Girl, Seeming to Disappear

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

This was my only encounter with Francesca. In subsequent visits to Boulder I heard more about her work at RISD and in Rome, at the MacDowell Colony and elsewhere. In early 1981 I received through the mail, unexplained, a copy of "Some Disordered Interior Geometries," which was a very peculiar little book indeed, consisting of fragments of diary entries and poetry along with small photographs printed on reproductions of an ancient set of Italian geometric tables. The photos revealed portions of a nude female body in a variety of positions, with no face showing. There was a strangely ironic distance between the soft intimacy of the bodies in the photographs and the angularity of the geometric rules that covered the pages, echoing the walls, the corners, the panes of glass. Soon afterward -- or perhaps even before the arrival of her book -- I heard that Francesca was dead, and when I spoke to her parents, they told me that there had been great trouble, things had been bad, there had been therapy, things had gotten better, guard had been let down, and Francesca had jumped from a window. She was a couple of months short of her twenty-third birthday.

ARTISTS have to engage with outrage and innocence as well as discipline: as artists, they have little choice, even if it stretches them beyond tolerable limits. Suicides tend not to crave piggish indifference or medicinal calm, and, Lord knows, Francesca Woodman's work partook of neither. I have for years now been thinking about her photographs and about their maker, and my interest was refreshed by a show last year of her photographs in New York, at the Marian Goodman Gallery, and by the appearance of (1998), a large album of her work. Her photos could perhaps not have been made in any stretch of American history other than the 1970s, when women became free to go naked in their own sight, when the clichés of surrealism had already been thoroughly absorbed into the artistic vocabulary, and before wave upon wave of feminist argument had hardened into a political and aesthetic orthodoxy. Like any artist, Woodman was a creature of her moment. The visual jokes that her photographs play on the viewer aren't much different from those in the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night. And she had a remarkable heritage: there's something elemental about the ways in which Francesca, the daughter of artists, combined the softness of Betty Woodman's generous ceramic volumes with the mathematical stringencies of the pattern paintings George Woodman made during his daughter's adolescence. Typical of Francesca was this observation: "Me and Francis Bacon and all those Baroques are all concerned with making something soft wiggle and snake around a hard architectural outline."

In the years since Francesca Woodman's "discovery" art critics have reflected on the significance of her faceless nudes, her soft bodies and hard walls, her juxtaposition of glass or plaster with breasts and thighs. In recent years her work has been exhibited all over this continent and Western Europe, and books and more books have appeared; the most recent English-language album of her work was published in 1998 in France. Another has just come out in Italian, in connection with a show of 150 of her photographs in Rome, many of them not previously exhibited. I have examined a number of critical utterances about Woodman's work, wondering at their efforts to shoehorn her into some rationale that would suit the history of photography as construed by historians and critics who change their vocabulary once or twice a generation.

Francesca Woodman's art, like any art, takes account of the viewer. Hers particularly offers her body and her imagination for us to share. She experimented with the appearance of the female body -- as men see it, as women see it, as the camera sees it -- but did not often concentrate her attention on our social or cultural expectations of the nude. To this young artist it was still an amazing and delicious apparition, no matter what its inner urgencies or society's conventions. In a very early photograph Woodman and another girl open their dresses to display their breasts with a cheerful but unassuming pride in what they have to show. A late series of photographs shows views of her arm with a ball rolling along its surfaces by way of exploring its dimensions. Another series, with a male model, exposes him and the viewer to various attitudes toward his nudity, her nudity, and their nudity, with no exploitative or doctrinal purpose that I can see. Yet another image shows us a porcelain bathtub above whose edge we see an unidentified woman's head. Woodman's photography seems to me to partake of some of the quality of "negative capability," of which John Keats wrote, admiring Shakespeare's way of "being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

FOR comparison with Woodman's work I went last summer to see a show of the most recent photographs of the famed Cindy Sherman, another artist who has utilized her own body in hundreds of photographs -- though always, it would seem, with a social purpose, an insistence on context. Some of her best-known work puts her in imaginary movies, in one form of drag or another, wearing a wig or falsies or a snood, posing in attitudes that evoke the peculiar flavors of popular culture. In her show last year Sherman turned away from her own body and displayed human forms by photographing dolls and mannequins, nearly all nude, in obscene, agonized postures. Sherman's work, in contrast with Woodman's, seems manipulative. All is artificial: wiggy hair; polyester blankets; unfleshly hands, poses, and expressions. Art may of course flourish on agony as well as on mortality, in satire as well as in lyric; but Sherman's photographs cannot leave society alone, do not choose to let life take its course. Her work takes lust and freezes it, renders it inorganic.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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