Francesca Woodman in a self portrait. Untitled 1977-78 (Rome)
I saw a documentary film last night on photographer Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981. Watching this documentary, I realised how problematic it is to view the extraordinary art she created through the lens of her suicide. In one scene, her mother discusses an image Woodman created by experimenting with flour she collected after a truck had an accident and spilled some on the road. In the film, we see a video of Woodman lying naked in the flour and then standing up. You can hear her elated and exhilarated voice exclaiming how happy she was with the way the image turned out.
I can understand why for many this image she created with the flour, and her many other images, came to represent a ghostly absence, in light of the way she died. But her mother made a significant point: she doesn’t view this image as a symbol of absence, but one of presence; one of creation, experimentation and Woodman’s dedication to her craft.
Photo by Francesca Woodman. Untitled 1977-78 (Rome)
I wonder if it’s doing Woodman and her art a great disservice by approaching it through absence. Looking at her photography, you could argue that her images convey themes of loss, hiding, disembodiment. Her style of photography, unique at the time when she created it, is now endlessly copied with the constant ‘dream-girl-as-glamorous-death’ pose. I’ve seen fashion magazines emulate her style repeatedly with bored-looking models. But I don’t think her work is about death or trying to dissolve herself, I think it’s about creation and trying to understand what you’re capable of doing with your own body and art by experimenting with it.
As I was listening to her mother speak, I thought that approaching Woodman’s work through absence is a way of erasing her, and erasing the power of her images through a romantic grand narrative of the tragic young artist. We seem to love this cliché, culturally, but it can sometimes be a form of deflection, and it can kill off what a piece of art can do and say, and how it can grow with new audiences. I question myself too – when I deflect the power and meaning of a work in the here and now, and its affect on me, by relating it back to some tragic biographical story of the artist-figure: am I closing off what it has to say, and what I can bring to its meaning? Am I really so scared by what the work makes me feel, that I need to protect myself with a general stereotype of the artist?
Anyway, here’s a clip from the film, which I’m now tempted to buy:
All images are from here.