At the age of thirteen Francesca Woodman took her first self-portrait. From then, up until her untimely death in 1981, aged just 22 she produced an extraordinary body of work (some 800 photographs) acclaimed for its singularity of style and range of innovative techniques. Woodman studied at Rhode Island School of Design, from 1975 – 1979, receiving a grant to spend a year in Rome to continue her studies. Whilst there she produced an extensive body of work and had her first solo exhibition at a bookshop and gallery specializing in Surrealism and Futurism.
Since 1986, her work has been exhibited widely and has been the subject of extensive critical study in the United States and Europe. Woodman is often situated alongside her contemporaries of the late 1970s such as Ana Mendieta and Hannah Wilke, yet her work also foreshadows artists such as Cindy Sherman, Sarah Lucas, Nan Goldin and Karen Finley in their subsequent dialogues with the self and reinterpretations of the female body.
Born in 1958 in Denver, Colorado, Francesca Woodman lived and worked in New York and Italy until her death in 1981. Since 1986 her work has been exhibited widely. Significant solo presentations of Woodman’s work include Francesca Woodman at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (2011-12), which subsequently toured to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2012); Francesca Woodman: Retrospective at the Sala Espacio AV, Murcia, touring to SMS Contemporanea, Siena (both 2009); Francesca Woodman: Photographs at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (2003) and Francesca Woodman at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, Paris (1998), which subsequently toured to Kunsthal, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (1998); Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon, Portugal (1999); The Photographers’ Gallery, London (1999); Centro Cultural TeclaSala, L’Hospitalet, Barcelona (1999-2000); Carla Sozzani Gallery, Milan, (2001); The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2001) and PhotoEspana, Centro Cultural Conde Duque, Madrid (2002). Woodman’s work is represented in the collections of major museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Detroit Institute of Arts; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Tate/National Galleries of Scotland.
Untitled Film Still #50. 1979. Gelatin silver print, 6 9/16 x 9 7/16″ (16.7 x 24 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel. © 2012 Cindy Sherman
In fall 1977, Sherman began making pictures that would eventually become her groundbreaking “Untitled Film Stills.” Over three years, the series (presented here in its entirety) grew to comprise a total of seventy black-and-white photographs. Taken as a whole, the “Untitled Film Stills”—resembling publicity pictures made on movie sets—read like an encyclopedic roster of stereotypical female roles inspired by 1950s and 1960s Hollywood, film noir, B movies, and European art-house films. But while the characters and scenarios may seem familiar, Sherman’s “Stills” are entirely fictitious; they represent clichés (career girl, bombshell, girl on the run, vamp, housewife, and so on) that are deeply embedded in the cultural imagination. While the pictures can be appreciated individually, much of their significance comes in the endless variation of identities from one photograph to the next. As a group they explore the complexity of representation in a world saturated with images, and refer to the cultural filter of images (moving and still) through which we see the world.
The photographs of Ana Mendieta document private sculptural performances enacted in the landscape to invoke and represent the spirit of renewal inspired by nature and the power of the feminine. In her Silueta series (begun in 1974), created on location in Iowa and Mexico, Mendieta carved and shaped her own figure into the earth to leave haunting traces of her body fashioned from flowers, tree branches, mud, gunpowder, and fire. A typology of Siluetas emerged, including figures with arms held overhead to represent the merging of earth and sky; floating in water to symbolize the minimal space between land and sea; and with arms raised and legs together to signify a wandering soul. By 1978, the Siluetas gave way to ancient goddess forms carved into rock, shaped from sand, or incised in clay beds.
An exile from Cuba, Ana Mendieta was sent from her native homeland to an orphanage in Iowa at age 12. This traumatic experience had a tremendous impact on her art. She felt that, through her art, her interactions with nature and work in the landscape would help facilitate the transition between her homeland and new home. By fusing her interests in Afro-Cuban ritual and the pantheistic Santeria religion with contemporary aesthetic practices such as Earthworks, Body art, and Performance art she maintained ties with her Cuban heritage.
TimeExperience (work in progress) is the title of a chronological serie of miniature sewn photos and photo-montages. In this actualized multiplated cycles I`m “sewing” my own biography through different phases of my work: self 1975-76, pregnant 1977-80, mother`s luck – with daughter and son 1977-1986, Grima – with child and animal 1986-89, double head – with daughter and son 1991-92, generativ – self with daughter, mother and grandmother 1994-99, KALI-daughter 2000-04, N.Y.FACES-surgical operations 2001-02, personal identity since 2003, transgenerativ-MotherFatherDaughterSon 2005-2008, verified self 2009-10, Orifices since 2011.
Rhyming The Lines: I Wrote a Short Story (out of a projected 16)
acrylic paint, collage and stitching on paper, 2003-2010.
In March 2002, I completed a sixteen-page short story, titled, Rhyming the Lines. I had used this title before, to name a piece of visual art, and I found myself attracted to it again. The phrase summarizes the way in which we try to link events together in an attempt to find unifying and meaningful patterns in our lives. We try to find the rhymes, the iterations and reiterations that form the poetry of our days.
The story, Rhyming the Lines, fascinated me, because it was farther from autobiographical truth, than anything I had written previously. Or was it? I knew that I had been fascinated and horrified by the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, a reporter from the Wall Street Journal. His abduction had taken place in January 2002. In late February, confirmation of his death was reported. His murder had been videotaped, and the tape had been grisly, and specific. As I painted in my studio, I kept being drawn, magnetically, to the Internet, to search for information about his murder. Like me, he had been Jewish. He was thirty-eight and I was thirty-six. He looked nice, and was attractive to me. I began to consider writing a story in which a woman becomes obsessed with a murdered man. But a completely different story resulted.
Thus, I became interested in the unconscious influences underlying choices made when writing a short story and in all the disparate and remembered fragments that somehow came together in the genesis of the writing. For instance, in April 1993, Amy Biehl, a recent graduate of Stanford University, was murdered while on a Fulbright Fellowship to South Africa. The two men, who were convicted of murdering her by stoning and stabbing, stated that Amy’s blond hair had enraged them. The hair reminded them of racial injustice in their country. As I had with Daniel Pearl, I felt kinship with Amy Biehl. I too am white, and I also had a Fulbright Fellowship and went to a “good” school. Could my fascination with Amy’s murder in Africa have influenced my decision to have the fictional character of “Nora Allyson” murdered in Congo? Only now, as I write this explanation, do I realize that “Nora’s” degree comes from Stanford, just like Amy Biehl’s degree did.
And why the Congo? Reading Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, was my initial contact with Congolese history. That novel so galvanized me, that I have been reading histories of that region for the better part of a year. Books like King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, helped me to imagine the kind of wild violence that my short story begins by describing.
Finally, the incestuous video that informs the plot of Rhyming the Lines would be linked to another short story that has an incestuous theme. Lawns, by Mona Simpson, describes the life of a college student who has experienced molestation from her father. She cannot resist stealing mail from other students in an attempt to steal the normalcy of the lives that their letters from home describe. This story is a heartbreaking depiction of how sweet and redemptive ordinary life can be for anyone who has experienced trauma. Coming from a family of Jewish refugees who made Mexico their home to escape from Hitler, the equation of normalcy with safety, moved me deeply. There is one particularly harrowing description of the narrator in Lawns, experiencing her first orgasm at the age of nine (from her father). I think Mona Simpson was brave to be so graphic in her story. I link her scene of sexual “murder” to a similar scene in my own work.
Usually, I invent specific visual structures into which I embed autobiographical and fictional narratives. This project, titled, I Wrote a Short Story, ventures into new territory, because the text embedded in the piece is fictional rather than autobiographical. The attached “addenda” are in a sense autobiographical, in that they describe works of fiction that became a part of my unconscious life, seeping out into the writing of the story. Ultimately, I Wrote a Short Story, will present the sixteen pages of the short story, Rhyming the Lines, and the sixteen “addendum” in one unbroken frame of individual diptychs. Embroidered to evoke a child’s writing tablet, these dual “pages” of stitching and collaged text, are of a standard 8.5-inch by 11-inch size. Blue horizontal lines, sewn into the paper at half-inch intervals, and intersected by one stitched, red, vertical line, representing a margin, will, I hope, create an archetypal field, evocative of homework and school. This evocation of childhood is one way that I can express to the viewer that my work is preoccupied with the factual and fictional forms in which memories appear.