Although she was born in America, the artist’s time spent in Italy in the years leading up to her untimely death produced some of her most known works
On a hot, sunny day in 1978, a 19-year-old Francesca Woodman carried bags of live eels through the streets of Rome with her close friend, artist Sloan Rankin. The creatures were set to be used to create one of her most notable series, Eel Series (1977-78). In one of the images, Woodman’s body is contorted on the floor, turned away from the viewer but towards a bowl of eels. The figure is out of focus and softly blurred – a trademark of her work.
A pioneering photographer, Woodman reclaimed the female gaze by often posing nude in her images, with mirrors and other bits of furniture obscuring parts of herself. She was drawn to experimental methods – like that of Eel Series (1977-78) – to create some of the most thought-provoking and progressive photographs of the 20th century. Working only with black and white photography no bigger than 20 x 25cm, she explored themes of gender and sexuality, with many of her photos utilising movement and long exposure to create a blurred effect.
In her short lifetime, Woodman produced over 800 hundred images, before her tragic suicide at the tender age of 22. It seemed that the world was not ready for Woodman nor was she for it. Across her lifetime, the artist also held an extraordinary relationship with Italian art and culture, now the subject of a new show at Venice’s Victoria Miro gallery. Francesca Woodman (1958 – 1981): Italian Works, running from September 15 till December 15 2018, will host the artworks created during her time studying abroad in Rome.
As the show launches, we explore the immense impact of Italy on the American photographer’s pioneering work.
HER AFFINITY WITH ITALY BEGAN AT A VERY YOUNG AGE
Born in Denver, Colorado in 1958, Woodman was immersed in art from a very young age as her parents were both artists. Her father George was a painter and photographer, and her mother Betty, a ceramicist. They both encouraged their daughter to express herself through creativity.
Although born and raised in America, Woodman regarded Italy as her spiritual home. She lived in Florence for a year as a child. When she was 11, her parents purchased a farmhouse in Tuscany. At 13, Woodman created her first self-portrait, “Self-Portrait” (1972). In it, Woodman sits on what appears to be a sofa. Hidden by her hair, her face is engulfed with dark shadows as the background blurs behind her, the static caused by movement. “Self-Portrait” gives an insight into the starting point of Woodman’s unique photographic traits. Her father described her as provocative, self-determined, precocious, and special – qualities widely mirrored in her work.
ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS WORKS USES EELS AS A PHALLIC SYMBOL
In 1977, a 19-year-old Woodman left to study abroad in Rome at the Rhode Island School of Design’s European Honors programme. It was a year that proved to be pivotal in her development as an artist and her understanding of Italy. The images Woodman captured there, three years before her suicide at 22, are a poignant – and pioneering – exploration of the female form through the lens.
Eel Series is believed to have been created on one of Woodman’s many trips to Venice, using the eels she had collected in Rome, to explore representation. Her gender appears ambiguous as neither her breasts or groin are visible, nor is the body lying in a sexually provocative state. The eels’ movement is bold and stronger than that of Woodman’s, and she appears vulnerable. Over history, eels have been understood as a phallic symbol a representative of desire, therefore many critics interpret Eel Series as Woodman being submissive to her desires.
THE CITY OF ROME HAD A POWERFUL IMPACT ON HER WORK
When living in Rome, Woodman would spend hours learning about twentieth-century artistic and literary movements in the city’s central Maldoror bookstore: a space crucial to the artist’s development. Maldoror actually hosted Woodman’s first solo exhibition in its small basement on her 20th birthday.
Across her oeuvre, Woodman’s relationship with Italy beams as she uses Italian classical subjects, such as female forms and still life compositions. She was also inspired by Florentine master painters and sculptors, like Giotto and Piero Della Francesca, whose formal strategies she adopted throughout her work. For example, in the photo, “November has been a slightly uncomfortable baroque” (1977-78) the subject's body looks more like a traditional marble sculpture; the arched back exaggerating Woodman's hourglass figure and her arm stretching across the bench mirror that of a Renaissance painting or sculpture.
The way Woodman combined an understanding of classical Italian art and culture with elements of contemporary art is what makes her work still so influential today – an artist that was clearly ahead of her time.
HER STUDIO WAS IN A DERELICT PASTA FACTORY
Able to speak fluent Italian, Woodman made friends with other young artists in Rome, like Giuseppe Gallo and Enrico Luzzi. Along with other artists, they transformed an abandoned pasta factory, Pastifico Cerere, into studios. It was in these spaces that she created some of her most raw and influential pieces.
Angel Series (1977) is one of Woodman’s most well-known body of photography work, it’s also an example of how Pastifico Cerere’s vast, empty rooms enabled the artist to create more ambitious images. The most effective photo from the series is “On Being an Angel” (1977), Woodman’s blurred semi-naked body jumps between two perfectly in focus angel wings cut out of fabric hanging from the derelict buildings’ ceiling. The title of the image was also used as the name of her solo-exhibition that travelled around Europe in 2015-17.
SHE WAS LAID TO REST IN NEW YORK, BUT HER SOUL LIVES ON IN ITALY
Returning to New York in 1979, Woodman tried to pursue a career as a photographer by sending her portfolios to multiple fashion photographers. Unfortunately, she failed to land on her feet. Still struggling to find her place in New York in the late 1980s, she became depressed, triggered by a failed relationship and frustration over the lack of attention her artwork was attracting. By the end of the year, Woodman had stopped taking photos entirely.
On January 19, 1981, Woodman jumped from the loft window of a building on East Side of New York. Sloan Rankin, reflecting on her friends passing, said in an interview with Scott Willis’s for his film The Woodmans (2010) she “was a fragile person, it caused her to make beautiful pictures”.
In the years after her death, the world finally caught up with Woodman's photography. She has had worldwide exhibitions as well as an award-winning documentary made about her and her family (The Woodmans). The artist was even in a joint exhibition recently at the Tate Liverpool with the 20th century great, and very controversial, Egon Schiele.
Francesca Woodman (1958-1981): Italian Works is showing at Victoria Miro Venice from September 15 to December 15, 2018. You can find out more here