PLAINLY, Francesca Woodman’s photography should be judged for what it is, not for what it promised. Yet, once acquired, the knowledge that she committed suicide at the age of 22 is bound to influence how her work is seen. It deepens admiration at the talent of one so young and, yes, it does raise the question of where it might all have led. More perversely, it provokes an almost unconscious search for evidence of impending self-destruction in her powerful and often disturbing self-portraiture.
At the school, in Providence, Woodman was free to experiment. Her many long stays in Italy seemed to draw her to abandoned houses and crumbling walls, both for their texture and their symbolism. In ”Space,” ”House” and other series, she used them as settings for what were in effect performance self-portraits, at times crouched in a corner, at other times partly hidden behind fallen wallpaper, frequently making use of mirrors.
The Francesca Woodman who appears in these photographs, however, is stubbornly elusive. The use of women’s bodies to make feminist statements was fashionable in the 1970’s, but she seemed more concerned with her own identity than that of women in general. Indeed, she showed little interest in the feminist movement (”She is a feminist in a not too creepy way,” Woodman wrote of one artist she met). Rarely do her images reach out to shock; they are neither erotic nor voyeuristic. Rather, they are profoundly emotional in a trapped kind of way, almost inviting the viewer to help find her. Her face is often blurred or looking away or reflected in a mirror or simply not in the frame.
So do her photographs chronicle a death foretold? Not in the sense that she plays with any imagery of death, but perhaps so in the fragility of her self-image, in the innocence that disguises the sexuality of her poses, in the way she pushes herself to the limit seemingly unaware of the dangers involved, like a moth flying ever closer to a candle flame. This is hindsight, though. The photographs, after all, show an artist carving a place for herself in life. And — why not? — it is worth wondering what she might have done had she lived.
The entire text can be viewed at The New York Times’ website.
Some work of Fransesca Woodman: