Francesca Woodman died too young. In her short life, she displayed a prodigious talent, creating art with verve and vision, but her career was cut off preternaturally early by her suicide in 1981 aged 22. She was a young woman crouched on the threshold of womanhood, learning, exploring and experimenting with her body and her camera. Inevitably however, the manner of her death casts a distracting shadow over her work, forging an occasionally salacious narrative that colours the perception of her both as a woman and as an artist.
In many ways, art was Woodman’s first language. The daughter of two artists, subsequently a prodigal student at the Rhodes Island School of Design, she started creating photographs aged thirteen. She took on the majority of the modelling duties herself: “It’s a matter of convenience,” she said, when asked about her recurring place in her work. “I am always available.” Her pictures are intensely personal odysseys of self-discovery, refracting her inspirations, passions, intellectual ideas, romantic joys and failures to forge a style all of her own. But these original works are necessarily filled with references to the artists and intellectuals she had read and absorbed. So, as Francesca Woodman: Zigzag opens at London’s Victoria Miro gallery, focusing on Woodman’s novel use of geometrical form and featuring ten images newly released by her estate, we consider the artists and ideas that inspired her, from Greek myths and surrealism to the fashion photography of Deborah Turbeville.
1. Apollo and Daphne
Much is made of the idea that in Woodman’s blurred, disjointed presence in her own images, she is attempting a form of erasure, trying to disappear from view. The Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne tells of a wood nymph who – on being remorselessly pursued by the love stricken god – begged the gods for help to escape. Hearing her plea, her father cast an enchantment that transformed her into a tree, her feet becoming roots, her arms branches and her skin bark. In turn, Woodman covers her arms in strips of tree bark, her face out of frame, perhaps mirroring the nymph in an attempt to evade the attentions of the camera.
2. Gothic Fiction
Woodman was known to have been an avid reader of Victorian fiction, and like the novels of the Brontes or Wilkie Collins, her images are filled with spectral female figures, looming uncertainly at the fringes of the frames. Confined to attics, trapped behind wallpaper, their clothes rumpled or removed, there are distinct shades of Mrs Rochester in the women who whirr half seen across the lens, their faces blurs, their stories hinted at rather than told.
Surrealist details are evident throughout the photographs, in the silvery tone that echoes Man Ray and in the legacy of Meret Oppenheim’s use of the human form to walk an opaque line between eroticism and abstraction. Woodman continually pushed the boundaries of self-expression, using her body over and over again to question and blur contemporary ideas of sexuality and art, while sticking to the Surrealist rule of never explaining herself.
4. Max Clinger
Woodman spent a formative time in Italy, spending school holidays with her parents in a rural farmhouse, and a full year studying in Rome. It was there that she was introduced to the works of the German Symbolist Klinger, whose 1881 etchings “Fantasies upon the Finding of a Glove” had a profound influence on the themes of fantasy and desire that emerge in her work. Like Klinger before her, Woodman experimented with the substitution of objects such as eels for more literal representations of the phallic or sexual, creating a witty series of mise-en-scène that defy her popular reputation for depressive intensity.
5. Deborah Turbeville
Like most girls her age, Woodman was bewitched by fashion, creating her own version of the style of Victorian heroines, all flowing hair, long dresses and draped scarves. Although Turbeville’s work appeared in the pages of Vogue, the photographer positioned the clothes within uncanny and startling stories that defied the glossy fashion magazine cliché. After her death, Woodman’s parents found an unsent letter to Turbeville applying for the role of her studio assistant, and her debt to the photographer is clear in Woodman’s sensitive and attuned use of clothing and setting throughout her works.
Francesca Woodman: Zigzag is at the Victoria Miro Gallery from September 9 to October 4.
Text by Tish Wrigley