where I belonged, among new friends, in the house where Francesca Woodman grew up.

I stayed chez Woodman during four spring conferences. Once, during my visit in April of 1977, Francesca was on hand, on spring break from the Rhode Island School of Design, sleeping youthfully late in her bedroom and drifting about during the daylight hours, making caffè latte in the kitchen in the mornings, curling up in a sling chair amid the pottery, reading Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady or listening to Brahms's Requiem, just drifting, listening, breathing, resting. She didn't say much. She didn't seem to be paying me or anyone else much attention, but I was aware of a distinct and wary presence, of someone who drank in her surroundings. She and her father talked quietly from time to time, sometimes about money, and as I recall, she helped her mother unload the kiln after a firing.

At the end of my week the Woodmans drove me and Francesca to the Denver airport, and we flew together across the country toward Boston and Providence. She sounded as though she was relishing her schooling, in a distant sort of way, but she was not particularly communicative about the work she was doing. Had I been a little more curious, I might have discovered more, but I was content to sit in an adjacent seat, keeping an eye on her the way one watches a cat, while she read and slept her way across the continent.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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