On Mental Illness, Suicide and Misreading Francesca Woodman

As London’s Victoria Miro gallery opens an exhibition of photographs by Francesca Woodman, I consider the way Woodman’s mental illness has – often unfairly – shaped the understanding and reception of her work.

Francesca Woodman was born in 1958 and spent most of her childhood in Boulder, Colorado. She was raised in an artistic environment: her mother, Betty Woodman, is a ceramicist, and her father George Woodman, a painter. Both were members of the University of Colorado’s fine arts faculty and the importance of art was impressed upon Woodman and her brother, Charlie, from an early age. Creativity was to be enjoyed, but also to be taken seriously: in 2010 George reflected, ‘our children learned that art is a very high priority, that it’s got to be done, you don’t mess around, and you don’t go off and do hobbies on Sunday or something like that, you make art.’

Woodman first expressed an interest in photography aged thirteen. Given a camera by her father, she began to experiment with black-and-white photography in her own time, in addition to taking photography lessons whilst at boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts. From 1975 to 1979 she studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. The programme included a year in Rome, where she held her first exhibition at the Maldoror bookshop. After her graduation, she moved to New York where she hoped to launch her career, developing a special interest in fashion photography.

In January 1981, experiencing depression, Woodman killed herself, a fact which has indelibly marked the reception of her work.  The 22-year-old maker of over 500 works has become, in art historian Jui-Ch’i Liu’s words, ‘almost a cult figure.’ Faced with the murky black-and-white images of Woodman, her naked body posing in crumbling interiors, a number of scholars have indulged in critiques that are speculative at best, and descend into pop-psychology at worst. In 2002, Peggy Phelan made a particularly extreme argument of this nature, stating, ‘Woodman invites us to see her suicide, like her art, as a gift. Perhaps not the one we might have wished for, but the one she gave us when she did not have anything to give.’

Francesca Woodman, House #3, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976.
Francesca Woodman, House #3, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976.

Such arguments have been rightly lambasted by the likes of photography historian Gerry Badger. Writing in Francesca Woodman: The Roman years: between flesh and film (2012), Badger notes that Woodman’s frequently blurred images, in which the body is partially obscured by objects and architecture, have been read as ‘a sign of disappearance.’ He states, ‘[Woodman’s] suicide makes this a particularly facile, romanticizing and unpleasant argument, in which each photograph is understood to anticipate or even foretell her death.’

In Francesca Woodman’s Journey into the Gothic Wonderland (2013) Elisabeth Lopes speaks of Woodman’s ‘haunted mind’ and ‘the shadows and ghosts that tormented Woodman’s imagination.’ Beyond the fact of Woodman’s illness, there is little evidence to support such posthumous attempts at psychoanalysis. This is not to say that an artist’s mental illness will never affect or inform their work. Rather, their mental illness should not be viewed as their defining characteristic; nor should it be assumed that mental illness was the principal inspiration for their work.

Looking at the way Woodman’s work has been received, I am reminded of Virginia Woolf. Researching a paper on Woolf earlier this year, I lost count of the number of books and articles I read that included (or even opened with) detailed accounts of her death. Similarly, the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision, draws unnecessary extra attention to her death. In a show which includes paintings, books, letters and photographs, there is just one personal object: the walking stick Woolf left by the river in which she drowned. There seems to be a morbid fascination at work here; what does the walking stick tell us about Woolf, other than she happened to have a walking stick with her that day? Does it give us a valid insight into her psyche or her creativity? I don’t believe it does.

Francesca Woodman was a talented artist who had a rich and multi-faceted range of influences: she drew on Surrealism and Gothic literature; she was fond of Colette and delighted in dressing up; she was inspired by the innovative work of Duane Michals and the fashion photography of Deborah Turbeville. Placing her depression and her suicide at the centre of readings only serves to limit our understanding of her work; Woodman’s death should not be the principal vantage point for the life and career that came before it.

Sections of this article have been adapted from my MA thesis, ‘On Space and the Photography of Francesca Woodman’, which critically examined the representation of space – architectural, bodily, and photographic – in Woodman’s work.

Francesca Woodman in her studio at Pilgrim Mills, Providence, Rhode Island, c.1976-1977.
Francesca Woodman in her studio at Pilgrim Mills, Providence, Rhode Island, c.1976-1977.

Sources

The Woodmans, dir. S. Willis, (C. Scott Films & ITVS, 2010).

Badger, G., ‘Introduction’, in I. Pedicini, Francesca Woodman: The Roman years: between flesh and film, trans. M. Spiegelman, (Rome, 2012).

Keller, C., ed., Francesca Woodman, (San Francisco, 2011).

Liu, J., ‘Francesca Woodman’s Self-Images: Transforming Bodies in the Space of Femininity’, Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, (Spring-Summer, 2004), pp. 26-31.

Lopes, E., ‘Francesca Woodman’s Journey into the Gothic Wonderland’, in Women and the Arts: Dialogues in Female Creativity, ed. D. V. Almeida, (Bern, 2013), pp. 71-84.

Phelan, P., ‘Francesca Woodman’s Photography: Death and the Image One More Time’, Signs, Vol. 27, No. 4, (Summer 2002), pp. 979-1004.

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3 thoughts on “On Mental Illness, Suicide and Misreading Francesca Woodman

  1. Ed Fields says:

    Thank you. Galadrielle Allman, when addressing the ‘young tragic’ death of her father, the gifted and visionary musician Duane Allman, said something along the lines of “He died. That’s what it was, that’s all it was”. Also, the best insight into the work of Ms Woodman that I have ever heard came from somebody who viewed her work for the first time and said, “Nick Drake”. Look him up and listen to his music. You may get the connection.

  2. heenan73 says:

    I certainly would never make any direct connection between Woodman’s art and her suicide; no-one except perhaps her psychiatrist (if she had one) would ever be in a position to make any such claims.
    But a constant theme of her work is identity, and for her entire career, she experimented with invisibility and disappearing, indeed, non-existence. Like many young suicides there was (apparently) little or no evidence of serious depression, indeed, some have argued vehemently against it.
    All the evidence suggests that if any diagnosis should be made – and that’s by no means certain – then a mild form of schizophrenia is by far the most likely candidate. But if we’re honest, we’ll have to admit that we’ll never know. And denials are as preposterous as accusations. We just don’t know.

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