This black and white square-format photograph shows the artist Francesca Woodman crouching against a dilapidated wall. The wall is heavily marked and stained, with two sections of wallpaper remnants, one darker and one lighter, to the right of the frame and a black mark above the artist’s head. There is a skirting board where the wall meets the wooden floor, which is strewn with paint chips and debris. Woodman’s body is oriented to the centre of the frame, occupying the bottom right corner of the image. Her head is in three quarter profile as she looks directly at the camera. She wears a mid-length dress with a black polka dot pattern and long sleeves. The dress is partially unzipped along the left side of her body exposing her abdomen and the bottom of her breast. Her left hand is positioned above her breast as if holding the dress open, while her right hand covers her mouth; her fingers are spread across her cheek and her thumb is in her mouth.
This photograph was taken in 1976 in Providence, Rhode Island during which time Woodman was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). This image belongs to a series of five photographs titled the Polka Dot series, which were all shot in the same interior space with Woodman wearing the same polka dot dress. The artist often worked in series and favoured shooting in decrepit, run-down interiors. Her friend and fellow RISD student Sloan Rankin stated that, ‘Francesca was at ease in everything that was dusty, and had predilection for mold.’ (Quoted in Baker, Daly, Davenport 2003, p.66.) Woodman’s use of dilapidated and abandoned interiors creates a feeling of being out of time, which is heightened by her vintage clothing bought at thrift stores.
Woodman often photographed herself, but in the majority of the self-portraits her face or body is obscured, veiled, or distorted in some manner. The art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto has noted that Woodman ‘never shows herself as herself. The difference is that she always shows herself as the same character – the character of a young woman in various mise-en-scenes.’ (Quoted in Pierini 2009, p.21.) This idea of performing a character is supported by author and art historian Chris Townsend who has suggested that, in this particular image, Woodman plays the part of ‘the mistreated heroine in a Victorian melodrama’ with whom she self-identified (Chris Townsend, Francesca Woodman: Scattered in Space and Time, London 2006, p.21). However, the apparent vulnerability on display in this image – suggested by the artist’s crouching pose and hand splayed defensively across her face – is tempered by Woodman’s focused gaze to the camera and bodily exposure.
Woodman’s partial nudity in this photograph is a common trope of her self-portraits and is well represented in the ARTIST ROOMS collection (see for example Providence, Rhode Island, 1976 1976, AR00352). Academic Claire Raymond sees Untitled as signifying the ‘brink of the sensuous – the breast is almost offered through the dress open at the side while the figure’s thumb in her mouth and fingers splayed along the side of her face at once play at soft-porn tropes and suggests ascetic silence, hushing the tactile, the haptic, even as it is evoked.’ (Raymond 2010, p.54.) But just as the artist reveals her body, it is only a partial exposure and for her own camera. In this way, Woodman becomes the voyeur as well as the object to be gazed upon.
George Baker, Ann Daly, Nancy Davenport and others, ‘Francesca Woodman Reconsidered: A conversation with George Baker, Ann Daly, Nancy Davenport, Lauren Larson and Margaret Sundell’, Art Journal, vol.62, no.2, 2003, pp.52–67.
Marco Pierini, ‘From the Inside. Notes on Francesca Woodman’s Artistic Route’, Francesca Woodman: Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Espacio Av, Murcia 2009.
Claire Raymond, Francesca Woodman and the Kantian Sublime, Farnham 2010.
Susan Mc Ateer
University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.