04
Dec
15

Exhibition: ‘Francesca Woodman. On Being an Angel’ at Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Exhibition dates: 5th September 2015 – 6th December 2015

Curator: Anna Tellgren

 

 

Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) achieved more in five years of artistic creativity than many artists achieve in a lifetime.

As a viewer you can read whatever you want into her photographs: feminism, surrealism, psychoanalytical theory, avant-garde, sexuality, gender, identity, sadness, happiness, joy. One of Francesca Woodman’s teachers was Aaron Siskind but you can also feel echoes of Diane Arbus, the conceptual, narrative mystery of Duane Michals, the postmodern generation of Cindy Sherman (1977 onwards) and, someone who nobody mentions as an influence, the darkness of Ralph Eugene Meatyard (family members enacting symbolic dramas in masks, often set in abandoned places). Woodman also places masks on or off of her face. Further, “There are similarities in style to surrealistic photography, such as Woodman’s frequent use of mirrors, doubles, shadows, gloves, hands, swans, fish, eels, masks, and sexual symbols. Photographers such as Hans Bellmer, Claude Cahun, and Man Ray spring to mind.”1

Here, I see the influence of Carl Jung in her work, specifically in Jungian psychology, the shadow or “shadow aspect” of the self (traces and silhouettes) which may refer to an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. This shadow aspect may be positive or negative. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”2 This shadow aspect can be see in the photograph Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976 (below).

Another element embedded in the work is that of the Mirror stage, which is a concept in the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. “The mirror stage is based on the belief that infants recognize themselves in a mirror (literal) or other symbolic contraption which induces apperception (the turning of oneself into an object that can be viewed by the child from outside themselves) from the age of about 15 to 18 months… Lacan believed that the mirror stage represented a permanent structure of subjectivity, or as the paradigm of “Imaginary order”.”3 The basis of the Imaginary order is the formation of the ego in the “mirror stage”. “Since the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image, “identification” is an important aspect of the imaginary. The relationship whereby the ego is constituted by identification is a locus of “alienation”, which is another feature of the imaginary, and is fundamentally narcissistic.”4 This imaginary order can be seen in photographs such as Self-deceit #1, Rome, Italy, 1978 (below), where the image and even the title alludes to a form of self-alienation.

Riffing on the “highly influential writings of French philosophers and cultural critics such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Julia Kristeva that were just beginning to be made available in translation. Among these thinkers’ central ideas was that identity was not organic and innate, but manufactured and learned through highly refined social constructions of gender, race, sexuality, and citizenship”5, Woodman’s work can also be seen to embody and ennoble these subjective and surrealist constructions (of self).

The artist is a CHIMERICAL CREATURE. Woodman’s transformations, her interior elements, become part of the wall or the house. She vanishes “from the room, out of the picture, at an given second.” A preoccupation with the body / her own body, and the dichotomy of subject-object, also adds multiple meanings and complexity to Woodman’s work. Her many angel images (and also images of umbrellas – Mary Poppins was released in 1964 when Woodman was growing up) suggest movement and the ability to fly, a fascination that found its ultimate expression when she jumped off a building in lower Manhattan at the age of 22.

We can read of all these things into the image/inary of Francesca Woodman if we want to. But they are not necessary to admire or appreciate her work. All we have to do is look at the photographs themselves; just return to the work. Here was a young artist, a young human being, expressing themselves through photography. She was just going for it and, as Corey Keller (a curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) has noted, her youth was the source of her potency.

“Art students are drawn to the conviction she brought to her work and, in contrast to the cool slickness of the digital, it embraces tactility and decay in a very sensual and seductive way.” Keller sees Woodman’s youth not as a liability, but as the source of her potency, though she admits the issue of her self-portraits continues to be fraught. “They are certainly an expression of selfhood. She’s not interested in images of women in general, for example, and even when the subject of the photograph is not herself physically, one always has the sense it is about her psychically.””6

While she may not have fully understood the layered nuances of French philosophy and Jungian psychology she INTUITIVELY knew what she was doing and what she wanted to achieve and capture in her work. There are lots of other photographers around the world that work in this same idiom, at art school and as mature artists, but none have that special something that Woodman has, something that one cannot quite put your finger on.

It is … a gap we can see across but cannot map.

Woodman is one of the greats. In her few short years as an artist, she achieved immortality through her images.
Her narrative – one of youth and vitality, of self exploration and transformation – is no myth. For she is legend.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

.
Many thankx to the Moderna Museet, Stockholm for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

  1. Tellgren, Anna. Francesca Woodman: On Being an Angel (50kb pdf). 2015, pp. 13-14
  2. Shadow (psychology) on the Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 04/12/2015
  3. Mirror stage on the Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 04/12/2015
  4. The Imaginary (psychoanalysis) on the Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 04/12/2015
  5. Eklund, Douglas. “The Pictures Generation,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on The Metropolitan Museum of Art website [Online] Cited 04/12/2015
  6. Corey Keller quoted in Cooke, Rachel. “Searching for the real Francesca Woodman,” on The Guardian website, Sunday 31 August 2014 [Online] Cited 04/12/2015

 

 

The American photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) created a body of fascinating photographic works in a few intense years before her premature death. Her oeuvre has been the object of numerous in-depth studies and major exhibitions in recent years, and her photographs have inspired artists all over the world. Francesca Woodman began photographing in her teens and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1975 to 1978. Her output is usually divided into periods, from her early works, her years as a student in Providence, Italy (1977-1978), the Mac Dowell Colony, and, lastly, New York from 1979 until she died. The collection she left behind consists of a few hundred gelatin silver prints, but she also tried other techniques, such as large-format diazotypes, colour photography and video.

Woodman’s photographs explore gender, representation, sexuality and body. Her production includes several self-portraits, using herself and her friends as models. The figures are often placed behind furniture and other interior elements; occasionally, the images are blurred in such a way that their identity is hidden from the viewer. The intimate nature of the subject matter is enhanced by the small formats. Woodman worked in unusual settings such as derelict buildings, using mirrors and glass to evoke surrealist and occasionally claustrophobic moods.

Moderna Museet will present some hundred photographs by Francesca Woodman, with a selection from the series and themes she explored. The exhibition is produced by Moderna Museet in association with Betty and George Woodman and the Estate of Francesca Woodman. Alongside this exhibition, Moderna Museet will present a compilation of photography from the same period from its collection, to show Francesca Woodman in context and expand the perspective on her oeuvre to the public.

 

 

Francesca Woodman. 'On Being an Angel', Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

 

Francesca Woodman
On Being an Angel, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'On Being an Angel #1', Providence, Rhode Island, 1977

 

Francesca Woodman
On Being an Angel #1, Providence, Rhode Island, 1977
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. From 'Angel' series, Rome, Italy, 1977

 

Francesca Woodman
From Angel series, Rome, Italy, 1977
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. From 'Angel' series, Rome, Italy, 1977-1978

 

Francesca Woodman
From Angel series, Rome, Italy, 1977-1978
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Charlie the Model # 5', Providence, Rhode Island, 1976-77

 

Francesca Woodman
Charlie the Model #5, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976-77
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman From 'Eel' series, Venice, Italy, 1978

 

Francesca Woodman
From Eel series, Venice, Italy, 1978
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'House #4', Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

 

Francesca Woodman
House #4, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. From the 'three kinds of melon in four kinds of light' series, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

 

Francesca Woodman
From the three kinds of melon in four kinds of light series, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
© George and Betty Woodman

 

 

“The American photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) created a body of fascinating photographic works in a few intense years before her premature death. Her oeuvre has been shown in number of major exhibitions in recent years, and her photographs have inspired artists all over the world.

Woodman’s photographs explore gender, representation, sexuality and body. The intimate nature of the subject matter is enhanced by the small formats. Her production includes several portraits, using herself and her friends as models. The figures are often placed behind furniture and other interior elements; occasionally, the images are blurred and the models hidden from the viewer. Woodman worked in settings such as derelict buildings, using mirrors and glass, evoking surrealist and at times even claustrophobic moods.

Francesca Woodman began photographing in her teens and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1975 to 1978. Her output is usually divided into periods: the early works, her years as a student in Providence, Italy (1977-78), the Mac Dowell Colony, and, lastly, New York from 1979 until she died. The collection she left behind consists of several hundred gelatin silver prints, but she also tried other techniques, such as large-format diazotypes and video.

Francesca Woodman. On being an angel presents 102 photographs and one video, representing most of the artist’s series and themes. The exhibition is produced by Moderna Museet in association with the Estate of Francesca Woodman. Alongside this exhibition, Moderna Museet presents a compilation of photography from the same period from its collection, to show Francesca Woodman in context and expand the perspective on her oeuvre to the public.

 

Biography

Francesca Woodman was born into a family of artists in Denver, Colorado, on April 3, 1958. Her mother, Betty, was a sculptor, her father, George, a painter and photographer, and her brother, Charlie, was a video artist.

Italy

The family often traveled to Italy and lived in Florence for a year between 1965 and 1966. Then they returned home to Boulder, Colorado, and Francesca continued her schooling. In 1968 her parents bought a farmhouse outside of Florence in Antella, and there they would spend their summers. Italy and its language, culture, and art history were frequent sources of inspiration for Francesca Woodman.

Providence

Woodman started taking pictures as a teenager and had attended a few art courses before she moved to Providence to study at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1975. The college is among the oldest art schools in the United States, and the well-known photographer Aaron Siskind was one of her teachers. While at college, she lived in her studio in an industrial area where many of her pictures from that time were created. Between 1977 and 1978 Francesca Woodman spent a year in Rome as part of the school’s honors program. In the fall of 1978, she earned her BFA and exhibited the series Swan Song (1978) at the graduate show in RISD’s Woods-Gerry Gallery.

New York

Months later, in January 1979, Woodman moved to New York, where she lived at various addresses while looking for work. She spent the summer together with her boyfriend, Benjamin Moore, in Stanwood, Washington. Over the course of the next year, she exhibited her work at a number of smaller galleries and experimented with new techniques such as largeformat diazotypes, and color images. She was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in the summer of 1980. There, she worked on a series of images exploring the relationship between nature and her body, among other projects. In early 1981, her artist’s book Some Disordered Interior Geometries was published by Synapse Press in Philadelphia. This was one of seven notebooks (including photographs that were glued in) that she worked with from 1976 onwards. Francesca Woodman took her own life on January 19, 1981.

Previous exhibitions

The first major retrospective of Francesca Woodman’s work was produced in 1986 by Ann Gabhart in collaboration with Rosalind Krauss for the Wellesley College Museum. It then toured a number of museums at American universities. Her first European exhibition was held in 1992 by Shedhalle in Zurich and the Westfälischer Kunstverein in Münster and was shown in the spring of 1993 at The Finnish Museum of Photography, in the Cable Factory in Helsinki. On its way there, it stopped for two months at Kulturhuset in Stockholm. The critic Lars O Ericsson wrote in Dagens Nyheter that the exhibition may have been the most important one to see in the capital at the time. To date, at least fifty separate exhibitions of Woodman’s photography have been held in Europe and the United States.

Photography from the Moderna Museet Collection

In connection to the exhibition with Francesca Woodman, Moderna Museet presents a selection of photographs from the same period from its collection, to show her in context. In Francesca Woodman’s active years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, photography was in a period of transition. Many photographers who had worked with classic black and white photography were experimenting with other forms and were pushing the documentary tradition towards more subjective and surrealist projects.

The United States paved the way in this development, and when many started working more professionally with photography, it was institutionalized. This shift in the field eventually spread to Europe. Major photographic exhibitions were held at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, featuring artists such as Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander, all of whom were influential to many younger photographers.

One of Francesca Woodman’s teachers was Aaron Siskind. His photography is often compared to that of Harry Callahan, since both were active for many years as teachers at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, and later at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Another figure in American post-war photography is Minor White, who also had influence as a teacher. White wrote about and taught methods for understanding and interpreting photographs. New Topographics. Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (1975) was a significant exhibition. It was held at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester and one of the featured artists was Lewis Baltz. Other notable photographers in the new American wave were personalities as diverse as Robert Mapplethorpe, Melissa Shook, and Jerry Uelsmann.

But it was also then, from 1977 forward, that Cindy Sherman started working on her break-out series Untitled Film Stills. Sherman is an artist of the postmodern generation, and it is not known if Woodman had been aware of the so-called Pictures Generation. Duane Michals stood for a more conceptual approach. He was one of the photographers who we know interested Woodman.

Diazotypy

In the spring of 1980 Francesca Woodman started working on Blueprint for a Temple, where she was recreating the facade of a Greek temple using models draped in tunics similar to caryatids. The series began with a collection of details from bathrooms in New York, reminiscent of classical motifs. From having worked on a smaller scale, she had now moved on to truly large formats, some several meters in size.

These pictures are often categorized as blueprints, referring to a method of reproduction most frequently used for architectural plans. This is a contact print process on photosensitive paper; white lines on a blue background distinguish the finished product. (Other types of paper produced different background colors.)

The technique Woodman used was diazotypy: a dry photographic process on paper coated with diazonium compounds, which are sensitive to blue and UV light and developed by ammonia vapour. Woodman experimented with this technique. She created the largest of these images by hanging a long sheet of photosensitive diazo paper on the wall of a darkroom. A photographic slide was projected onto the paper from a slide projector, often for hours. The paper was then developed in a diazo processor at a company that made commercial reproductions of architectural plans. The result was a set of magnificent works in blue, purple, and sepia tones.

Text from the Moderna Museet, Stockholm website

 

Francesca Woodman. 'About Being My Model', Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

 

Francesca Woodman
About Being My Model, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Spring in Providence # 2', Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

 

Francesca Woodman
Spring in Providence #2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Self-deceit #1', Rome, Italy, 1978

 

Francesca Woodman
Self-deceit #1, Rome, Italy, 1978
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Untitled', Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-78

 

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-78
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Untitled', Rome, Italy, 1977-78

 

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, Rome, Italy, 1977-78
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Untitled', New York, 1979-80

 

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, New York, 1979-80
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Untitled', Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

 

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Untitled', New York, 1979-80

 

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, New York, 1979-80
© George and Betty Woodman

 

 

Moderna Museet’s first exhibition this autumn features the American photographer Francesca Woodman, whose oeuvre has been the subject of numerous in-depth studies and major exhibitions in recent years. Her photography has inspired generations of artists and photographers around the world. Woodman has been called a prodigy, and those who met her testify to her as a young woman who was always working and looking for themes and material for her photographs. Examining Francesca Woodman’s aesthetic oeuvre is a challenge and an adventure.

Francesca Woodman’s (1958-1981) photographs explore gender, representation and body. Her aesthetic world reveals surrealist influences, with frequent use of mirrors, doubles, shadows, masks, and sexual symbols, bringing to mind the works of photographers such as Hans Bellmer, Claude Cahun and Man Ray. Woodman’s output includes several portraits using herself and her friends as models. The intimate nature of the subject matter is enhanced by the small formats. Transformation emerges as a theme in many of Woodman’s images, for example in one of her strongest and eeriest series, House from 1976, in which she gradually merges with the walls, the torn wallpaper and the open fireplace.

“Francesca Woodman created a body of fascinating photographic works in a few intense years before her premature death. Her images reference history and the history of photography, but they also reflect their time, while unlocking new interpretations. She is deeply personal, and so her themes become universal. All of this is what On Being an Angel is about,” says curator Anna Tellgren.

Francesca Woodman began photographing in her teens and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1975 to 1978. Her output is usually divided into periods, from her early works, her years as a student in Providence, in Italy (1977-78), at the MacDowell Colony, and, lastly, in New York from 1979 until she died. Analyses of her work are often linked to her biography and chronology. During her active years, Woodman produced thousands of images and she also tried other techniques such as large-format diazotypes, colour photography and video. Some eight hundred photographs have been preserved. The words, short sentences, or quotations she scrawled on many of her prints have since given those pieces their titles.

The exhibition Francesca Woodman. On Being an Angel is comprised of 102 photographs and one video by Francesca Woodman, and selections from most of her thematic groups and series are represented, including Polka Dots (1976), the From Angel series (1977), Swan Song (1978), Charlie the Model (1976-77) and her large Caryatid (Study for a Temple Project) (1980). In Woodman’s active years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, photography was in a period of transition. Many photographers who had worked with classic black and white photography were experimenting with other forms, pushing the documentary tradition towards more subjective and surrealist projects. Alongside the exhibition, Moderna Museet will present a selection of photography from the same period from its collection, to show Francesca Woodman in context.

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Untitled', Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

 

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Space2', Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1976

 

Francesca Woodman
Space2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975- 1976
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'From Space2', Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

 

Francesca Woodman
From Space2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Untitled', Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-78

 

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-1976
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Untitled', New York, 1979-80

 

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, New York, 1979-80
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Untitled', New York, 1979

 

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, New York, 1979
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. 'Untitled', New York, 1979

 

Francesca Woodman
Untitled, New York, 1979
© George and Betty Woodman

 

Francesca Woodman. '(Study for Temple Project)', New York, 1980

 

Francesca Woodman
(Study for Temple Project), New York, 1980
© George and Betty Woodman

 

 

Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Moderna Museet is ten minutes away from Kungsträdgården, and twenty minutes from T-Centralen or Gamla Stan. Walk past Grand Hotel and Nationalmuseum on Blasieholmen, opposite the Royal Palace. After crossing the bridge to Skeppsholmen, continue up the hill. The entrance to Moderna Museet and Arkitekturmuseet is on the left-hand side.

Opening hours:
Tuesday 10-20
Wednesday-Sunday 10-18
Monday closed

Moderna Museet website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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