In this black and white photograph the American artist Francesca Woodman stands against a wall, fully revealed as a nude female figure. She faces the camera, yet her face is obscured by a mirror that she holds over her face. The plaster of the wall is peeling and the stone floor appears dirty. Woodman’s body is partially camouflaged by the mottled texture of the backdrop, yet her female frame simultaneously appears strikingly revealed. The exposed flesh is a stark contrast to the patterned backdrop of wall.
'Self-Deceit #4' 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 #4' 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 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, the way in which Woodman constructs its position within the composition is an inversion of conventional uses of the mirror. Instead of presenting a reflection of herself, she employs it as a means of reflecting the space she inhabits, which appears empty and desolate. She is alone, isolated, and her unusual use and placement of the mirror seeks to highlight this. In reference to the 'Self-Deceit' series, art critic Kathryn Hixson states ‘the mirror reflects only glare or darkness, and the figure is consistently blocked by its aggressive reflection of emptiness’ (Hixson 1992, p.30).
In 1979 Woodman stated, ‘nature didn’t really speak to me when I was little in Italy, but now I’m captivated by all of the architecture’ (quoted in Pedicini, 2012, p.55). Empty spaces and abandoned buildings were commonplace to Woodman’s artistic oeuvre. She adopted these desolate environments as her photographic settings and through the use of props and object placement, imbued them with her personal resonance. The spaces she chose were often dismal and claustrophobic in appearance; she created a sense of confinement for herself. Hixson believes that Woodman used ‘the body as architecture itself, [as] the supports that literally constitute the space’ (Hixson 1992, p.31). This is evident in several of Woodman’s works, particularly in the case of 'Untitled ' 1975-80. In the instance of 'Self-Deceit #4', Woodman blends herself into the architecture; her body adopts an almost sculptural pose, evocative of a classical Greek statue which is further emphasised by her feminine curves and exposed bust.
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.
Kathryn Hixson, ‘Essential Magic: The Photographs of Francesca Woodman’ in Harm Lux, Francesca Woodman: Photographic Works, exhibition catalogue, Shedhalle Zürich, D.A.P. Art Publishers, 1992.
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