In this photograph, American artist Francesca Woodman stands in the far corner of a room, facing the wall, her back visible. She is naked, yet her bodily features appear ambiguous and darkened by the tall shadows that are cast. Her clear skin is made visible by the striking contrast created by the plaster of the backdrop, which is worn and peeling. With the exception of the artist, the only object present in the room is a mirror. This lies alongside Woodman on the floor against the wall, with a reflection so dark it is impossible to discern the image it reflects.
Self-Deceit 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, #4, #5 and #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 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, 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.
Self-Deceit presents an unusual relationship between woman and mirror. Conventionally and throughout art history, countless depictions of women admiring themselves and their reflections are to be found. Yet in reference to the Self-Deceit series, art critic Kathryn Hixson states that ‘the mirror reflects only glare or darkness, and the figure is consistently blocked by its aggressive reflection of emptiness’ (Hixson 1992, p.30). Mirrors are often regarded as objects of vanity. However in this instance, the artist hides from her own reflection, ‘a naked woman who protects herself from her own gaze’ as art critic Fernando Castro Flórez states (Flórez 2009, p.167). This reluctance of Woodman’s to both view and confront the self might evoke a sense of pity and melancholy in the viewer, as her decision to hide from herself appears to be a vulnerable endeavour.
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.
Fernando Castro Floréz, ‘Mirror Floating Down River’ in Isabel Tejeda (ed.), Francesca Woodman Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Espacio AV, Murcia 2009.
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