This exercise is to consider the evidence for Susan Bright’s analysis:
“It is difficult not to read Woodman’s many self-portraits – she produced over five hundred during her short lifetime – as alluding to a troubled state of mind. She committed suicide at the age of twenty-two.” (Bright, 2010, p.25).
I find myself quite uncomfortable with this allusion. Without even looking at any of Woodman’s work we already know that our reading of the work is not necessarily what the artist intended. With Woodman we all know the tragic ending before we look at the work and that too is tempting to colour our view of the work. I do understand and identify with her parents who have tried, along with others, to place her work and her life into a broader context. She made over 700 photographs and many thousands of negatives, and it’s my belief that this body of work supports more than one possible narrative. I’m supported in this view by the essay “Girlish Games: Playfulness and ‘Drawingness’ in the work of Francesca Woodman and Lucy Gunning” (Girls! Girls! Girls! In contemporary art ed Grant, Waxman Intellect 2011). This discusses how Woodman made her work – the use of sometimes her naked body, sometimes clothed, her careful use of props and the unmissable sense of exploring space, of play, of motion, of hiding.
“She had a good time,” says Betty. “Her life wasn’t a series of miseries. She was fun to be with. It’s a basic fallacy that her death is what she was all about, and people read that into the photographs. They psychoanalyse them. Young people in particular feel she’s talking about them, somehow. They see the photographs as very personal. But that’s not the way I approach them. They’re often funny.” (Rachel Cooke, The Guardian).
Again, before we look at any of the work, we should probably consider the photographers who produce work that could be regarded as disturbing or harrowing, who are living long and apparently happy lives. Gregory Crewdson, for example, makes frequently chilling and disturbing domestic tableaux , but no-one seems to question his mental state based on his work. I wonder if the difference is to do with him being middle-aged, male and alive rather than young, female and dead. Edit – Nic Hallam makes an interesting point in the comments below, perhaps his work gains credibility because his father is a psychoanalyst, whereas Francesca’s parents are artists.
Her work is certainly off-beat, surreal. It reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, not least because of how she appears squeezed into bizarre confined spaces, and because of the black Mary Jane shoes that feature in some of the images and the tall striped socks Anna Gaskell also makes use of some of these devices and props in her Alice themed work). There are only a couple of images that come to mind that might allude to a “troubled state of mind”, and even then it’s hard to be sure with looking at them on a computer monitor. There’s the one of her half submerged in water, unusually made out of doors, that reminded me of Ophelia and also of Tom Hunter’s take on Ophelia. Another shows her laid down on her front, her arm coiled around a tub of eels, and that put me in mind of Cleopatra and her asps.
Returning to this exercise whilst housekeeping my blog I am reminded of an Elina Brotherus interview titled “It’s not me, it’s a photograph.” It is so interesting to see how she interprets some images of herself so very positively compared to how others read them. Her images of a slender naked young woman are not really so far away from Francesca’s, but she is able to clearly say why she made these images, what they are about for her, and thus we are not reading articles questioning her mental health. An example in the interview linked to below is her work “This is the first day of the rest of your life” which shows her naked, holding a cigarette on a bare bed, after her divorce. Others have seen this as a sad image, for Elina it is positive, celebrating new freedoms including the potential to smoke in bed. It is interesting to consider how a similar image would be interpreted if made by Francesca Woodman.