Francesca Woodman, a Mirrowoman

This posting belongs to the category ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ (only I would need to invent a new saying, dealing with mirrors).  I have just written an overview of the use of mirrors in early pronography photography, and this one will be about mirrors in – if not the latest, then still relatively late photography. And yes, this one will be also #nsfw.

This posting will be about Francesca Woodman. I don’t want to say that she is the most representative artist who can represent all modern photography (can such an artist even exist?) But she is is not a bad choice either, because her works and her life do reflect many of the issues of contemporary art (and specifically the art of photography.  Plus, FOAM, the Amsterdam-based museum of photography, has recently presented a large exhibition of her works. We managed to visit it and I decided to use it as an excuse to compile all my earlier thoughts & pieces of knowledge into one text, even if very simple,wysiwyg.

I knew the majority of the ‘mirror works’ presented at this exhibition before (although only as digital reproductions, I can’t remember seeing them in real life earlier). But I have found there many new (for me) and interesting works, and will try to show them too.

To start, this is the photograph used for the exhibition cover (the one above):

A young naked girl, crawling on the stone floor like an animal and looking into a piece of mirror leaning against the wall. What is exactly going on here? And what would like to say to us an artist who made this bizarre portrait?  It is, in fact, a self-portrait as we soon figure out.

This is noticeably not the most banal version of depicting the relationships between a woman and a mirror.  Quite opposite, in fact. This, and many other works by Francesca Woodman will be primers of very original, even if weird, artistic style.

The official title of this photograph (or rather, a whole series) is Self-Deceit, and they were made during 1977.  I also need to note that this is a very small photograph, 8 x 8 cm, a typical size for the majority of her works. In real life it looks like that:

The next picture is the same work but with a spectator. It shows the relative size of the work even better, but also the main ‘target audience’ of these works today.  I don’t want to say it was Woodman herself who targeted these modern urban hipsters (they didn’t even exist in her time, to start with). But it is these people admire her art most in our times.

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Let’s start from the ‘very beginning’, and from some basic facts. The full name of our heroine is Francesca Stern Woodman. She was born in April 3, 1958, and killed herself, jumping our of window, in January 1981, when she was only 22 years old. The story about her life, and her works can not be very long therefore, most unfortunately.  She could be living now – even her parents are still alive. She could become a very famous artist, or just live an ordenary life. Alas, neither has worked.

Her father, George Woodman, was a painter (and later in his life also started to practice photography). Her mother Betty Woodman was a known sculptor. As we can sense, from the early childhood Francesca lived in what is usually referred as ‘artistic environment’.

They first lived in Colorado, and then in Massachusetts, but almost every summer they spent in Italy, in Florence, where they hired a farm aka studio (as a result, Francesca new Italian very well).

It is believed that she started making photographs very early in her life, when she was only ten years old. But the earliest photographs we have are dated 1971 when she was 13. I quote the description of one of her earliest pictures:

“…She denies her face to the camera, so that we can only see her hair, but her left hand is holding a [shutter-release] cable linked to the camera.”

 

Today’s viewer can take this cord for a selfie stick. This is not the case, as we can understand from the description. And yet I can’t avoid a feeling that an entire ouvre of Francesca woodman is just one long-lasting selfie.

Here is another work by her. There are no mirrors yet, but all other elements that will be present in her later works are already here: the Girl Shooting Herself in Strange Poses Taken in Stranage Places.

***

In 1975 Francesca enters the Rhode Island School of Design, by then not a very large but already very prestigious (and expensive) art schools (today’s it’s in the top ten of art schools in America.)  She continues to work mainly with photography, although from time to time also experiment with other formats (eg, video or graphics). We need to remember that by the photography was radically different from today’s point-and-shoot-and-photoshop way. Not only there were no computers, but photography itself was a fairly alchemic process still, with dark rooms, red lamps, and smelly chemicals.

Very indicatively, but she used mirrors already in one of her earliest student work. The photograph below is understood to be her first ‘mirror work’ (it was made in 1977, and belongs to the same Self Deceit series, but according to her diary it was the first in a row):

“She kneels on a heavily framed mirror placed flat on the floor. Her head and upper body are in motion….”

As often with her works, this is a very small photograph, 9 х 9 cm. Theoretically, Francesca could also print much larger works, too. She used a mid-size camera where the negative itself was 6 х 6 cm. She could easily print the photographs of 60 x 60 cm with a perfect quality. I don’t know why she always chooses smaller sizes. The reason could be financial, but could as well be simply technological. To develop and print larger photographs one would need a larger lab, too.

Even today her works are mostly shown in these small formats, though wrapped with larger passe-partout’s:

The picture is small, but the story about its subject could be quite long. Length is a relative term, of course. If I would be Roland Barthes of Vilém Flusser, I would easily write a book or a few based on this only work. But I am not one of them, so I will merely jot a couple of thoughts on the digital margins.

In a funny way, the very first association for this work could be self-portraits of the legendary Marcia, allegedly the first female artist who depicted herself with an aid of mirrors (see Doing Self-Portraiting: Marcia in the Mirrors).

But there are much stronger and more relevant connections of this self-portrait with other works in art history, namely the ones that explore a theme of self-inspection (and specifically self-inspection with a help of mirrors). This self-inspection is different from a more conventional viewing (and admiring) yourself in a mirror. Under ‘self-inspection’ I mean explorations and investigations of other parts of own’s body, and most characteristically, your own ‘private parts’.

I have collected quite a few of the examples of such scenes (although I am still surprised that there are so few of them). Look, for instance, at these panels that are attributed to Hans Baldung:

Both works show very well the key elements of such moments: very specific bent poses, the eyes that we see being locked in another ‘cocoon’, and curious, investigative face expression. It is supposedly a very intimate and secret moment, also because it is tabooed in many cultures.

The first panel is vividly public, but we need to keep in mind that in case of Baldung we don’t see your ‘average women’. These are likely witches and the scene is presented as a part of a collective ritual, a sabbath perhaps.

Below are two more examples of the witches exploring their intimate zones with the used of mirrors:

The first engraving, by Agostino Veneziano, also known asAgostino de’ Musi. It is usuually referred as La strega (Witch) (c.1515), but its exact meaning is elusive. I have already shown this work in this blog, in the story about Scylla (see Between the Comb and the Mirror).

The second is a recently found drawing by the Dutch master Arent van Bolten (1573– 1633). Allegedly it also depict a witch who inspects her genitalia (I have some ideas why it is not what is happening, but you will need to wait for a separate posting about witches and their use of mirrors that I am working on at the moment.)

The meme of ‘witch’ has lost its popularity with time, but this (self) inspection became even more present in art. See below a drawing by Franz von Bayros called Investigators (or sometimes Scolars, c. 1890, and a later work by Paul-Émile Bécat titled Intimate investigation (1926).

Today the theme is also present in art, though I mostly find in a fairly deviant zone (the next work, for example, was spotted on the Deviant.Art service):

Notice that nearly all these work assume the position of a (male) observer who looks at, and the depicts a moment when a woman (or women) investigate their bodies. I can’t recall the works of the female artists who would work with this theme.

Except, that is, Francesca Woodman.

Here we find a complete set, of bent poses, the eyes that are busy with the parti intime, interlinked revealing & concealing, and a general awkwardness of the moment that is supposed to be intimate but became public.

Only in this case it is all portraed by a female artist who in fact portrays herself:

This, and the following work are much less known than a more iconic one, with a blurry face.

***

Before I will jump to her later works, I would like to show a few more photographs of this period, roughly1975-76, that can be described as ‘placement of the body in strange confined spaces’.

They don’t have mirrors, but in many ways the theme will become pretty central in her works, including the ones with the mirrors.  Below just a couple of examples, a farly limited set, since I mostly select the ones with the mirrors:

In retrospect, the always-wise-after critics have noticed the ‘theme of death’ here: “…A woman apparently dead at the lip of the ocean, reflected in the mirror of another woman whose own face is displaced by that very mirror.”

***

The theme of mask, or replacement (or displacement) will also be very present in the works of Francesca Woodman. Perhaps the most famous of her works is this one: “Three nude women, including Woodman, holding photographs of Woodman’s face in front of their own, with a fourth portrait taped to the wall”:

Shockingly explicit, it would likely gain its popularity on its own but was literally propelled to the Woodman’s Hall of Fame by Phaidon, the publisher of the most comprehensive volume of her works:

I guess it was a very important issue of her this layered, onion-like structure of identity where the ‘upper skin’ only covers more skins (and hides) underneath.

One of the interesting discoveries at the exhibition at FOAM were for me her short films. I know about them before, but never seen any of them earlier. One of the most striking film was showing a process of de-layering, in this case literally:

In a funny wat, the same film could as well be used to show the process of wrapping up, if run in an oppostive direction.  And Francesca Woodman has pictutures that show this process of ‘dressing up’ with starngefilma and fabrics, too:

***

I 1979 she won a grant for a study trip to Rome, where she would spend almost a year. It is there, in Rome, she would shoot the most famous of her mirror work, the series Self-Deceit. I was showing one example from it already, this one:

It is an extremely powerful work, the one that turns upside down all possible canons of depicting a Maid and a Mirror. Other works follow the suite and together create one of the most striking examples of ‘mirror-art’.


Self-Deceit Series II (1978)


Self-Deceit Series III (1978)


Self-Deceit Series IV (1978)

I don’t know the exact numbering of other works:

The last work is very revealing, and revealing in a particular sense. It is believed that Francesca was making all these works herself, using an auto-stop function. In other words, she had to push a button, then to the place where she would pose as a ‘model’ and wait for the shoot.

Here, however, we see ‘other legs’ – of a man? and a tripod? It looks that someone was assisting Francesca in making at least this shot. I don’t know if other photographs had also been made with aid of other people (in this case, it would change quite a lot in the way how we perceive them, even if such an assistant would be merely following the instructions of the artist.)

***

I am using the words ‘powerful’, ‘striking’ and so one, but this is how these works are described today. Back then they didn’t get any particular recognition, and Francesca was unable to sell them or at least exhibit, even in her own school.

The next large series of mirror-works was made already in the US, in New York, where Francesca Woodman moved from Rhode Island in 1978, after the graduation. She was only 20 years old by that time.

The series is titled ‘A Woman. A Mirror. A Woman is a Mirror for a Man’. In some ways, the theme is a repetition (or rather an elaboration) of the one used in Self-Deceit, but the composition of these works become much more complex (plus we see cats, the creatures Francesca admired).

Tese slightly awkward poses resemble the bent figures of Degas and Edmond Schiele, and many of the personages depicted by the surrealists. But there is also important difference related to the way these pictures were made. For each of these photographs, Francesca had to set up her camera, put it on timer – and then rush to the position. Her position can not be precise, and always involve inevitable elements of jazz improvisation. In my view, the best pictures are those when she didn’t manage to get to the ‘right’ positoin:

In my view, the best pictures are those when she didn’t manage to get to the ‘right’ position:

A Woman. A Mirror.

A mirror is present in the following work, too, but it already belongs to another series, called My House. We see again the same motif, or wrapping onesslef, only now the mirror is also wrapped.

***

Mirrors become nmultiple in the next work, made with a male model (this set is usally referred as Charlie the Model).

The use of two mirrors is particularly vivid in the next work.

And the next one presents two models (although only one mirror):

Previous pictures are made in 1878-1879, and the following ones belong to the latest period of her life, 1980. They again use mirror, only in this case the camera also get into the frame:

***

Apparently, Francesco’s slight fixation on mirrors was well-known to her peers. The photograph made by Douglas D. Prince, then a young and by now a fairly famous photographer, plays with this motif:


Francesca Woodman in her studio (1978)

Are these all photographs by Francesca Woodman with mirrors?  Very likely not, she was taking pictures all the time, and her archive includes thousands of works. However, the majority of them are kept by parent and are still not available to the public. To my knowledge, many of them are not even printed and stored as negatives.

What if she would live today? When one doesn’t not depends on the labs to develop and prints her selfies, and can cast them to the entire world nearly instantly, using social media? On one of the possible worlds Francesca could easily become an Instagram celebrity, with many thousands of followers.

But in her real world, she was getting one rejecting letter after another, from both art galleries and magazines, sinking further and further into depression. She first tried to kill herself in October 1980, after she broke with her boyfriend and didn’t receive the grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. After that she moved to a flat of her parents in Manhatten and her state was apparently getting better. Yet on January 19 of 1981 she jumped from a window of the10th floor and died.

***

Eventually, fame found her. Not immediately, it took about twenty years before her name became first known, then famous, and now almost a cult. Of course, she has this cult status among in a very particular group of people – young? hipsters?? feminists???  I would struggle to define them well, but could easily point at them when seeing.

The expo at FOAM was a very strong attractor of this group, and in case of interest one could easily do a nice ethnographic study of this group.

 

I didn’t spot any particular interest to her mirror works among these spectators, though.

The works of Frncesca Woodman are not only very popular but also serve an insporation for numerous homages and replicas, and some of them are even with mirrors:

***

A full blown documentary about her family was released in 2011, called The Woodmans. There are at least three mirrors works of her used for the cover of the film (and the accompanying posters.)

As far as I can judge from the reviews, the film is basically a montage of several long interviews with her parents, her brother and some of her close friends, interspersed with her photographs and pieces of her own films. The critics have received this film well, but I haven’t seen it yet, unfortunately.

I often end the postings about the artists who are still alive (for example, Anish Kapoor) with something like “It is too early to conclude anything, because these guys may still produce many new and original (mirror) works). Despite Francesca Woodman died almost 35 years ago, I have to use the same phrase. No one knows what we can learn when her archive would eventually become open.

But even if nothing else will surface, the already available works with mirrors are clearly the inhabitants of the Art Mirrors’ Hall of Fame

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