La Femme Cachée: Searching for Francesca Woodman

It must be time for lunch now, Francesca Woodman (© Fair Use)

A work of art must haunt the memory, it must be impossible to summarize, hard to define.
– René Magritte

I. Art has an indissoluble life of its own. That is art’s ultimate value. Art is simply what it is.

Francesca Woodman’s photography does indeed have an indissoluble life of its own. It can be bold and transgressive while withholding something, remaining elusive at its core. The vividness and immediacy of the images give way to mystery. Wherein lies the fascination of her enigmatic world? I find myself trying to interrogate her work through fragments of impressionistic connections, assembling pieces of an incomplete pattern by making use of my commonplace book, while all the time being aware that her art obstinately resists reductive categorization.

II. Occupying her art and dwelling within it.

Proust talked about the book that is continually written on the heart. One could describe her work as photographs imprinted on the heart, or perhaps as photographs that justify her with all their being, that vouch for her, invoke her reality,1 to borrow a phrase Rilke used to describe van Gogh. It is as if she is searching for the true Francesca Woodman through a kaleidoscope of ceaselessly shifting self-images, avoiding intrusion from the outside world while finding sustenance in art. It is difficult to contemplate the pictures without thinking about whether they proleptically portend the tragic end of her life.

III. The oracular glows inside the ordinary.

The sparse simplicity of the images belies their complexity. They occupy a liminal state adducing intimations of Freud’s notion of the uncanny, with the familiar intercalated with otherworldliness. In many of her photographs I think of the phrase: the oracular glows inside the ordinary. She inhabits a place that can seem mundane and yet somehow extraordinary at the same time; the hours she spends in this place are her true hours.

IV.  Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.

Her photographs are fraught with contradictions. She is exposed yet withdrawn, inviting the voyeur’s gaze while rejecting it, simultaneously alluring and unnerving, intimate and disarming, straightforward yet enigmatic. She is clothed in nakedness, playful and serious, palpably impalpable. The images seem spontaneous yet meticulously crafted, with both theatricality and restraint, at times audacious, at other times felicitous. All of these contradictory impulses come together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

V.  A cage went in search of a bird.

The above aphorism of Kafka comes to mind, particularly when I look at the expressively poignant It Must Be Time for Lunch Now. The whimsicality of the title is betrayed by the overwhelming sense of yearning and undisguised loneliness as here she is, a caged bird, looking at us enigmatically, squatting underneath the windowsill surrounded by the stark dilapidation of the kitchen. What expectations lie concealed in that gaze of secret sorrows? There is a romanticism to her photographs with their longing, melancholy, and beauty, seeking to silence the noise of the world, while at the same time expressing the frailty of life.

VI. The erstwhile metaphysical traveler’s yearning for the angelic realm.

There are photographs which she has labeled “a series on angels”. I am particularly struck by On Being an Angel #1. The perspective is from directly above with her head thrust back, as she looks upward, perhaps towards a bright light that is out of view, with an ethereal, transcendent gaze, an admixture of longing and hope, perhaps for immanence or redemption. There is the same melancholy as in the lunch photo, and unbidden Dante’s Beatrice comes to mind.

VII. Here is the room, tomb of the warmths and dreary solitudes of my body.

One is immediately struck by the settings of desolate, ill-furnished rooms in abandoned warehouses, with pulverulent paint and plaster on the walls. She at times lived in these buildings where she staged her photographs. The dissolute surroundings enshroud her in an atmosphere devoid of ornamentation or pretense. As I look at her in these rooms, I think of the poet Alejandra Pizarnik, another shining light destined to fade out much too soon, also by her own hand.

You keep watch from this room
Where the ominous shadow is your own
No silence here,
Only phrases you try not to hear.

VIII. And nothing will be yours except a movement towards a where that is whereless.

A where that is whereless, a phrase from Pizarnik, seems to encapsulate the mood of many of these photographs, as does images originating in the most distant unknown inner shadows. For me, one of the most moving photographs is of her sitting nude on a dirty tiled floor, knees up, looking downward, with her right hand partially covering her face, while around the corner stands a tall beautiful flower propped up on the stained floor, so near yet out of reach. Harking back to the angel theme I find myself thinking of the opening line of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominion of Angels?

IX. To be without disguise.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger asserts that to be naked is to be oneself and to be without disguise, as he discusses the antinomy between nakedness and nudity. Nudity is putting oneself on display for others, not being recognized for your essence. Is Francesca, somewhat brazenly at times, willfully subjecting herself to being on display? Susan Sontag postulates that photography is an act of appropriation, an exertion of power and control over the images and, in these obsessively taken, in some sense depersonalized self-portraits Woodman is exerting power over how she is viewed.

X. Exposing everything and revealing nothing.

This phrase, which is how J.G. Ballard describes Edward Hopper’s paintings such as Hotel Room or Morning in the City, of naked women in stark, austere interiors in New York seems to encapsulate Woodman’s pictures. Hers is a stripped down black-and-white version of Hopper, with her gloomy interiors in contrast to his bright colors.  She can appear even more vulnerable and lost than Hopper’s women, who stare balefully with a gaze into nothingness. Woodman rivets the viewer’s gaze while often averting it, giving the sense of intrusion on something very private, an intimate unconscious moment of undisguised loneliness, invoking the outsider in all of us. She alone, with all of us looking at her.

XI. Je ne vois la femme cachée dans la forêt.

Her work shares traits with the surrealists of subverting and transgressing the familiar. I find a strong connection with the world of René Magritte. They can both be playful and disarming with a destabilizing and disquieting effect. I thought of Woodman as soon as I saw Magritte’s La Femme Cachée, the image of a fragile-looking, young, naked woman in a forest with her face averted, surrounded by photos of male surrealists.2 Woodman’s photograph of three nude women with their faces covered playfully with photos of herself is very Magrittian, the three figures recalling his neo-cubist Femmes. One could easily imagine Woodman photographing her naked body in segments as in Magritte’s The Eternal Evidence. There are echoes of this in one of her later triptychs.

XII. To emerge in disappearance is the rose of time.

Sontag also asserts that photography is an elegiac art. On display here is someone preternaturally gifted and ordained to leave behind a small body of work that stands the test of time. Maria Stepanova, in spite of Woodman referring to her own work as “ghost pictures”, as if she were disappearing into the shadows, concludes that she is nonetheless coming into focus, sharpening, print after print.3The phrase “emerging in disappearance” seems apt, as through her work she blooms, a rose in time.

References for the section headings

I. Jed Perl, Authority and Freedom (A Defense of the Arts), Knopf, 2022.

II. Karl-Øve Knausgard, Welcome To Reality, essay in In the Land of the Cyclops (Essays), Archipelago Books, 2021. It contains the photograph It Must Be Time for Lunch Now.

III. Anahid Nersessian, Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, Chicago University Press, 2021.

IV. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space,  Penguin Classics, 2014.

V. Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks (ed. Max Brod), Exact Change, 1991.

VI. László Krasznahorkai, He Wants to Forget, in The World Goes On, New Directions, 2017.

VII. This is from a poem by Pier Pasolini quoted in Nersessian’s book (see III above).

VIII. Alejandra Pizarnik, from The Green Table in Extracting the Stone of Madness, New Directions, 2016. 

The poem fragment which ends VII comes from Being, also in this text. The translation of Rilke is by William Gass in Reading Rilke (Reflections on the Problems of Translation), Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

IX. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin, 1977.

X. J.G. Ballard, In the Voyeur’s Gaze,  in The User’s Guide to the Millennium, Picador, 1996. The last phrase in this section is how Knausgard concludes his essay. See II.

XI. Alex Danchev, René Magritte, Pantheon, 2022. The phrase “Je ne vois la femme cachée dans la forêt” is inscribed inside the painting. (This text is also the source of the source of the epigraph.)

XII. Bei Dao, The Rose of Time (poem) in David Damrosch, Around the World in 80 Books, Penguin, 2021.

Other References and Endnotes

Francesca Woodman, ed. Corey Keller, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in association with Distributed art Publishers, New York, Inc., 2013 (In consulting this text I have focused on the images as opposed to the essays in the catalog so as to not be unduly influenced.) The following are the referenced photographs from the catalog: V.  #142 ; VI. #39; VII. #77; XI. #22 and #152

Susan Sontag, On Photography, Picador, 1971.

  1. This phrase, with “her” substituted for “his” is from Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne, North Point Press, 2nd ed., 2002
  2. Once I saw this picture, I immediately wondered whether it had been influenced at all by this passage from André Breton’s Nadja (Grove Press, 1994). “I had always hoped beyond belief, to meet a beautiful naked woman in the woods at night, or rather, since a desire once expressed means nothing, I regret, beyond belief, not having met her.” Breton is one of the surrealists whose photo appears surrounding Magritte’s painting.
  3. Maria Stepanova, In Memory of Memory, New Directions, 2021