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Behind the Mirrors: Francesca Woodman


With her radical self-portraits Francesca Woodman not only questioned herself, but also the medium of photography. Works by the photographer are currently on view at the Deutsche Guggenheim. In the "Freeway Balconies" exhibition, Collier Schorr shows Francesca Woodman, along with Richard Prince and Raymond Pettibon, as one of the positions that has decisively influenced her own work. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf presents the U.S. artist, who died in 1981.




Francesca Woodman
Self-portrait at 13, Boulder, Colorado, 1972-75
Courtesy George and Betty Woodman


Everything is already there in the black-and-white portrait that Francesca Woodman took of herself when she was 13 years old: the body, the pose, the style, the shutter cord, the backdrop-like room. Long before Jodie Foster established the prototype of the distraught, emancipated anti-Lolita in 1970s mainstream culture in the movie The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976), Woodman's photographs showed breathtaking, precocious self-determination. Her figures, which are turned away from the viewer and seem to sink in the fuzziness of the pictures, and the hair which hides their faces make it apparent what it must be like to be 13: neither belonging to the world of childhood nor an adult, driven by lusts and secrets, completely unapproachable yet also fully vulnerable. This sensitivity alone distinguishes Woodman's photos from customary teenager portraits.

But there is also the astonishing experimental setup, attesting to a virtually impudent attempt by a 13-year-old to create a link between herself and the space, to analyze the relationship between body, camera, and image. The wiggly cable of the release she's holding in her hand runs through the picture like an ethereal beam. That she exposes photographic instruments so demonstratively and playfully removes every shred of false sentimentality from the situation. To be sure, Woodman is half a child in the pictures. Yet she is also an artist through and through. While her left arm is resting in relaxed fashion on the backrest of the sofa, the entire tension lies in her right arm operating the release. She turns her face away, as though she can't bear looking into the muzzle of a spring gun, which, however, is not shooting a bullet but freezing a moment which is lost the instant it's captured.

Her Self-Portrait at Thirteen marks the beginning of one of the most original photographic oeuvres of the 20th century, a body of work emerging over only 10 years. When she jumped to her death from the window of her loft in New York's East Village, Francesa Woodman was only 22 years old. She had only moved to New York two years previously. Behind her were her studies at the renowned Rhode Island School of Design, where she made a large part of her work. As the child of the well-known artist couple George and Betty Woodman, she embodied the ideal of the highly talented, sensitive young woman. She grew up in a liberal home that promoted her talent and had a strong affinity for European culture. In the 1960s her family spent ever-longer periods in Florence, where Woodman attended elementary school. Later, she would also spend summers in Italy. In 1977 she studied in Rome for a semester on a scholarship. After she moved to New York, however, everything that had begun so promisingly seemed to stagnate. In 1980, Woodman fell into a depression due to the lack of resonance of her work and a failed relationship. A friend of hers expressed it as follows: "Things had been bad, there had been therapy, things had gotten better, guard had been let down."





Francesca Woodman
Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-78
Courtesy George and Betty Woodman



After she died, Woodman left behind thousands of negatives, countless contact sheets, several artist's books, and around 800 photos - carefully arranged setups in which she tests the limits of physical and psychical perception. Even though she is always completely present as the subject of her self-portraits, "Woodman is never quite with us, never quite with herself," wrote Chris Townsend in his monograph published by Phaidon in 2006. Indeed, the photographic cosmos that she created through the 1970s seems strangely otherworldly, somnambulistic, like a dream divorced from time, a cryptic continuation of Lewis Carroll's Victorian children's story Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871).




Francesca Woodman
Untitled, Boulder, Colorado, 1972-75
Courtesy George and Betty Woodman


In Carroll's book, Alice steps through a mirror on a summer's day into a room that looks exactly like the room in front of the mirror because she wonders whether what she cannot see continues exactly like in the house. But whereas Alice finds a fantastic wonderland behind the mirror, Woodman shows the Victorian house in front of the camera. Alice no longer lives here. The artist has taken her place, roaming like a ghost through the remains of a past life, no longer knowing whether it is another's or her own. The rooms are abandoned, the walls cracked, the paint and wallpaper peeling off. As though separated by a glass panel, we see in Woodman's photographs herself and her models acting as if they have to assure themselves that the room and their bodies exist. Woodman submits to peculiar procedures in some of her works. In Untitled Boulder (Colorado 1972-75), her naked torso is riddled with clothespins attached to her nipples, her upper stomach, her navel. In Horizontale (Providence, Rhode Island, 1976) she swathes her legs with tape, which cuts deep into her skin. What can be seen as an autoerotically motivated torture is also an experimental distortion, an intervention in the body's symmetry.




Francesca Woodman
House #4, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
Courtesy George and Betty Woodman



In Woodman's photographs the body is a delicate, fleeting thing. In series such as House (Providence, Rhode Island, 1976), she makes it look blurry by means of time exposure, the movement ethereal like an apparition. It almost looks as if it is being absorbed by the surrounding space, as though it is being sucked into the cracks and walls or, as in the series Space from 1977, disappearing behind the wallpaper. In Untitled (Providence Rhode Island, 1976), Woodman's shadow detaches from the artist who is sitting in a chair and disappears in front of her in the floorboards like a runner in the mist. That Woodman makes floors and walls look like diaphanous membranes surely has more than a surreal intention. It is a clear renunciation of the American tradition of Straight Photography, which with prominent representatives such as Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams still characterized mainstream notions of photography in the 70s. Woodman casts doubt on the maxim "no photography without reality." Her consistently staged pictures do not document objective reality but rather define the photographic image as something made, as a means of representation and manipulation.



Francesca Woodman
Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
Courtesy George and Betty Woodman



Just as fragile and mysterious as the dilapidated surroundings in which she stages her body pictures are the manifestations of herself. According to Chris Townsend, "With Woodman's self-portraiture, we have a "fabricated" subject. One aware of its own constructed nature, and a self as aporian enigmatic space that we must explore precisely because it is unknown." Woodman's excursions are by no means narcissistic self-experiments, however. Her pictures are not so disturbing, say, because she exposes herself exhibitionistically to the camera, but because of the analytic consistency with which she takes all possible roles, attitudes, and constellations to the physical limits. No matter whether she portrays herself as a water-driving, pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, as a crucified person suspended in a door frame, whether she experiments with mirrors, foils, fur, masks, shellfish, or stuffed animals - she invariably also uses different possibilities of female self-portrayal to probe the symbols, allegories, and models at the root of these depictions.



Francesca Woodman
Self-portrait talking to Vince, Providence, RI (RISD), 1975-78
Courtesy George and Betty Woodman



For example, the Self-portrait Talking to Vince made between 1975 and 1978 contains layers of all kinds of associations. On initial viewing the picture is reminiscent of the manipulated spiritistic photographs taken at the end of the 19th century with which an effort was made to scientifically prove paranormal phenomena. Something is streaming from Woodman's mouth that looks like ectoplasm. But a closer look reveals that a plastic garland is prying open her mouth in an almost violent way, like a silent scream. The inability to articulate is juxtaposed with traces of the letters the garland is composed of: an uncontrollable language that forces itself out of Woodman as though it were a medium. Simultaneously a mythological model can be discovered in this photo: the nymph Chloris that the Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli portrays in his famous painting Primavera (1478). In this painting, one of the most well-known and most frequently reproduced works of Western art, Chloris is fleeing from the wind god Zephyr yet at the same time looking into his eyes while he is preparing to rape her. Rose blossoms are pouring out of her mouth. The aura of this violent act is discernible in Woodman's photo, and like an insinuation a fabric with floral ornaments is hanging next to her.


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