Francesca Woodman Fragments in Italy

by Elena Lago

«In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. SewardAlexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. […] I shudder over a catastrophe which has already occurred». With these words, in 1979, Roland Barthes illustrates how a photograph contains in itself the essence of a compressed time: the photographed subjects affirm to have been and at the same time not to be anymore.

Francesca Woodman, On being an Angel, 1977

This complexity that embodies life and at the same time death is constant in Francesca Woodman’s photographs: a long series of self-portraits that show a sort of predicted catastrophe (the death of the author), but at the same time attract us because they are extremely vital. Francesca Woodman was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1958. Daughter of artists, since her adolescence she came into contact with the world of photography and enrolled, in 1975, at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence. Here, the first contact with Rome, thanks to the European studies program, based in Palazzo Cenci. Woodman is in Rome between May ‘77 and August ‘78 and immediately spends time at the Maldoror Bookshop in Via del Parione, a magical place that animates her stay. She finds, thanks to the owners Missigoi and Casetti, that cultural climate that allows her to establish a relation with the texts and with the works of Bragaglia, Marinetti, Boccioni, Klinger and, above all, with Dadaism and Surrealism. The very name of the library refers to Les Chants de Maldoror, a 1868 poem by Isidore Ducasse, count of Lautréamont, a fundamental inspiration for the surrealists and in particular for Breton. The famous passage “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!” represents the very kind of “convulsive beauty” that Breton describes in the article La beauté sera convulsive ou ne sera pas, in the fifth issue of Minotaures in 1934. Woodman, in her photos, begins to put together very different fragments of everyday life. And often, even her body appears to our eyes as if it was a fragment. In Providence, through the use of the mirror, she had already showed us a fragmented world, for example in the photo “A woman, a mirror: a woman is a mirror for a man”, kneeling in front of a mirror resting on the ground, touching it, it seems almost as she is wanting to physically enter inside it.

Francesca Woodman,A Woman. A Mirror. A Woman is a Mirror for a Man, 1975

In the embrace of the reflection we can almost see the figure of the Ovidian Narcissus who embraces the pool of water and recognizes his beloved, even though – once he discovers he has been deceived by a reflection of himself – with his desperate tears falling into the water, he shatters his image. In the same manner the figure of Francesca almost always appears broken. However, hers is not a narcissistic use of the mirror, and the same can be said for her self-portrait, so much so that the artist states, in a note reported by R. Krauss in Celibi, “Boys, I am as tired as you are of continuing to look at myself”. Surrealist artist Claude Cahun portrays herself in the mirror in a photo taken in 1928 looking towards the viewer, as if to highlight her way of being, her determination in affirming her own subjectivity.  Her open homosexuality goes towards a strong suspension of identity between male and female and the mirror helps to show this sort of doppelgänger.

Claude Cahun / Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman is certainly influenced by the surrealist poetics and the works of Claude Cahun. The mind immediately goes to a photo that she takes in Providence in ‘75, lying inside a cupboard, inspired by Cahun’s photo where she is sleeping in the same position, inside a dresser. With Claude Cahun, the photographer shares not only the use of the self-portrait as a tool to acquire the knowledge of her personality, but also the use of the mask to disguise herself. If Cahun shows her alter-ego disguising herself as a man and changing her name from feminine to masculine, in the wake of Duchamp with his Rose Sélavy, Woodman does not disguise herself nor does she change her identity, but we can certainly say she uses masques.

Claude Cahun

Lorenzo Fusi, in the essay The mask in the work of Francesca Woodman states: «The artist uses a series of instrumental topoi such as the mirror, the gloves, the mask or the negation of her own face, artifices that enable her to look at herself from a greater distance”. But also, we could add, to take the appearance of the space that surrounds her, as the nature or a bare room of an abandoned factory. For example in photos in which the artist disappears behind a fireplace or in others where she seems to magically disappear behind the wallpaper, camouflaging herself with the wall behind her. 

Mimicry is the subject of a study by Roger Caillois published in 1958 and dedicated to the game as a natural human attitude. Among the various categories, Caillois talks about mimicry (about what he had already written in an article on Minotaure, in 1935) describing it as, for us, the pleasure of becoming someone else or something else. In the case of Woodman, hers are attempts of “mimicry” made in front of a camera, in a sort of metamorphosis, of “extension” of her body towards the world that surrounds her. In this sense, the long-exposure photos highlight the trajectory of a movement or the dissolution of a figure in space. Time, therefore, is a fundamental principle for Woodman and also it is explicitly represented in the series Fish Calendar – 6 days (Rome, 1977). 

1. Francesca Woodman. Self-portrait, Easter, Rome, 1978 
© Charles Woodman. 
Courtesy Charles Woodman, and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. / 2. Francesca Woodman, From Eel Series, Venice, Italy, 1978. 
© Charles Woodman. Courtesy Victoria Miro London/Venice.
Francesca Woodman. Untitled, Rome, 1977 – 1978
 © Charles Woodman. 
Courtesy Charles Woodman, and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. 

It is a photographic six day calendar that must be read in a specific order. The protagonists are: Francesca, some lemons, some eels and her camera. In the calendar  the three lemons represent the third month, March, the eels instead the progressive passing of the days, from day one to day six; the body that is undressed following the same pattern of the lemon that is “stripped” of its peel, represents the passage of time. This sequence also tells us about the artist’s daily life in Rome. The eels come from the market in Piazza Vittorio, where Francesca went with her American friend Sloan Rankin, and the place where the photos are taken is her apartment in Via dei Coronari. The fact that the photographer bought the eels at the market brings to mind Breton and Giacometti’s walks at the Paris flea market. Francesca’s eels have the same “sentimental” value that the slipper-spoon had for Breton that gave birth to the search for the Amour fou. Furthermore, the influence of Man Ray emerges in the shapeless and never clear treatment of the human figure.

Francesca Woodman, Rome, 1978

The limbs, especially in this series, are always shot separately from the rest of the body, the camera is not positioned frontally or in a linear manner, but in distorted angles in order to photograph half the body or from above. Again, the juxtaposition with the eels wants to produce a parallelism between their sinuosity and the sinuosity of her body. And it is not by chance that the artist chooses to relate herself to animals like the surrealists: “since they had made the discovery of Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror, the exploration of the idea of man’s animality had become one of the clichés of the Surrealism”. It is the “base materialism” of Bataille that perhaps inspired the artist to take some horizontal photographs linked to the American context. She photographs herself lying on the ground naked and covered in soil, as if she was an animal that, as soon as it was born, came out of its shell slowly emerging from the underground. There is the idea of shapelessness that seeks contact with the ground, with the terrain, with the horizontal, but that, as Isabella Pedicini points out, doesn’t have the perverse or dirty features that belong to the conception of Bataille. The body, although treated in its merely material aspect, always maintains a certain purity. The dichotomy between order and primordial chaos is the subject of one of the last works linked to Rome, even if it was revised and printed in Philadelphia in 1981. Some disordered interior geometries is a work born from several school notebooks of geometric exercises that was found in the Maldoror library.

Francesca Woodman. Untitled, Rome, Italy, 1978 
© Charles Woodman. 
Courtesy Charles Woodman, and Victoria Miro, London/Venice

They are yellowed pages probably from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th  on which she printed or glued 15 of her photos, next to or above the exercises, generating a parallelism between her concept of space and the one of the geometry explained and illustrated in the booklet. It combines her “orderly disorder” with the order of the figures and of the geometric theorems. Giuseppe Casetti, one of the two owners of the Library to which the artist dedicated this splendid notebook, highlighted how Woodman used this opportunity to leave us “traces and evidence of her research”. Francesca, when she arrived in Rome, was a 19-year-old student. It was during the seventies. Perhaps in her photos, thanks to the black and white of her Rollei camera, to her freedom of expression, a part of the feel of those years is preserved and perhaps this is precisely the punctum of her photos: they are an emanation of that time, a time that for us still lasts, while for her it voluntarily ended in 1981. As Casetti writes, “Francesca reached her era, translating its beautiful and damned image, when it was easy to die twenty years old”.