Girl, Seeming to Disappear

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

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.

I could not help contrasting the self-consciousness -- and the "maturity" -- of the aging Cindy Sherman with the relatively sprightly recklessness of the young Francesca Woodman, interrupted like a woman in a Vermeer painting. Woodman seems to say, Take me as I am. When asked why she used herself as a model, she replied, "It's a matter of convenience -- I'm always available." The images she left us represent femaleness without a social or ethical agenda, a kaleidoscope of the body's adventures in a largely un-populated landscape from which the artist has chosen props that, like her, seem to offer themselves freely: the bark of a tree, the wall of a deserted room. It might be tempting to imagine that had Woodman lived, she would have "developed" into a full-blown satirical artist with attitudes and postures like Sherman's and others'. Perhaps, had she lived longer, she would, as it were, have found her face. We like to think we value maturity. I don't imagine for a moment that Woodman's oddity could have endured, covering her self-doubt with that cool bravery, with that capacity to look unblinking into the middle distance while quietly taking note of what was close by. I prefer to believe that Woodman might never have lost her negative capability, might never have enlisted her head in devising programs for her art, the way so many artists of this decade have tiresomely done. Two or three appraisals of her work suggest that had she lived, she might have moved out of still photography and into movies, in which her Ariel-like spirit might have been able to shift across a screen without being faced with the necessity of blurring or seeming to disappear. Maybe she would have found the true expression on her face. I wonder what it would have looked like.

Peter Davison is The Atlantic's poetry editor.

The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Girl, Seeming to Disappear - 00.05; Volume 285, No. 5; page 108-111.

is The Atlantic's poetry editor.

The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Girl, Seeming to Disappear - 00.05 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 5; page 108-111.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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