The evocative photographs of Francesca Woodman (1958-81), on display in a retrospective exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until February 20, 2012, explore the potency of the body as a pictorial force in disconcerting environments. The body is often nude, eccentrically posed in abandoned, deteriorating interiors. Although architectural remains and shabby furnishings allude to a distant past, they do not elucidate time and place, nor do they provide a context for viewing the images. As inexplicable traces of a bygone era, such objects nevertheless intensify the haunting aura that prevails.
At first glance the settings seem inert, but they are hardly tranquil. Views from above and below in tandem with oblique angles cause disorientation. These compositional complexities also intensify the lack of cohesion within the whole and between constituent parts. It is an instability that is simultaneously perplexing and compelling. Without question, the imprint of Surrealism is palpable, both in irrational juxtapositions of found objects and in enigmatic conglomerations.
In conjunction with exaggerated perspectives that pull the eye back in space, Woodman uses patterns and textures to emphasize surfaces. Among the most notable are walls flecked with peeling paint, skin and hair, textiles decorated with geometric and flowery designs, flowing and wrinkled fabric, tree trunks and entangled branches, eroded doors and moldings, woodgrains, cracked pavement, mirror reflections, blurs, shadows, and sharp contrasts between light and dark tonalities.
Woodman routinely photographed herself in the nude. Although she used herself as a model, her portrayals are neither likenesses nor idealizations. Rather than adhering to traditions of the nude in western art, she explores divergent ways of representing the body as an assertive or ambiguous form. Bodies assume exaggerated, unnatural postures, often appearing with head and limbs cut off by the frame. Isolated, but impacted by their surroundings and mundane objects, they convey both strength and weakness. Some bodies are concealed; others are exposed, either conveying self-conscious timidness or audacious sexuality. Some stand at a distance in the corner, back or periphery of a room; others are positioned as close-ups in the foreground.
As an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design (1975-78), Woodman was introduced to the technical and iconographic heritage of photography, as well as the achievements of photographers who played a critical role in elevating photography to the status of art in the early and mid-twentieth century. After graduating with a BFA, she moved to New York, where she continued to experiment, developing an accomplished body of work. Her photographs were included in several group shows, but her life and career were cut short by her suicide at age 22.
While Woodman’s photographs are typically viewed with reference to her biography and feminist theory, it is also illuminating to set her work in the context of interpretive studies of the nude in art history and contemporary photography.
A seminal discourse on the nude was the subject of six lectures given by Kenneth Clark for the prestigious A.W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery, Washington, DC in 1953. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form was subsequently published as a clothbound book in 1956, and as a paperback in 1959. It soon became a classic, often used as a textbook in art schools and universities. Written in a narrative style, the topic itself and Clark’s interpretation were well-received, both among scholars and the general public. Although Clark’s formalist approach was not adopted by Woodman, the influence of his ideas on a multitude of artists and teachers cannot be underestimated.
Examining the nude as an art image in all periods of European history from ancient Greece to the present, Clark analyzes its emotional and pictorial tenor in the work of various artists. He also assesses how the nude is viewed, paying particular attention to distinctions between the “Naked” and the “Nude.” The former appears defenseless, embarrassed, and deprived of clothes. The latter is depicted as a timeless, idealized, and confident being. Although Clark’s construction of binary opposites, which are rooted in male/female stereotypes, was vehemently criticized by feminists in the 1970s, his controversial theories reawakened discussion of the nude in art at a time when Woodman was emerging as a photographer.
Clark did not include photography in his treatise on the nude, but pioneering curators more than picked up the slack. Of particular note were the numerous exhibitions, catalogues, books, and essays produced by John Szarkowski, during his tenure (1962-93) as Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Under his leadership, the museum amassed an unrivaled collection of photographs. It also inaugurated a photography gallery in which rotating selections from the collection were on permanent display.
In 1978 MoMA published Szarkowski’s Windows and Mirrors: American Photography since 1960, a groundbreaking catalogue that accompanied a traveling exhibition that toured throughout the U.S. for two years. In his text, Szarkowski articulates a “fundamental dichotomy in contemporary photography between those who think of photography as a means of self-expression and those who think of it as a method of exploration.” The “Window” category, which derives from direct observation with an emphasis on content, was epitomized by Robert Frank (especially in his revolutionary book, The Americans, 1959) and his predecessor Eugène Atget. In contrast, the “Mirror” category, which is grounded in introspection, using the expressive potential of form to convey feelings, was exemplified by the work of Minor White and his forbearer Alfred Stieglitz.
Be-ing without Clothes, an exhibition curated by Minor White in 1970 for the MIT art gallery (then called the Hayden Gallery), specifically addressed the topic of nudity in photography. White was not only an impressive photographer, but also an esteemed teacher whose influence extended well beyond the students in his classes. His reputation was further based on his having edited (1952-75) and co-founded Aperture, a magazine described as “the most serious and most valuable periodical in the photographic world.” He also was curator of the George Eastman House (International Museum of Photography and Film) while also serving as editor of their celebrated journal, Image.
White was known as a visionary with a deep belief in the spiritual quality of photography. Szarkowski described White as an artist who believed that a photograph “should function as an experience, as opposed to a ‘thing.’ The photograph should act as a springboard for the viewer to explore feelings.” In Be-ing without Clothes, White conceptualized the “Nude” as a form of art, and the “Naked” as a form of life. The exhibition included photographs in which “Nude” bodies appear as ideal forms. But there were also “Naked” depictions of the body in banal, ordinary, and iconoclastic compositions.
The degree to which Woodman was conversant with the theories of Clark, Szarkowski, and White is speculative. Nevertheless, she undoubtedly was aware of photographs shaped by their ideas. Her own photographs tend to merge and shift between “Naked” and “Nude,” “Mirror” and “Window” typologies.