Francesca Woodman

Untitled (FW crouching behind umbrella)

c.1980

Artist
Francesca Woodman 1958–1981
Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 171 x 165 mm
Acquisition
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Reference
AR00364

Not on display

Summary

In this black and white photograph Francesca Woodman crouches on the floor behind an overturned, open umbrella, the handle of which juts out toward the camera. The inside of the umbrella constitutes almost half of the image’s composition. Woodman wears a pale dress with a frilly, white, oversized collar. Her eyes are closed, with much of the rest of her face hidden behind the umbrella. Three of her fingers can be seen clutching the edge of the umbrella. Behind Woodman is a windowsill containing a pitcher, a potted plant and some other small objects. The window that dominates the upper left of the photograph is covered by transparent plastic. Along the right edge of the image a small wooden beam, perhaps a measuring stick, leans against the wall.

Woodman was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence from 1975 to 1978. At RISD Woodman was a fiercely dedicated and independent student who devoted herself exhaustively to her work. She set up a studio and living space in the shabby rooms of a former dry goods store, and frequently worked in nearby abandoned houses and other rundown spaces. This work features Woodman prominently as its subject. When asked by her roommate and close friend Sloan Rankin why she was so often the subject of her own photographs, Woodman replied: ‘It’s a matter of convenience, I’m always available’ (quoted in Rankin 1998, p.35). The photograph is also notably small-scale. Woodman’s square photographs rarely measure more than fifteen centimetres in height or width.

Writing of the photographs in which Woodman obscures herself in abandoned houses (see, for example, Untitled 1975–80, Tate AR00357), art critic Margaret Sundell has said that ‘Woodman stages an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with the peeling walls and chipped floors’ (quoted in Sundell 1996, p.435). In this work Woodman plays a similar game with the viewer by hunching over in the small space behind the umbrella. She does so within a space that is very similar to – quite possibly the same as – the abandoned spaces featured in many of her Providence photographs. Woodman’s frilly collar in this photograph might recall a little girl’s Sunday best, or else something with which a little girl could play dress up. Sundell has pointed to the artist’s frequently childish attire to argue that Woodman’s images convey ‘a sense of “playing house”, of the way a child feels at once overwhelmed and omnipotently invisible when infiltrating a place that adults once owned’ (quoted in Sundell 1996, p.435).

Art historian Harriet Riches has also written of girlishness in Woodman’s images. According to Riches, ‘[t]here is certainly in Woodman’s staged relationship with space … a sense of curiosity, and an uncanny confusion of the familiar and the strange, the domestic and the discomforting’ (quoted in Riches 2011, p.69). Although Woodman’s eyes are closed in this photograph, there is an inquisitive quality to her clutching of the umbrella, as well as to her strange and humorous crouched position in a space too small for her. Riches has argued that Woodman’s performance of girlish identity looks back ‘to an earlier state in which the body’s relationship to its environment is experienced through play’ (quoted in Riches 2011, p.69).

Further reading
Margaret Sundell, ‘Vanishing Points: The Photography of Francesca Woodman’ in M. Catherine de Zegher (ed.), Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of 20th Century Art: In, of, and from the Feminine, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1996, pp.435–9.
Sloan Rankin, ‘Peach Mumble – Ideas Cooking’ in Hervé Chandès (ed.), Francesca Woodman, New York 1998.
Harriet Riches, ‘Girlish Games: Playfulness and “Drawingness” in the Work of Francesca Woodman and Lucy Gunnong’ in Catherine Grant and Lori Waxman (eds.), Girls! Girls! Girls! in Contemporary Art, Bristol 2011, pp.63–86.

John White
University of Edinburgh
February 2015

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

Online caption

Woodman crouches amongst an array of domestic objects, the curve of the upturned umbrella echoing the curve of her back. The umbrella is a much-used prop by the Surrealists, a fact that underlines Woodman's relationship with the movement. Her cropped body and averted gaze give her equal importance to the objects around her. Woodman’s photographs explore issues of gender and self, looking at the representation of the body in relation to its surroundings. She usually puts herself in the frame, although these are not conventional self-portraits, since she is either partially hidden, or concealed by slow exposures that blur her moving figure into a ghostly presence. This underlying fragility is emphasised by the small and intimate format of the photographs.