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. Comprising some 800 photographs, Woodman’s oeuvre is acclaimed for its singularity of style and range of innovative techniques. From the beginning, her body was both the subject and object in her work.
The very first photograph taken by Woodman, Self-portrait at Thirteen, 1972, shows the artist sitting at the end of a sofa in an un-indentified space, wearing an oversized jumper and jeans, arm loosely hanging on the armrest, her face obscured by a curtain of hair and the foreground blurred by sudden movement, one hand holding a cable linked to the camera. In this first image the main characteristics at the core of Woodman's short career are clearly visible, her focus on the relationship with her body as both the object of the gaze and the acting subject behind the camera.
Woodman tested the boundaries of bodily experience in her work and her work often suggests a sense of self-displacement. Often nude except for individual body parts covered with props, sometimes wearing vintage clothing, the artist is typically sited in empty or sparsely furnished, dilapidated rooms, characterised by rough surfaces, shattered mirrors and old furniture. In some images Woodman quite literally becomes one with her surroundings, with the contours of her form blurred by movement, or blending into the background, wallpaper or floor, revealing the lack of distinction of both - between figure and ground, self and world. In others she uses her physical body literally as a framework in which to create and alter her material identity. For instance, holding a sheet of glass against her flesh, squeezing her body parts against the glass and smashing her face, breasts, hips, buttocks and stomach onto the surface from various angles, Woodman distorts her physical features making them appear grotesque.
Through fragmenting her body by hiding behind furniture, using reflective surfaces such as mirrors to conceal herself, or by simply cropping the image, she dissects the human figure emphasising isolated body parts. In her photographs Woodman reveals the body simultaneously as insistently there, yet somehow absent. This game of presence and absence argues for a kind of work that values disappearance as its very condition.
Since 1986, Woodman's 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 include Francesca Woodman, Light Society, Beijing, China (2021-2022); Francesca Woodman: Alternate Stories, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, USA; On Being An Angel, C/O Berlin, Berlin, Germany (2020); Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation, MCA Denver, Colorado, USA (2019-2020); On Being An Angel, Fundación Canal, Madrid, Spain (2019); Life in Motion: Egon Schiele/Francesca Woodman, Tate Liverpool, UK (2018); On Being an Angel, Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2015–2016), touring subsequently to Foam, Amsterdam (2016), Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris (2016), Moderna Museet, Malmo (2016 – 2017) and Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki (2017); Francesca Woodman, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (2011 - 2012), touring to Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2012); Francesca Woodman: Retrospective, Sala Espacio AV, Murcia, touring to SMS Contemporanea, Siena (both 2009); Francesca Woodman: Photographs, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (2003); Francesca Woodman, Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain, Paris, touring to Kunsthal, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (both 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.