Sharp Angles and Blurred Angels
Francesca Woodman’s photographs are filled with disappearing women. Their faces are blurred or concealed, they crouch in corners, hide behind loose strips of wallpaper or crumbling masonry. In one, a woman’s outstretched arms are the only part of her in frame and they are camouflaged by rolls of tree bark. These figures merge with their surroundings until they are barely distinguishable from the backdrop.
This exhibition sets out to show us how Woodman used the zigzag to vitalise her work. In doing so, it also makes clear how her nude portraits play a crucial part in this aesthetic. Though these figures seem to blend with their backgrounds, they initiate patterns that resonate throughout Woodman’s work. Zigzag Study explores this pattern as it moves across a number of otherwise separate images. Woodman picks out a zigzag with a long black line that runs along splayed feet, jumping legs, necklines, elbow-nooks, and folds of fabric. In On Being an Angel, the sharp camera angle reduces the woman in the foreground to a collection of geometric shapes: the zigzag slope of her breasts as she arches her back, the gape of her mouth. At times, these photographs sit on a vibrant borderline between realism and abstraction.
In an essay written to accompany this exhibition, the artist’s father reflects that, though these images are still, they are ‘filled with motion’. The implicit movement, he says, is created by Woodman’s use of zigzags. He argues that his daughter’s choice of geometrical form was not only a formal decision but an art historical one. Zigzags burst away from ‘The Grid’ favoured by many modernist artists – he cites Modrian, Judd, and John. On many levels, then, Woodman’s photography uses zigzags to resist simple containment.
These photographs frequently depict women – usually the artist – in dilapidated rooms which contain telling domestic details like bedroom furniture or mirrors. Woodman uses cluttered houses with everyday objects strewn about them as the stage-set for unnerving, other-worldly images. Certain props recur throughout her work: mirrors, panes of glass, peeling wallpaper to hide behind. These details bring to mind a letter Woodman wrote about the importance of the ‘everyday’ as a window on bigger questions: ‘Proust inspired me a lot. I’d really like to create a work of art like that, rooted in and linked to everyday life but addressing questions of great scope’. 1 At the same time they seem to hint obliquely at Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
In Woodman’s work, long exposures blur faces and overlay moments in time. This delicate sense of movement is considerably dulled in reproduction and, walking around this exhibition, I was struck by the unexpected sharpness of images I had thought were familiar. This ‘blurring’ creates surprisingly sharp and distinct overlapping images. Despite the photographs being far smaller than they are sometimes presented, they feel considerably more imposing in the flesh. The scale of these images – seldom much larger than a CD case – seems to concentrate rather than diminish their impact.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this exhibition is how simply it is displayed. Almost every review or critical essay on Woodman’s work comes round, sooner or later, to the circumstances of her death. But it feels hopelessly reductive to paint her as a tragic female artist á la Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf. Even more so to view her work, only or mostly, in light of her subsequent suicide. The link between (feminine) artistic achievement and mental illness is too frequently, and too simply, dwelt upon. It has become something of a pop-culture fetish. Woodman’s elusive self-portraits, which so often show a young woman hiding, camouflaged or on the verge of disappearing, have suggested a foreshadowing of the photographer’s death, but they are obviously much more than that. This exhibition’s clean walls and minimal biographical information allow the photographs a little space to flourish on their own terms. It lets her work, rather than her biography, take centre stage.
Zigzag. 9 September to 5 October 2014 at Victoria Miro Mayfair.
Further Information here
- Francesca Woodman, letter to Pepe, January 4, 1980, New York, in Giuseppe Casetti and Francesco Stocchi, eds., Francesca Woodman Roma 1977-1981, exh. Cat. Il museo del louvre, Rome (Vienna, 2011), p. 126 ↩