REVIEW: Calling all angels: Francesca Woodman “On Being An Angel,”at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris

imageThe quickest route between the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Fondation Cartier – two museums with confusingly similar names and confusingly similar addresses in Paris’ 14th arrondissement – is to cut across the cemetery of Montparnasse.

Right in the middle of le cimetière you pass the final resting place of Susan Sontag: the critic, Francophile, and writer of On Photography was buried here in 2003.

Sontag’s tomb is massive and minimalist, two flat rectangles of marble with her name and dates in gold on one end. It is situated in a neighbourhood of influential 20th-century arts figures, with writer Samuel Beckett interred a few paces to the south and the photographer Brassaï off to the west.

Despite the impressive monument and exalted surroundings, I always find it a sad spot. Sontag’s partner Annie Leibovitz and her daughters live in New York, and occasional pilgrimages of fans (like me) notwithstanding, there’s something very forlorn about being buried three thousand miles from your loved ones.

Just along the avenue is a newer grave. It is covered in flowers – roses, lupins, daisies – and this weekend they were in full bloom. The grave of Kate Barry is a tiny, half-wild, intensely vital English garden in the middle of grey Montparnasse.


Where Sontag’s plot is austere, Barry’s is a testament to the love – and presence – of family, and friends, still in mourning for the photographer. She died in 2013, aged 46, as a result of a fall from her fourth floor apartment, in what was assumed to be a suicide.

Seeing Kate Barry’s tomb on Sunday was particularly resonant. I’d just visited the Fondation HCB for On Being an Angel, an exhibition by American photographer Francesca Woodman. Woodman killed herself in 1981, jumping from a window in a loft building in New York. She was only 22.

If, by chance, you don’t know who Francesca Woodman is, can you guess from the work she left behind?

This is a relevant question because Woodman had such a strong vision, such a short life, and such a profound impact, that it is almost impossible not to project one’s expectations on her. Certainly, it seems impossible for critics not to project theirexpectations on her.

She took up a camera aged 13, went to study at RISD aged 17, and left at least 800 negatives behind on her death five years later. These have been released gradually by Woodman’s family. Since her death there have been something like 47 exhibitions of Francesca Woodman’s photography – more than two annually for every year of her life. Googling “Francesca Woodman review” brings up 196,000 articles.

What does this tell us? That she is the most astonishing and fascinating artist of her generation? Or does it simply remind us that society has always been intrigued by suicidal young artists? Especially by precociously talented suicidal young women artists, who also happen to take naked selfies?


Easter Lilies, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976


Untitled, New York, 1979-80

“Naked selfies” is, of course, a crude and provocative neologism. And I suspect Francesca would not have been on Instagram. Woodman simply acted as her own model much of the time. She was also her own prop stylist, art director, lighting assistant, and printer. Her output was astonishing, her aesthetic standards – she was a teenager! – even more so.

Her upbringing had a lot to do with this: Woodman’s parents and older brother are all artists. According to a 2012 piece in The Paris Review, ‘The children were raised with a strong work ethic and the idea that art was “serious business,”’ according to her father George Woodman. ‘“You don’t go off and do hobbies on Sunday or something like that. You make art.”’


Self-deceit #1, Rome, Italy, 1978

It’s too easy to project interpretations into the story of Francesca’s short life (especially her nurturing/creative/exacting/select an adjective family), and her artistic vision (femininity/identity/mythology) – and you can read any number of them online.

Better just to walk around an exhibition, like this one, and let the work itself speak to you.

Francesca Woodman was a gifted young photographer. Her images are beautiful and incessantly thought-provoking. She made small prints – no more than four or five inches square, mostly black-and-white. There are about a hundred of them in this exhibition, plus video and other documents.

She composed intense little tableaux, indoors, in small spaces, using her own body as well as other models, and a selection of minimalist props. Each work is like a little one-act drama, and every picture tells a story.


Untitled, Rome, Italy, 1977-78

Doubtless she was exploring ideas of identity and femininity. She was probably also thinking about death – specifically her own. Artistic young people do that.

In an image from 1977-78, where she is suspended by her arms from a doorway her head crooked to one side, it’s impossible not to relate the image to that of a hanging. Similarly, a portrait from MacDowell Colony, where Woodman was artist in residence in 1980, shows her forearms covered with silver birch wrappings – bandages for cut wrists?


Untitled, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1980

Surrealism and Symbolism clearly influenced her, as they influenced other photographers of the time, from Kati Horna in Mexico to Sarah Moon in Paris, to Deborah Turbeville (one of Francesca’s heroes) in New York.

But she was probably also just playing around with light and composition, and ideas from dreams and her own body.


From Eel series, Venice, Italy, 1978

In the end, like Susan Sontag’s hefty tomb in Montparnasse, the mythologising of Francesca Woodman is in danger of obscuring her work, and her personality. Try not to read too much about her. Just look at the pictures.

Francesca Woodman: On Being An Angel is at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, until July 31, 2016.

Francesca Woodman photographs are all © George and Betty Woodman

© Fiona Hayes 2016

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