Just below centre of this square black and white photograph is a round white bowl containing the twisted body of an eel. The bowl sits on a speckled terrazzo floor beside the artist, who lies naked on her right side on the floor, her legs are slightly bent so that the line of her body from her knees to her left armpit roughly follows the curve of the bowl. Her left arm is extended and twisted, further framing the bowl, and terminates with her upturned hand. With her face obscured underneath her arm, only Woodman’s hair is visible above her angular shoulders. Her outstretched arm is blurred as though in movement, and, like her legs, is largely in shadow, whereas her nude back and pelvis catch the soft light that falls from outside the frame.
The photograph was created during the time that Woodman spent studying abroad with the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Rome between 1977 and 1978. Woodman’s time there was formative. Her roommate and close friend Sloan Rankin wrote that she remembers carrying bags of live eels with Woodman across Rome from Piazza Vittoria in preparation for what would become Woodman’s Eel Series, of which this photograph is one of three (see Chandès 1998, p.35).
The other photographs in Eel Series share a similar composition to this one, but they differ primarily in the orientation of Woodman’s body. One of the other photographs shows her body in a more prone position, whereas in the other her body is on its side but very blurred. In all three of the images Woodman’s body is positioned so that, formally, her sex is ambiguous (due to her breasts, groin and, for the most part, hair not being visible). In this way her body mirrors those of the eels.
The curator Harm Lux has argued that the eel can be understood as a phallic symbol and is thus representative of libidinal desire (see Lux 1992, p.20). However, in this image it appears comparatively limp, still and lifeless within the bowl. In contrast, Woodman’s nude body, though prostrate, is blurred in places, which registers her freedom of movement. Lux has interpreted Woodman’s posture in the Eel Series photographs as one of expectancy or anticipation, yet he also points out that she is not only part of the photograph’s subject but also a participant in its set-up (see Lux 1992, p.20). Indeed, as the organiser of the entire scene, Woodman chose to direct attention to the central bowl and its contents by shaping her body around it. This composition suggests that Woodman is at once submissive to, yet also freely in control of, the stand-in for her desire as represented by the phallic eel.
Harm Lux, Francesca Woodman: Photographic Works, exhibition catalogue, Shedhalle, Zürich 1992, reproduced p.91.
Hervé Chandès (ed.), Francesca Woodman, exhibition catalogue, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris 1998.
Isabella Pedicini, Francesca Woodman, The Roman years: Between Flesh and Film, Rome 2012, reproduced p.71.
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