Francesca Woodman & the Dramaturgy of Grace

Francesca Woodman at Victoria Miro Gallery, Venice







Francesca Woodman, Untitled, New York, 1979, Estate Digital C-Print, Woodman Family Foundation, Courtesy Woodman Family Foundation & Victoria Miro

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, New York, 1979, Estate Digital C-Print, Woodman Family Foundation, Courtesy Woodman Family Foundation & Victoria Miro

Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman was born in Denver, Colorado (USA) in 1958. She died in 1981 at the age of 22 and left behind a legacy of exceptional photographic works. Woodman took her first self-portrait at the age of 13. She spent frequent summers and many months in Italy. These trips and her subsequent move to New York City would play a major influence in her oeuvre.

Woodman is now considered one of the premier photo-based artists of the twentieth century and one of the forerunners of conceptual photography. Her work is now regularly exhibited around the world in major museums and galleries. Her photographs are now collected by many major institutions and collectors.

The Dramatic Self

In a work conspicuously entitled “Untitled, New York” from 1979 we see a figure, more accurately, a woman clothed in what appears to be a matching green wool top and skirt. She is in a corner, against an orange sherbet wall with her left hand held just at the waist and bent as if waiting for a kiss or a ring from a future lover. Her right arm is bent against the wall with her hand partially obscuring her forehead. She appears to be in classic position that combines both pensiveness and pain; or in some form of reverie reserved for corners, standing up on a late afternoon in November. Her lips are endowed with a scarlet lipstick, a flicker of a horizontal flame ready to melt the orange sherbet into a puddle at her high-heeled feet, ready to incinerate every pair of lips that dare approach.

Looking more closely we see the orange sherbet wall is partially pealing at its edge, where it merges awkwardly with a pistachio green that then turns inward to another room. At the very right edge of this mysteriously exquisite photograph there appear to be the beginnings of a large whole in the wall exposing the interior brickwork that was destroyed with impunity to enlarge the space or to smash through a barrier into another world. The artist behind and within this picture is Francesca Woodman.

Untitled, New York is one of the rare works in color (a digital C-Print) by the artist famous for her shy/mysterious/imperious/and secretive poses, most of which appear in black and white photographs and possess the infinitely exquisite staging of a John Singer Sargent seductress waiting to encounter a lover about to destroy her life…

In this, as in all her works, Francesca Woodman is both artist and actress. She is player as performer, a dramatist in her own tragedy. She is dramaturgist, among the first women to compose and perform her own series of tragedies within the art of photography.

If we envision our lives as a series of tragedies and comedies we begin an embrace of the theatricality inherent in such a vision. Artists are the players who render their dramaturgy into pictures that, when successful, transcend their time, outlive their creators, and become timeless works to be revered and contemplated with inspiration and gratitude. Artists understand this relationship between life and work, between mortality and legacy better than anyone. As players in their own tragedy artists are always performing. The nature of an artist is blessed and cursed with knowledge of self-awareness in ways unique to the spirit of the creativity phenomenon.

In theater and on screen, the greatest actresses are those who transcend this self-awareness of the body and the self-awareness of the performance to project an air of naturalness to their roles. For the woman as artist, particularly one concerned with the representation of her image in pictures like Francesca Woodman, such a projection of naturalness begins with the artifice of the staging.

For Francesca Woodman, an author of her own tragic narrative echoed in in the metaphysical mysteries of her work as an artist, such a dramaturgy took the form of mysteriously playful and sublimely erotic photographs. Her death by suicide at the age of 22, has given her work a retroactive storyline rooted in tragedy. The anguishing and bitter reality of such a shocking story only makes her work resonate further into the frustrating oblivion of bearing witness. To stand in front of one of her performative pictures (call them “photographs” is not enough) is to make oneself a witness to the tragic telling of a girl’s story over and over again.

There is no redemption in such a countenancing. Within the harsh realities of life and death beyond the drama we are not made better for loving these sublime, haunting images. Francesca Woodman is not exalted for her decision to end her life and render her art as a mythical experience. In thinking about Woodman the artists we cannot excise Woodman the performer from the story of her work and life. In this light it becomes morally and aesthetically imperative as a critically engaged and sympathetic viewer to retain the memory of Woodman’s tragic story.

A critical viewing and a holistic experience of Woodman’s oeuvre make demands upon us as viewers that go beyond the casual glancing at a beautiful work of art. With Woodman we enter the realm of a brave performance and a brave body of work replete with vulnerability.

In this light we must remember that as critical viewers, engaged viewers, empathetic viewers, we are always tormented by the tragedy before us as we discuss and view Francesca Woodman’s works. A critical viewer of a brave performance or a brave work of art replete with vulnerability and play bears a moral and aesthetic responsibility to understand empathy and the storyline of the artist in question.

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, New York, 1979, N231.B, Gelatin Silver Estate Print, Woodman Family Foundation, Courtesy Woodman Family Foundation & Victoria Miro



Francesca Woodman, Untitled, New York, 1979-1980, N.319, Gelatin Silver Estate Print, Woodman Family Foundation, Courtesy Woodman Family Foundation & Victoria Miro


The Amorality of Aesthetics

We must resist the cold temptation of aestheticizing the experience of writing about Francesca Woodman as if her work were objects to fetishize, as if her life were an abstraction of lurid speculation (a tabloid story of someone else’s suffering). When I view the photographs in color and black and white on view at the exquisite exhibition of Francesca Woodman’s work at Victoria Miro in Venice I cannot help but think of the limitless suffering of her parents and the possible future this 22 year-old young woman. Her story is central to foundational staging of her work. 

The challenge of Francesca Woodman’s tragedy is that as critical thinkers, and viewers of art we are often taught to distinguish between the personal story of an artist’s life and their work. In this case it would be an obscenity and act of moral irresponsibility. When a life is taken of its own volition we are reminded of the fragility of being and the monstrous effort demanded of us to overcome life’s disappointments, heartaches and defeats. Sometimes we fail in this overcoming and such a failure is an assault on the innocence of us all and a reminder of our fragility.

This is not to say the power of Francesca Woodman’s work remains solely within its autobiographical narratives. It does not. If hers were works of contrivance and calculated artifice staged in the manner of Cindy Sherman or Bruce Nauman they would still be mesmerizing pictures. It is precisely in the play and mystery of the movements, the diaphanous light and the feathery eroticism of Woodman’s aesthetic brilliance that make her photographs such memorable and resonant pieces.

Indeed the amorality of aesthetics gives us pause to consider the distinction between mythos and tragedy. While her life was tragic, the ensuing celebration of her work has rendered her persona a yet another affirmation of the artist as tragic figure myth, indeed a myth her parents and friends are quick to dispute with stories of Woodman’s playful energy and ironic humor.

The Gravity of Transcendence

There is a dynamic between pathos and eros at play in Francesca Woodman’s pictures. It is perhaps the seduction of pathos that lures me into the more tragic aspects of her photographs, hers is a pathos both erotic and haunted where the artist photographs herself to make pictures within a story utterly bold, brazenly seductive, and elegantly mysterious. The life-affirming play, the shy and often seemingly-innocent glances and facial expressions seduce us with that very intimate tension between grace and lust, between guile and the longing for love’s emotional transparency, for purity.

Woodman’s images push the formal and emotional limits of drama and often cross the threshold into melodrama with the artist’s body displayed in its nude, semi-nude and adorned glory. The greatness of her performance as a dramatic player is in this threshold, one that pushes against our contemporary aversion to authentic emotional experience, be it an aversion to love or sadness. Hers are images that remind us of, like all good dramas, of the very real and very rich strata of experiences we embrace, and their emotional impact as the tender period of early adulthood.

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, New York, 1979-1980, Digital C-Print, Woodman Family Foundation, Courtesy Woodman Family Foundation & Victoria Miro



Francesca Woodman, Caryatid, 1980, Archival Pigment Estate Print, Woodman Family Foundation, Courtesy Woodman Family Foundation & Victoria Miro

The Gift of Bestowal

At the Victoria Miro Gallery in Venice, a space defined by the intimacy of a city called La Serenissima and its aqueous union of the ancient and the contemporary, the exhibition devoted to Woodman makes a seductive claim to excellence thanks to the uniquely sublime quality of the works selected, many of which are in color and exhibited to the public for the first time in Italy. Each of the works was executed in 1979 in New York. The smallish, intimate images framed in matte grey wood frames circulate at a kind of cinematic movement where each viewer is also a projector and where the frame rate depends on one’s frame of mind and the speed at which one moves along the tiny gallery space, one single room approximately 500 square feet in its architectural dimensions.

From the theatricality of the artist’s poses to the rendering of these performances in photographs to the experience of walking across a room filled with these pictures we travel the history of art, from ancient drama to the development of photography to cinema. We become audience members and projectors. We become viewers in a moving and sublime series of moving pictures transmitting the story of a life of a woman staged with elegance.

In Untitled, New York, 1979-1980 [FW718] we see Woodman to the left of the frame dressed in low-slung boots and a simple frock. Her head is not shown, either just out of the frame or hiding behind a long-exposure so that the area above her shoulders appears as a blur of implied movement. In the foreground a simple white wood chair with some article of clothing (a stocking? A scarf?) draped over the back. The softness of wall’s aged whiteness and the slightly whiter feeling of a delicately over-exposed black and white photograph create a sensation of history, of a long-gone past, a period before our time without slipping into nostalgic romanticism, a reminder perhaps of the transcendence from life’s pain into the grace of longing that comes only from the authentic embrace of our suffering and its processing into tragedy.

Francesca Woodman’s photographs become art in the gravity of transcendence emanating from the grace of disappearance. To disappear is to recede from conscious self-awareness, to let our inner selves recede into unconcealment as we remain exposed, whether as actors in our own dramas or as artists in our own work… this is the greatness of transcendental performance.

Francesca Woodman is grace personified in her photographs. Hers is the grace of shyness which hints at the purest innocence of a young girl hiding behind the frame, covering her face, turning askance…

She is innocence in knowing, the author of her own story told through light and shadow.

Drama is the story of life in many acts. Woodman’s pictures are the result of rendering life as projection, a representation of the real turning it into art. This is the poetic gift Ms. Woodman’s oeuvre bestows upon those who embrace the mysteries of dignity in spite of the glare of mortality beckoning across our lives.

The gift of bestowal comes to those who are ready to receive its mysterious revelations. Woodman’s is a gift of bestowal replete with the essential components of every drama: the light of knowledge, the darkness of its shadow, and the movements of the body between the two.