Photo Surrealism

A new look at Francesca Woodman's unsettling photography.

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Exactly one week and 35 years ago today, Francesca Woodman took her own life by jumping from a window in New York City. In the time since, there have been over 50 exhibitions of her photography in the U.S. and Europe, and numerous books and catalogs published of her work (in 2010, a documentary even appeared about her family: The Woodmans). It is in the shadow of her tragically premature death (she was 22), that her work is so often regarded: here is the trauma, here is the darkness, here is the melancholy. But throughout the 102 images of On Being an Angel, the catalog of a show that first appeared at Stockholm's Moderna Museet last year, there's far more to see.

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So many of the pictures, taken between 1972 and 1981, have as their starting point the female form—but the compositions, techniques, and approach disrupt any notions of the traditional nude. Woodman is often her own model: obscured, transformative, and elusive, as in the powerful and unnerving House series, from 1976, where she seems to disappear into fireplaces and walls.

In an essay in the book, The Body and Its Stories, Anna-Karin Palm writes ecstatically of this deliberate agitation of tradition: "Woman and the female body are among the most common objects in art history. The man holds the brush and the woman allows herself to be depicted. Subject-object, active-passive, male-female. Oppositions such as these are like invisible yet influential gridlines across the history of art. A female artist must engage with this in some way. Can the dichotomy itself be disarmed? I think that's exactly what Francesca Woodman is doing. Paradoxically, by turning herself into her own object, Woodman is also the narrating subject. She uses her own body to stage an objectification, which is simultaneously invalidated by the fact that she is also the picture's subject, its guiding and gazing source. It's violently liberating!"

Where, if anywhere, Woodman belongs in the feminist tradition is a question often raised by critics; it's certainly worth pondering as you look at this intimate book, which shows some of her rare color photography, and includes the notes she would write on prints (many of which are very small). But these stunning pictures are also worth enjoying in their own right: as beautiful, often exceptionally accomplished works of art, a long way from academic theory and, in some cases at least, a long way from the shadows.

Francesca Woodman: On Being an Angel (Koenig), $40.00, artbook.com.

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