I first discovered Francesca Woodman when I was thumbing through an exhibition catalogue from the Manchester Art Gallery. The exhibition was called “Angels of Anarchy: women artists and surrealism” and I think what stood out to me about Woodman’s photographs was that they were so much less explicitly body conscious and sex-oriented than the other artworks. (Let me emphasize though, as of late I’ve been so psychologically and creatively submerged in the female body that it seems to be one of the only things I find myself writing about.) Sometimes I find my position problematic: I’m a woman writing about women. DH asked me recently, “have you tried about writing in the voice of/about men?” Actually, no, not really. And it’s not entirely because it’s uncomfortable for me to represent sexuality without relating. So am I over-directing and exaggerating femininity? Am I highly sexualizing the body because I’ve experienced these encounters with my own body before? Have I exploited these precious forms in an attempt to reclaim them? I don’t know. I could ask a lot of questions. Maybe I’m over thinking this one. But revisiting Woodman’s photographs, which seem to stand quietly among an army of fetishized woman-parts, offered me a new perspective on how women strengthen the female identity through what information is not always visually available.
“House #3” (1976 ) “Untitled” (1976 ) “Untitled” (1975-76)
It is not simply the ghostly aesthetic lifting the figure(s) off of the prints that stirs me, but also how deeply her images rely on what she has not revealed. She is exploring her body through a disappearing act and yet they are so deliberately marking the female body and her territory. In one photograph, her body in violent motion, she kneels over a mirror as though the only way in which she can truly visualize her own body is through a reflection of it; here, she reiterates that the power of the female body is entangled in a world of images that constantly deconstructs the body. Even through the art of photography, which we, as a society, have designated as one the most objective way of representing reality at any given moment, truncates the world and only represents it to the world. Woodman clearly understands her responsibility as a photographer and the limits of the form.
When I stare closely at “House #3”, somehow her image is not only disappearing but reappearing into the room from the back wall. This is effective because we know it is her, or at least a young girl, and yet she is not completely defined. There is an uncertainty about this photograph, even in her expression, that is unsettling because we immediately want to find the figure and trap it within our eye. But she is forcing us into the deceptive quality of images, that her body is truly an optical illusion, a manipulation of light and movement and only this.
So then I wonder: is she celebrating the female form at all? I must confess that when I write about the female body, I am dignifying Her and She is utterly sacred. Is that what women artists representing women (or herself) are all about? Why has it become so centered around exposing women and not more like the themes driving Woodman’s works, to disguise and sequester? In harnessing the body, Woodman seems to be repossessing herself in a way that seems contrary to many images of women in art. These images are solemn and yet thriving with sensuality: she is no longer wanted and thus her own.
I have a lot of work to do.