Self Portrait by Francesca Woodman

I was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) recently where I saw the collected works of Francesca Woodman. It was a truly amazing exhibit! SFMOMA puts it best in describing Woodman:

Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) was an artist decisively of her time, yet her photographs retain an undeniable immediacy. Thirty years after her death, they continue to inspire audiences with their dazzling ambiguities and their remarkably rich explorations of self-portraiture and the body in architectural space. (1)

Woodman was only active for a few years, starting in 1975 and ending when she committed suicide in 1982. She focused primarily on self-portraiture, intending her work to be a sort of dialog with herself. (2) While others focused on the world around them, Woodman look inward. Her work has an ambiguity about them that is endlessly fascinating. The meaning of her work is very non-obvious, and I’m sure has generated much discussion. She explored a variety of themes, such as occupation of space and differentiation of the self from one’s environment. She has a number of pieces where she almost appears to be disappearing into the space itself.

There is one piece that spoke to me more than the rest. SFMOMA had the title listed as “Untitled,” but I have also found the title listed as “Self Portrait,” so I am going to use that title going forward. While studying this picture, I started talking with one of the museum staff about it, and our interpretations of the piece were quite different; a perfect example of the ambiguity of her work. Before I discuss our interpretations, take a moment to come up with your own. It’s hard to see in this copy of the image, but the sheet of paper on the wall is a birth certificate, and the scarf around her neck is a mink scarf.

Self Portrait

"Self Portrait" by Francesca Woodman (1) (3)

The staff member and I both agreed that the birth certificate plays an important role, but we differed on what that importance was. The staff member viewed the birth certificate as an unnecessary reminder that the subject is alive…i.e. that there is this beautiful woman filled with complexity who is very much alive, and the birth certificate is only necessary for those who can’t see it. It makes a statement that people get caught up with image and how they think society wants them to look and that they needed to be reminded from time to time what real beauty is. My interpretation is subtly, yet dramatically different. I don’t think that the birth certificate is superfluous for the subject but necessary for others, but rather that it is superfluous for others but necessary for the subject.

When this picture was taken, Woodman was attempting to become a fashion photographer in New York. It seems reasonable to assume that she was aware of the superficiality of the industry. Look how the mink scarf serves as a sort of border between the superficial and the real. Her face is very done up; covered in makeup, perfect hair, that “modelling” expression that looks like there is no emotion. It is practically lifeless. Contrast this with her body below the scarf. Her body is very natural, with skin blemishes, armpit hair, and a more natural skin tone. To me, this represents a woman who has forgotten that there is a real person below the facade of superficiality thrust upon her by the industry/society, and needs the birth certificate to remind herself that she really is still alive.

Which interpretation is correct? I’m not sure, and I’m not even sure if there is a “correct” interpretation, or even if the question itself is valid. It’s also interesting to ponder that the photo was taken in 1981, the year that Woodman committed suicide. Could this have been an expression of how she saw herself at the time? She never said while she was still alive, so we’ll never know. All we can do is ponder her magnificent work and discuss, as great works of art are wont to do.

(1) “Francesca Woodman.” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 151 Third Street, San Francisco, California. Visited January 15th, 2012. Reference: http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/430
(2) Romano, Gianni. “Francesca Woodman on being an angel.” PhotoArts. October, 1998. Available: http://photoarts.com/journal/romano/woodman/
(3) “The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery.” The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. Available: http://www.friendsoftheuffizigallery.org/gifts.html

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