Glamour is a dangerous thing

by Yule Heibel on August 20, 2003

I was 29 when I saw Francesca Woodman’s retrospective at Wellesley College in 1986. Her allusions weren’t exactly foreign — they actually felt familiar — yet I felt unhinged by them. As an art historian familiar with Surrealism, I was completely used to images made by men that essentially spoke to men even as they professed Woman as their subject. But here I felt that Woodman addressed me, as a female viewer, in that exact same familiar language, but she positioned me in a completely different space. I didn’t know where to stand. The images were smothering and occupied every common-place (every place to stand) with a kind of alienating and enthralling alterity.

Bellmer, Doll

I couldn’t help but compare her work mentally to Surrealists from the 1930s and 40s, especially to Hans Bellmer. His Poupees — “Dolls” — can make a viewer squirm, but with a bit of study, one quickly learns to deal with Bellmer’s aesthetic. It derives from years of brutalization at the hands of his militaristic father, for example; it’s a sort of externalization of a psychoanalytical process; it was a necessary step in getting the male psyche out of its prison house of language, logic, paternal restraint, taboo, and into the realm of dream, liberation, revolutionary freedom. And all that. To whit:

Hans Bellmer in The Art Institute of Chicago: The Wandering Libido and the Hysterical Body by Sue Taylor. “…The Surrealist fascination with automata, especially the uncanny dread produced by their dubious animate/inanimate status, prepared the way for the enthusiastic reception in France of Bellmer’s doll. His stated preoccupation with little girls as subjects for his art, moreover, coincided with the Surrealist idealization of the femme-enfant, a muse whose association with dual realms of alterity, femininity and childhood, inspired male artists in their self-styled revolt against the forces of the rational.” –Sue Taylor

But what was Woodman up to, spilling the beans like that? And what was it that did in the end make her work so different from Bellmer’s? She was born in Denver, Colorado in 1958. But in 1981 she committed suicide by leaping from her Lower East Side loft window. On a par with self-inflicted fatal gunshot wounds, this is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular ways of doing yourself in. Essays hint at larger facts, but leave them unexplored: no one wants to touch the personal psychology. Francesca Woodman was born in Denver, Colorado (April 3rd 1958) After the publication of “Some Disordered Interior Geometries” she committed suicide in New York on January 19th 1981. She was not yet 23. The essays accompanying the 1986 exhibition, as well as those that followed subsequently, vehemently denied any connection to Surrealism or to Bellmer. It was imperative to see Woodman as unconnected to old-style European psychosis, to psychology, and to anything as trite as a Surrealism not utterly dictated by the latter-day followers of Bataille and Lacan. No one in the art history world dared to say that perhaps Francesca Woodman had personal demons, that she was disturbed. Her suicide was incidental and a bothersome psychological fact that had to be passed over in favour of her feminism and post-modernity. Maybe theory killed her. It was a family acquaintance of the Woodmans, a poet named Peter Davison, not another New York artist or art historian, who managed an essay that hinted at the person behind the photographs in a May 2000 Atlantic Monthly article, Girl, Seeming to Disappear. Davison’s article moves toward illuminating the person and the art.
Another (male) reviewer, clearly conservative, heckles Woodman in a 1999 New Statesman article, but then adds a nasty aside that paradoxically points to a useful angle:

An unspecified catalogue editor confirms, perhaps unintentionally, in a terse, non-committal biography, what I suspected the moment I saw Woodman’s frankly outlandish output: that what she really wished to be was a fashion photographer or some kind of photojournalist, but that she was torn between pursuing this goal and wanting to be the model in the pictures, the subject of the reportage, too: “She put together portfolios that she sent to a number of fashion photographers, among them Deborah Turbeville, whose work she had admired for some time, [but] her solicitations did not lead anywhere.”

Deborah Turbeville, Christmas

If you know Turbeville’s work — perhaps remember it from 1970s and 80s issues of Vogue — you’ll know that it was famous for combining decay, decadence, obsessive anorexia, otherworldly beauty, and above all unspeakable, unutterable glamour. Her pictures conveyed desire unto death. Very pretty. And perhaps that was the aesthetic that Woodman was exploring, an aesthetic at the heart of fashion and at the heart of fashion’s appeal to women: self-annihilation in the service of consumer recreation.


Betsy Burke August 21, 2003 at 9:41 am

The Woodman photos gave me a jolt. I was introduced to Bellmer yonks ago, when still a teenager and accepting the opinions of male teachers and mentors as my own. But Woodman is new to me, and I find the images interesting and very disturbing and endemic to femaleness of that age group. Her work seems to strongly suggest the contradictions of being that age, evokes my own frustrations. The facelessness makes me think of a recurring dream I often have in which my head is cut off and somewhere else, in another room, or there are writings on my body or my severed head scribbled there by someone else- and it leads me back to that sense that women are not allowed to be complete, or that they are only allowed to have their head or face back when they are wizened old hags. And sometimes never. The limpness or obliqueness of the nudes in these photos also brought to mind child abuse, the mind having to go elsewhere perforce.

Yule Heibel August 21, 2003 at 10:46 pm

Woodman’s photos are jolting — and beautiful. But disturbing, exactly for the reasons you suggest. I decided to blog about her because she’s on the cover of the Summer 2003 Art Journal (College Art Association house organ, which I get delivered in dead tree copy, but which isn’t available online, unfortunately). (It’s the issue with the remarkable Conrad Atkinson interview, which I blogged about last week or so.) Anyway, in this article, called “Francesca Woodman Reconsidered: A Conversation with George Baker, Ann Daly, Nancy Davenport, Laura Larson, and Margaret Sundell,” 5 people sit around and randomly chat about Woodman. It’s not a particularly brilliant conversation, alas. George Baker has the most in-depth moment when he says, “What might make Woodman’s work unique, a complete transformation of the context out of which she emerges, is that her reading of Minimalism’s engagement with space flips it into an excessive, desperate mode rather than a euphoria of bodily experience.” And then the tired old trope: “…she was documenting the limits of bodily experience, the impossibility of constituting the self.” Yawn.

That’s why I searched around to see what else anyone had said about her, and thought the Davison essay was really quite good because it was specific and got away from some of that esoteric generalizing, and it was better than some of the more academic stuff. Having said that, I feel I should append as many links as I can find to Woodman, although the best thing still remains the 1986 catalog (which is not available online), with an essay by Abigail Solomon-Godeau (which the “conversation” tried to knock down as being too mired in 80s feminism) and a short piece by Rosalind Krauss, which focusses on the fact that art school students in the US are given “problem sets” by their instructors (I say “in the US” because I can only wish that our non-existant instruction in Munich had consisted of anything resembling that sort of purpose!): for example, “Is it possible to photograph something that doesn’t exist?”, to which Woodman answered — Krauss postulates — with the On Being an Angel series; or, “Define a particular space by emphasizing its character, its geometries, for example,” to which Woodman responded — again, Krauss is postulating — with Space [squared] where she poses naked (and obscured) in museum display vitrines. From this, Krauss concludes: “Always to insert her own body onto the field of the problem, to use it, understand it, as the ground of whatever sense the image might make, is the pattern that emerges throughout the problem sets that Woodman undertook.” (This is from the 1986 catalog, Francesca Woodman; photographic work, Wellesley College Museum, April 9-June 8, 1986, and Hunter College of Art Gallery, February 13-March 14, 1986; exh. organized by Ann Gabhart in collaboration with Rosalind Krauss; essay by Abigail Solomon-Godeau.) Krauss hates biography, and rejects personal mythologies as determining influences in an artist’s work, but I like Davison’s take on precisely those influences: Woodman’s parents were both artists, her mother a potter who made all the dishes the family used, and whose sensuous pots stood around the house & garden; her father a painter who painted very tight geometric abstractions. Davison points out the following: Typical of Francesca was this observation: “Me and Francis Bacon and all those Baroques are all concerned with making something soft wiggle and snake around a hard architectural outline.”

I don’t think she was abused or anything. I think the truth lies somewhere between one, Krauss’s idea of Woodman as a brilliant respondent to mundane “problem sets”; two, Davison’s suggestion of family influence; and three, Woodman’s exploration of an aesthetic that fashion exploits so well. Why she killed herself remains, however, a mystery. And regardless of any of that, the photos are disturbing. Here’s Solomon-Godeau on that rear-view draped across the settee photo: “The supine nude, stretched across a Victorian chaise-longue offers her body to the gaze of surveillance, mastery, and imaginary possession. Here is presented a staple of erotica, with a pedigree as exalted as the Rokeby Venus or as debased as a Playboy centerfold. But by girding the torso with three garter belts instead of one, by suspending superfluous stockings from the wall, Woodman creates a disturbance in the field. The fantasy tableau, the little theatre of the fetish, becomes deranged. Its familiar props, through a deceptively simple additive principle, now become strange and alienating. If a multiplication of phallic symbols signals castration fear, as Freud asserts, does not a multiplication of fetish paraphernalia evoke a comparable dread?” (Unfortunately, Solomon-Godeau then insists too strongly that Woodman’s works are about an “interlocking network of fetishism and castration anxiety,” and for this she gets knocked by the conversationalists in Art Journal.)

By the way, I read in one of the sites that she is very popular in Italy, and she lived in Florence as a child (attended public school for gr.2, even!). I bet now that you’ve seen her work, you’ll start to trip all over it in odd corners of Florence….

More links I might not have pointed to in the main post:
Weekly Wire
On Being an Angel
Woodman & Eels

Joel August 22, 2003 at 4:34 am

I wrote a response that got way too long, so I posted it at Pax Nortona ( They explain my reasons for hesitating to divine Woodman’s psychology based on her photographs and offer possible alternative explanations to the “Tortured Artist” view. (I am a fan of Susan Sontag. It should show.) 😉

Yule Heibel August 22, 2003 at 9:59 pm

Thanks, Joel, and I just responded to your response in your comments box.

Joel August 23, 2003 at 7:20 am

And I talked back. 😉

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