Reflection on Francesca Woodman

The view is often expressed that Francesca Woodman’s work portrays – as the OCA document for this chapter puts it – “dark psychological states and disturbing scenes” and thus reveals the artist’s depressive condition and explains, even prefigures, her suicide in 1981 at the age of 22. Tate (2018) says her images “convey an underlying sense of human fragility” and explore themes such as “questions of self, body image, alienation, isolation and confusion or ambiguity about personal identity”, while Bright (2011) puts it even more bluntly: “It is difficult not to read Woodman’s many self-portraits… as alluding to a troubled state of mind.”

I strongly disagree both with these readings of Woodman’s work and with the assumption that she had a depressive personality. Taking the second point first, the fact that she suffered from depression following a move to New York in 1979 does not mean that she was by nature or habit depressive. It is not at all uncommon for people to experience a period of depression when circumstances are inconducive to their sense of well-being – and it’s not difficult to imagine all sorts of aspects of city life that Woodman might have found restrictive or alienating. A depressive episode triggered by a change in circumstances is sometimes described as exogenous depression and is considered in such an analysis to be very different to endogenous depression, which has no apparent trigger and may have genetic and/or hormonal causes.

Evidently the assumption amongst commentators who believe they see a troubled mind even in Woodman’s pre-1979 work (which includes many of her best-known photographs) is that she had endogenous depression – in other words, that her depression pre-dated her move to New York and was an intrinsic part of her personality. There is no evidence for such an assumption beyond a reading of her work as being dark and disturbed – a reading that in my view is based entirely on an ex post facto awareness of her suicide.

My own reading of Woodman’s images is that they are light and carefree, and capture her playful experiments with space, time, light, texture and a few quirky props she finds to hand. Her obvious delight in visual puns suggests an upbeat demeanour, and her engagement with them to my mind expresses her sense of being at one with the world around her as she merges herself with wallpaper, a swan, birch trees, window shutters, curtain ribbon, tree roots and (in her blurred self-portraits) light. I see no sign that any of these mergings represent, as is often claimed, Woodman’s wish to hide or erase herself – or as the OCA notes put it, “to help herself disappear”. Indeed, her own parents feel that her work has been misinterpreted: “Fans and critics alike, [her parents] believe, tend to ignore the humour in [their] daughter’s work.” (Cooke, 2014).

And yes, she did commit suicide. But again, the tragic fact that she wished to die instead of live on that particular day after a relationship break-up does not mean that she lived any part of her life before that in the shadow of suicidal intent. Of course, I can’t prove that she didn’t, any more than anyone else can prove that she did, except by looking at her work – and what I see there is the joyful, life-affirming worldview of a startlingly creative young woman who is confident of who she is and what she does – an artist producing works of timeless poetry.

References and resources

Bright. S. (2011) Art Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.
Cooke, R. (2014) ‘Searching for the real Francesca Woodman’, The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/aug/31/searching-for-the-real-francesca-woodman [accessed 12.06.18]
Schimelpfening, N. (2018) Endogenous and exogenous depression. Available at https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-endogenous-depression-1067283 [accessed 12.06.18]
Tate (2018) ‘Finding Francesca’. Available at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/francesca-woodman-10512/finding-francesca [accessed 12 June 2018]