Francesca Woodman, born in 1958, has become one of the most talked about, studied and influential of contemporary photographers. The artist who ended her life in 1981, at the mere age of twenty-two, left behind a small but nevertheless provocative and impressive body of work. Francesca Woodman’s art is raw and fresh; she was certainly not afraid to experiment and push the boundaries behind, as well as in front of, the camera. Keeping in mind that her Photography was done while she was still a student at Art School who was on the verge of becoming an artist, Francesca Woodman’s work reflects her own growth and maturing process both as a woman and an artist; which she documented in a beautiful, honest and intimate way. Her archive is managed by her parents and contains over 800 photographs, of which only 120 (which were handpicked by Woodman herself when she was still alive) have ever been published. Her exhibition Zigzag is like most of her prints: Small and very intimate, and it also features some new prints that were never showcased before.
Although Francesca Woodman was very young, and her photographs confront topics that are very common amongst art students, such as death, there is something deeper about her particular work. Her work truly reveals the artist behind it, and what is beyond the physical; it gives us a genuine insight of her soul by raising important questions about herself, her body, life, and death.
In the main room, there is a series of black and white photographs that Francesca Woodman took of herself in atmospheric and sometimes gothic settings that dematerialize the body, which is pressed into cabinets, blended into walls, dissolved into blurred movements, or disappeared into luminescence. The environments she used were for her exploration of space and the relationship of the body to space. Playing with time and space, placing, or rather displacing her environments, objects and her own body, moreover pushing the limits of the lens – each photograph is suggestive and mysterious, provoking a thought process, and sometimes uncertainty, rather than telling a complete story.
Moreover, Francesca Woodman would often include objects like mirrors or fur pieces within the frame. While they perform as symbols; such as the fur representing Death next to the artist’s body representing Life, which is one of her re-occurring themes, there are also allusions to tropes from Surrealism and Gothic, such as the blurred bodies representing ghosts. However, the main focus remains on the female form and rather obsessively so. But unlike other female artists from her era, there is no feminist or political message behind these images. The way Francesca Woodman approached the subject was very personal. This exhibition particularly draws attention to the conceptual though, hence its name: Zigzag.
The second room, or rather hallway, shows two big collages of small photographs attached to each other that are visually connected, merging into one another by the zigzag pattern constructed by limbs, fabric, objects, nature and architecture- each photograph is carefully crafted, and proves even more how calculatedly and consciously Francesca Woodman worked.
However, there is another question that comes to mind: Why is her work relevant, and why now?
Unfortunately the artist never got to see the impact that her art would have on others. There are multiple currents of art enthusiasts, artists and students that are drawn to her work. Judging by the (mostly young) audience that was present at the Opening Night, it is apparent that Woodman has a following, or even a fan base. I personally not only find her work intriguing in the context of photography and history, but moreover because it depicts issues of gender, narrative, architecture, self-representation, and young adulthood: these issues are very much current today and preoccupy our culture. Moreover, as a female in her twenties I can relate to her Art very personally; it really spoke to me on a deeper level and touched upon those rooted insecurities, doubts and confusions we have while transitioning from ‘girl-hood’ to ‘woman-hood’. What struck me the most about her photography, especially her self-portraits, was the parallel to today’s ‘selfie-craze’; the constant pre-occupation with the self, and one’s (body) image, and I couldn’t help but feel a kind of sadness and compassion for the artist.
It remains to be seen how Woodman will continue to be received, but I highly recommend that you see and contemplate for yourself.
Francesca Woodman, Zigzag, at Victoria Miro Mayfair 9 September- 4 October.