Last September I posted a story about Francesca Woodman, the photographer who tragically ended her life at age 22. Since that time a comprehensive exhibit opened in March at the Guggenheim of her work and I wanted to revisit the subject as a result.
In addition, since my post about her last year I came across pencil drawings from freshman year that I sketched in drawing class of Charlie, the only male model our class had that year (in addition to several female models). I spotted Charlie in at least one of Francesca's photos (shown below) and it was another interesting coincidence to realize she had hired him for the photo as opposed to a male student or someone else.
Her mother has stated publicly that she felt Francesca's break up with fellow RISD student Ben Moore (he was a glass major during our time there) had been hard on her and was the cause of her untimely death. The note left behind does not state this by Francesca, but it's worth noting they had been together for at least five years starting when they were both students. He came with her to Rome for the year '77-'78 when she was part of RISD's European Honors Program. As the related material states, she was living in Manhattan in 1981 when she took her life.
When one reads about such a tragic event there are always "what if's"--such as what if she had a different boyfriend who never dropped her as his girlfriend? Also, she had been turned down for a National Endowment for the Arts grant around the same time as her death. What if she had received the grant? We will never know.
I'll be going to Guggenheim in the next few weeks to see the exhibit and I imagine anyone living in the metro area who is interested in photography might want to see the show, as well.
Born in 1958 into a family of artists, Woodman began photographing at the age of 13. By the time she enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1975, she was already an accomplished artist with a remarkably mature and focused approach to her work. During her time at RISD, she spent a year in Rome, which proved an enormously fertile source of inspiration. After completing her degree, she moved to New York, where she made several large-scale personal projects and experimented with fashion photography. In 1981, at the age of 22, she committed suicide. Woodman’s untimely death is underscored by the startlingly compelling, complex, and artistically resolved body of work she produced during her short lifetime. Spanning the breadth of Woodman’s oeuvre, this presentation includes more than 120 vintage photographs, ranging from her earliest student experiments to her late, large-scale blueprint studies of caryatid-like figures for the ambitious Temple project (1980)."
--Excerpt from the Guggenheim summary of Francesca Woodman's current exhibit
Click on the image below for the Guggenheim web page:
She was beautiful (though not superhumanly so) and used her own physique for seductive effect. But it would be wrong to write her off as just a pretty girl capitalizing on her own physical charm. Woodman had a couple of less tangible things going for her: terrific charisma — she could have been an actress — and really urgent issues to grapple with.
From first to last, her photographs play out a high-low struggle between innocence and experience, the spiritual and the carnal and the angelic and the demonic. She could be comical, as in an image from 1976 in which she sits on a low bench, wearing nothing but white knee socks and black Chinese slippers and sniffs a blossom of a tall, potted lily, a symbol of Christian purity. (Many pictures in the show were made in response to class assignments at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she was enrolled from 1975-78, but there is nothing studentlike about them.)
When Woodman killed herself, hardly anyone beyond her family, friends, classmates and teachers knew about the phenomenal body of work she had produced. About a year later, Ann Gabhart, the director of the Wellesley Art Museum (now the Davis Museum at Wellesley College) saw some of her prints hanging in the family home in Boulder, Colo., and she was able to see more in New York some time after that. Struck by what she saw as the relevance of Woodman’s art to the lives of the young women at Wellesley College, Ms. Gabhart resolved to organize an exhibition and enlisted the influential critics Abigail Solomon-Godeau and Rosalind Krauss to write catalog essays. Opening in 1986, the show was a kind of resurrection for Woodman. A cult was born."
--Ken Johnson, The New York Times
Click on the image below for the Times story:
Francesca's photo (circa 1976-77) that includes Charlie, the model, and herself as the female in the shot. From reading about her work I discovered that she often had someone (quite often Sloan Rankin, her classmate and friend) push the shutter button on the camera after the scene was set up and she was in it, as may have been the case in the photo below:
The best drawing of the series I made in freshman year drawing class of Charlie. (The sketch is about 20" in width.)
During the '76-'77 school year Francesca lived at 109 North Main Street which was just one block directly down College Hill from my apartment. The attractive and classical looking building is shown below the map:
My original post from last September is copied in below:
When you're in art school you never know who in your class might become famous one day.
In my last semester (spring 1977) of my last year in school there was a student in my English class who usually sat in the front row of seats just like I did. Our class was in session twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons just after lunchtime. The topic of the class for the semester was Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. On at least four or five occasions I looked over her way and saw that she was staring directly at me.
The student was Francesca Woodman who became a huge success in the art world. The sad part of the story is that she was not around to see just how famous she would ultimately become. She had been living in New York for four years when she tragically took her own life one day.
Below in the post is a look at the trailer and a clip from the documentary about Francesca entitled The Woodmans, plus curators in Scotland and Italy talking about her talent and photographs.
My copy of The Portrait of a Lady purchased in the RISD bookstore at the beginning of second semester, 1977.
Francesca Woodman (April 3, 1958 - January 19, 1981) was an American photographer best known for her black and white pictures featuring herself and female models. She spent the most part of her childhood in Italy in the Florentine countryside, where she lived in an old farm with her parents, who were also artists. The charm of the old house had a notable influence on Francesca’s research; the high-ceilinged rooms, the crumbling walls, the old decorations are all felt to be surfaces like ‘skins’ in which to cover oneself. Many of her photographs show young nude women, blurred by camera movement and long exposure times, merging with their surroundings, or with their faces obscured. Her work continues to be the subject of much attention, years after she committed suicide at the age of 22.
Her "mug" shot from the RISD student and faculty photo ID book of the '75-76 I have from my college days which was the academic year before Francesca was in my English class:
The trailer for The Woodmans:
A clip from the documentary featuring her father talking about when she first started in photography:
The Tate Gallery in Scotland which purchased a collection of her work that came onto the art market is shown in this video. Many of these photos were made while she was a student in Providence and that is also the case with the video at the end of the post:
Curators in Milan discussing in Italian the 2010 exhibit of her work:
From a discussion of The Woodmans film by Joy Dietrich in The New York Times:
You get the impression that overall, the Woodmans were supportive of Francesca, and she wasn’t pointing any fingers. “Nothing to do with not being able ‘to take it’ in the big city or with self doubt or because my heart is gone,” she wrote in her final diary entry. “And not to teach people a lesson. Simply the other side.”
“To stay alive is a pretty good thing to do,” George Woodman comments dryly, clearly wishing his daughter had followed his advice.
The pencil drawing and my text are © 2012 by B+Co., Inc.