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.

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.

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.