Ideas and a New Hat. By James McWilliams
Francesca Woodman’s playful darkness.
In 1912, the essayist Randolph Bourne wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that the ability to think “was given us for use in emergencies, and no man can be justly blamed if he reserves it for emergencies.” If the photography of Francesca Woodman can be reduced to one defining feature, it’s that she provides emergencies. Woodman’s emergencies are not loud or particularly dangerous; they don’t require alarms or intervention. But they do ask us to think, to ponder the urgency of an unorthodox kind of desire—a desire that insists, I am here, naked and soft, on one side of a wall, and I want to be over there, on the other side, where an equally naked and soft orchid flirts with me. This situation is serious.
For Woodman, who died in 1981 at twenty-two, convincing viewers to accept this predicament as crisis-worthy was a body-centered ambition. Feminist critics have long noted how she used her body to simultaneously court and reject “the male gaze.” Others have suggested that she posed as an unabashed object of seduction as an attention-grabbing tactic. Both claims seem generally credible. But what’s difficult to reconcile fully is how Woodman’s pictures—most of them, at least—tend to slowly sap her body of eroticism. The surrounding drama, in all its preoccupying power, overwhelms the potential for seduction. The extent of Woodman’s nakedness ends up reflecting no more or less than the relative need, under the particular circumstances, for clothing. “I am as tired as the rest of you of looking at me,” she once wrote in an undated letter. When clothes are involved, as they often are, they are necessary to the photo’s narrative.
Image: Francesca Woodman, House #3, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976.