In 1981, at just 22, the sublimely talented Francesca Woodman killed herself, leaving behind evocative photographs that influenced a generation of artists. On the eve of an exhibition, Rachel Cooke talks to her parents and friends about the young woman who is fast becoming a myth
Betty Woodman remembers with perfect clarity the day her daughter Francesca took the photograph. It was in La Specola, Florence's museum of natural history. "Francesca was fascinated by La Specola," she says. "She wanted to work there, but it wasn't going to be straightforward. So she made friends with the guard and he let her in after hours. He got very nervous about it – I think he was more interested in her than in photography – so she asked me to go with her. I had to sit in a room outside, but if she squawked or sounded like she needed help, I was to go right in.” Francesca’s father, George Woodman, interrupts: “What she means is, if the guard pinched her bottom, Betty would be there…"
Consider the image in question (facing page, top left) and you pick up a powerful sense of this backstory: it has a wonderfully secretive quality. What happens in a museum when all the visitors go home? In this one, a kind of ghost appears in the form of Woodman, who can be glimpsed behind a large vitrine in which sits the huge and alarmingly toothy skull of some unidentifiable animal. “Francesca couldn’t make her mind up,” says Betty. “First, she wanted to be naked. Then she thought she’d wear a leotard.” Not that I should get the wrong idea. “This wasn’t a performance. She was concentrating on the picture. That was why she didn’t want people around. She didn’t want any distractions.”
I look at the photograph again, but I can’t agree. Francesca’s head is tilted back, her mouth is slightly open, her fingers are stretched wide over the glass of the vitrine. Surely it is quite clear that she has seduction in mind. However wild, however toothy, however dead, this strange animal, you gather, will soon be putty in her hands. The sequence, titled Space (1975-6), is one of several photographs that will be included in Zigzag, a new exhibition of Woodman’s work at Victoria Miro, Mayfair. It’s a show that Betty and George hope will highlight another side of their daughter’s brief but brilliant career.
Woodman committed suicide in 1981, at the age of just 22. As a result, it is her self-portraits – funny, artful, neurotic, and occasionally painfully honest – that have always attracted the most attention. People want to see this extraordinary lost girl; they remain convinced that her primary subject was herself. But her parents refute this.
“People do latch on to certain images,” says Betty, on the telephone from their home in Italy. “Some have become iconic and, sure, those are great photographs. But she produced over 800 works, and we’d like the others to be seen, too.” The exhibition is entitled Zigzag because every piece is a collection of angles, whether formed by legs or arms, fabric pleats or unhinged doors. And while the artist herself is nearly always present, it is her limbs and torso we see most often, not her face. These images reveal Francesca’s talent for composition, for light and shade, rather than her way with storytelling, her tendency to (self) dramatise.