In this photograph, American artist Francesca Woodman appears on all fours, crawling around the corner of a dimly lit room, where an angled mirror leans precariously against the wall. The peculiar angle and placement of the mirror allows the artist to study herself in the reflection, while at the same time revealing herself to the viewer. Due to the dim lighting her facial features are cast in shadow and impossible to discern clearly. Woodman appears to be naked, yet her body is obscured and darkened making it difficult to be certain. The room appears to be run down and derelict; the artist and mirror are the only presence in the gloomy environment.
'Self-Deceit #1' is one of five in a photographic series by Woodman. Although the photographic works number five in total, they are not listed chronologically, but instead consist of 'Self-Deceit', as well as 'Self-Deceit #1', 'Self-Deceit #4', 'Self-Deceit #5' and 'Self-Deceit #6'. Woodman’s parents, George and Betty Woodman, explain the peculiar numbering system that their daughter applied to the 'Self-Deceit' series: ‘Francesca never made editions of her photographs in any organised fashion’ (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art acquisition notes). This photograph was taken using a medium-format camera which produces a square negative, a format used consistently throughout the artist’s work. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Woodman printed her own photographs, since to her the production process was just as precious as the staging of the photographs themselves. Through photographic manipulation, which in some cases included burning, and the occasional application of her own handwritten scrawl, Woodman produced totally unique prints. Like most of Woodman’s photographs, 'Self-Deceit #1' was taken in one of several derelict and abandoned buildings, sites Woodman commonly adopted not only as her studio, but in some cases as her home. This photograph was taken during the period that Woodman studied at The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) 1975–78, from which she graduated a year early.
As part of the RISD’s honours programme, Woodman spent her final year studying in Rome at the Palazzo Cenci. This was a transformative period for the artist as not only did she quickly integrate herself among a group of young Italian artists, but she also encountered and immersed herself in Surrealist texts through the local second hand bookstore Libreria Maldoror. These textual influences are clearly evident in the artist’s consequent adoption of certain objects and themes, including mirrors, fur, eels, nudity, all of which hold strong Surrealist associations. Woodman first became interested in Surrealism at the young age of eleven and, as she grew older, the movement’s influence could be seen to increase in her photographic practice. This is particularly evident in her choice of props; in this case a mirror, which is a frequently used Surrealist trope, seen in such works as Rene Magritte’s Le Miroir Magique (The Magic Mirror) 1929. In Surrealist symbolism the mirror often alludes to the uncanny and the process of viewing and being viewed; yet in the Self-Deceit series, Woodman is alone and isolated in the abandoned setting and her unusual use and placement of the mirror seeks to highlight this.
In the image, Woodman kneels and looks around the corner in a somewhat hesitant and cautious manner. She appears naked, yet her revealed body seems to dissolve into the consuming darkness of the room, which, according to art historian Claire Raymond in her discussion of this photographic series, evokes references to hybrid figures such as the mermaid and the sphinx (see Raymond 2012, p.50). The crawling pose also alludes to animal imagery, which is an undercurrent in Woodman’s practice. Through her poses and positioning, an animalistic presence starts to emerge. This is particularly evident given her use of live animals and fur in some of her other compositions (such as Eel Series 1978), which along with the mirror further demonstrates the Surrealist influences and motifs Woodman was drawn to. Due to the bodily movement present in Self-Deceit #1, it seems poignant that her reflection, although darkened, can still be viewed, as it is one of few photographs in which Woodman’s face is not obscured or hidden as is the case in works such as Self Deceit #4 1977–78 and Self-Deceit #6 1977–78.
Woodman’s photographic practice incorporates a variety of themes including gender and self, representation and isolation, the body and its relationship to space. Throughout her work, Woodman acts as both subject and author, dissolving conventional boundaries of representation. In the Self-Deceit series Woodman defies the traditional associations and expectations of the female self-portrait through her unconventional use of the mirror. Although Woodman’s work can generally be viewed as an exploration of femininity and the female body, in the series Woodman is most concerned with identity; with even the title itself raising the question ‘who is the “self” so deceived?’ as author Claire Raymond asks (Raymond 2010, p.52). Writer and art critic Isabella Pedicini states ‘Woodman’s photography went hand-in-hand with her everyday life. Her art maintained a constant connection to reality’ (Pedicini 2012, p.36). Given that Woodman tragically committed suicide at the age of 22 in 1981, her photographic works have often been read with a melancholic approach and in an inevitably autobiographical manner.
Claire Raymond, Francesca Woodman and The Kantian Sublime, Burlington 2010.
Isabella Pedicini, Francesca Woodman: The Roman Years: Between Flesh and Film Scialoja, 2012.
The University of Edinburgh