Now you see her ...

It’s impossible to know how Francesca Woodman’s photographs would strike us if she hadn’t thrown herself out of a window at 22. Her suicide makes every image feel portentous. Each is a memento mori, a harbinger of imminent death.

She specialised in self-portraits and the suite of choreographed scenes she shot with a timer or a remote trigger seems in retrospect a record of her unravelling. We rarely see her face. She bleeds into the background in very long exposures and disappears into crumbling walls. Her limbs vanish behind wallpaper and blur into architecture. Her flesh is barely solid, melting into mist and yielding to the rigid surface of a windowpane.

The new exhibition of her work at New York’s Guggenheim Museum prompts a series of unanswerable questions. Would Woodman’s fierce self-scrutiny have ebbed with maturity or would it have inflected her entire career? Did the monomaniacal intensity of her work propel her towards death?

Born in 1958, she grew up in Boulder, Colorado, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, tried briefly to launch herself as a fashion photographer, and died in New York in 1981. She didn’t give herself time to acquire the reputation she so obviously craved, and her work wasn’t shown publicly until Wellesley College exhibited a small selection in 1986. Since then she has steadily accumulated admirers, mostly theorists and academics determined to cast her as a feminist trailblazer.

But, with more than 100 prints, this show unfurls much trickier narratives of ambition, compulsion and blazing creativity. It lays bare a paradox at the heart of her work: that the same person who kept disappearing into wisps was also intent on leaving an indel­ible trace. Self-preoccupation suffused the work, yet the more she bared the more opaque she became.

There can be no doubt that Woodman was a prodigy. In her short life she printed some 800 images, many of them dazzling. But whether or not she was also a genius – whether her precocity would have bloomed into lasting brilliance – is another thing we will never know.

She had a singular, unswerving focus and voracious ambition. When she enrolled, as a teenager, at RISD she had already lit upon her guiding obsession: her body, clothed and naked, fused with space. In “House, #4” she squeezes behind a skewed mantelpiece that’s tearing loose from its niche. Traces of movement linger in the ghostly blur of her body. Is she hiding from the molesting eye of the camera or asserting her rights as the resident spirit of this forsaken place?

‘Polka Dots’ (1976) by Francesca Woodman

Woodman had an affinity for ruins. She cultivated rot and decay. She moved off campus, living and working in an abandoned dry goods shop. The derelict rooms fed her inspiration. In “Space” she literally merges with the fraying backdrop: we see only her feet, arm and belly. She conceals the rest of herself behind strips of floral wallpaper, fading into the set and sprouting from it at the same time.

The daughter of artists, Woodman understood precisely what was at stake. She worked at a frenzied pace, and from the beginning knew exactly what she wanted to do. Her vision was eccentric but fed by identifiable tributaries. Victorian gothic, the shimmering nebulae of séance pictures fed her fondness for ghostly emanations. She also paid homage to the pictorialist mode, especially the romanticism of Steichen and F. Holland Day, whose naked self-portraits occasionally pitched into allegorical self-aggrandisement.

Day posed as an emaciated Christ on the cross; in an untitled photo taken during a stay in Rome in 1978, Woodman obliquely invokes the Virgin Mary. She sits, naked and humble, on a dirty tiled floor, against a pitted wall. Around the corner a white calla lily leans from shadow into sunlight. The photo’s bifurcated space recalls the Annunciation, with the Virgin traditionally on one side of a structural line and the angel Gabriel, bearing prophecy and trumpet-shaped flowers, on the other. Here the angel has vanished, leaving only the flower. But a backdraught of endangered innocence remains.

‘Untitled’ (1976) by Francesca Woodman

Dreams of innocence and experience linger in Woodman’s work, sometimes taking form in heavy-handed symbols. Here she is Eve, tempted by a snake; there, Leda, seduced by a swan. She is angel and devil, offering up her cool, marmoreal flesh as proof of purity, or staining and piercing it into defilement. In “Horizontale” (1976) she wraps her meaty thighs in whorls of clear plastic tape and holds a glove over her crotch. The image recalls Hans Bellmer’s S&M puppets, intimating a sexual dark side. It’s like a high-concept striptease, hiding and revealing at the same time.

The role-play, the self-investigation, the endless probing of identity – these are the preoccupations of adolescence. They belong to the rites of metamorphosis, when the girl becomes the woman. With her sophisticated eye and fervid brain, Woodman skipped over the period of juvenilia but she never had a chance to outgrow those early agonies. The photos she took in New York, especially the large-format blueprints, suggest that she was groping towards another phase. The poignancy and frustration of the Guggenheim show is that it resembles an unfinished play with a powerful first act and then a final curtain.

‘Francesca Woodman’ continues until June 13;

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