vor 4 years

I am 22. I am the same age as Francesca Woodman. The only difference is that she will remain 22 forever.

The U.S. photographer Francesca Woodman, born 1958, took her own life in 1981 after an intensive period of personal photographic work. Apart from that, there are other major differences between us. She left behind an astonishing number of thousands of negatives and around 800 prints, quantities that I can only imagine. Aside from other jobs here and there, Woodman also made fashion photographs to support her financially. Again, that is something she can be admired for: to make money with your dearest passion is a gift and a challenge alike. Even when she worked with props from previous commercial fashion shoots, her own work always kept a personal, noteworthy signature. In order to witness her posthumous work, I went to the first retrospective of Francesca Woodman’s photography in Germany: “On being an angel” on view at C/O Berlin.

‘On being an angel’ spreads its wings over five exhibition rooms, leading visitors through the photographer’s life without a chronological order. All prints are presented in white frames on soft grey and dusky pink walls. The rooms are immersed in dim lighting that envelops Woodman’s work into a dreamy atmosphere reminiscent of the environments she lived and worked in. A number of short video sequences show Woodman’s work from the first video class at the Rhode Island School of Design, completing the exhibition. The heart of the exhibit is a series by the artist that also gives it its name.

Two black and white prints lead into the round tour. They show the artist herself, bending backwards and facing the camera with a pervading gaze. Her body is set apart from the dark surrounding room and her exposed throat and breasts seem to shine from within. The use of light gives her figure the sense of an apparition that is floating and roaming ethereally rather than physically existing. Many of her depicted models seem to inherit spaces that separate the living from the dead. The bodies are partly deconstructed and are blurred to an extent that makes one wonder about their well-being. This adds to the already haunting and mysterious mood. Some of her photographs could easily pass as horror movie stills with their ghost-like appearances and ruinous rooms, yet they had a calming effect on me.

Maybe it is the soft edges of the depicted bodies that have a soothing side to them, or perhaps it is the self-evident nudity which I found refreshing, especially when taken during a time in which the female form was clothed. And still today, in times of ongoing censorship of female bodies on social media, it is important to reinforce the right for our bodies simply to exist, free from obligatory sexual objectification. Woodman makes these aspects a theme in her photographs. Two black and white prints show a woman, possibly herself, lying on a small couch. She only wears lingerie, a garter, and stockings. Her back is exposed to the visitor. She transforms the issue into something of her own and presents it boldly, rather than criticizing the media and advertisement industry for their way of female portrayals.

From my point of view and cultural background, I did not consider her photographs to be astutely provocative. Rather than using her nudity for shock value, I felt as if Woodman used it as a means of presentation and commentary. And this, her perspective on her world, was perceived with a smile more than once. I, amongst other visitors, appreciated Woodman’s humorous, lightweight stance at times. The print “three kinds of melon in four kinds of light” draws attention to the allegory of the melon for the breast, showing a woman holding a cut-open melon whilst sitting naked in front of the camera.

The way Woodman reconstructed and modeled the human flesh with cloth pins, rubber bands, glass sheets, or simply the touch of hands, made me imagine the portrayed situations and physical sensations. I was constantly made aware of my own body and its vulnerability. Some of the showrooms of the gallery were also equipped with large mirrors. These mirrors picked up the search for identity in Woodman’s series “self-deceit” and simultaneously included and encouraged the visitor to reflect their own mirror image. For me, ‘On being an angel’ tells a story about Francesca Woodman. It is a story about being born: about entering this world and embarking on the journey of a photographer. One of the very first prints shows the “self-portrait” of 13 year old Francesca at the very beginning of her career. It is a story about becoming: becoming a woman, and on fulfilling different roles throughout one’s life. It is also a story about transcending the limitations of life. The photographs show Woodman’s fascination with the body, its limitations, its capabilities, and is a celebration of femininity. 

On being an angel is an exhibition that was put together beautifully as an homage to an exceptionally talented artist. Perhaps it could have been even more extensive, yet every picture is allotted a well-deserved amount of appreciation. And if you are into the little details, the featured notes on the back of some photographs and other pieces of Woodman’s writing will certainly appeal to you. If you are in or around Berlin, I strongly recommend stopping by.      

Text by Pia Gebauer
Images Courtesy of C/O Berlin
For more information on this exhibit, visit the gallery’s website here

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