Friday, 15 June 2012

Portraiture of Disappearances and Becomings - Francesca Woodman

The photographic self-portrait often attempts to make solid the representation of the picture's subject, to show their reality as a lived experience. In previous writing on the work of Lady Hawarden and Claude Cahun, I have pointed out that the self-portrait is also a construction and therefore can only be a version of that self. The versions of selves I've looked at so far have been presentations of the idea that one authentic self is a fiction. Writing of self-portraiture, Susan Bright points out the polysemic nature of thinking about the/a self: "It can also be understood...as something more indexical, as a reflective conditional concept, which leads to the belief that there is no 'true' self...the self splits, merges, fractures and becomes so performed and so constructed that nothing authentic remains". Through playing with masquerades and enjoying a narcissistic introspection on the self, the photographs from the previous posts show images of women in transition, aesthetically transitioning from one gender to another, and from reality to fantasy. Yet even in these liminal states, the images of women looked at so far have been very present and solid in each of the pictures: as Linda Haverty Rugg describes in her book Picturing Ourselves, "Photographs as physical evidence re-anchor the subject in the physical world, insist on the variable presence of an embodied and solid individual". Photography's comforting validation affords one's reality, even if it is a shifting or split self, a visible acknowledgement that one is in the world. This effect of fixing the self through photographic reproduction is defused by Francesca Woodman's self-portraits in which her image is often in state of disappearing and dissolving into its environment.

Woodman started taking pictures of her self in her early teens at a time when changes to the body and changing ideas of one's own identity start to germinate and become concerns. Mavor, who previously had described Hawarden's pictures of her adolescent daughters as being in a state of becoming, says similarly of Woodman that "[her] photographs feature becoming women. They are 'becoming' in that they are attractive to the eye. They are 'becoming women' in that their bodies drape the threshold between girlhood and womanhood". I agree that to view the collected anthology of Woodman's photographs of herself in (or as) her oeuvre is itself "becoming" as it moves from the self-portraits of a young teenage Woodman to a young adult Woodman. Yet there is the sense in her pictures, that rather than becoming she is actually dissolving. Perhaps the teenage self does not feel itself as solid, as a definite child or adult self, but as somewhere in-between, liminal and blurry. Woodman's disappearance into her surroundings also speaks of an ambivalence towards her position inside the household. Her surroundings are in a state of decay, unlike her own body that is in the process of growth and maturation. There is a feeling of loss in these pictures, a loss of childhood and perhaps a loss of the security the childhood home represents. The walls of youth start to collapse, as do the protective spaces of childhood.

In Woodman's self-portrait from 1975, her identity is not fixed at all: she crouches above a mirror, unable to see her reflected self-image looking back at her. Self-regard does not appear to be the thing she was seeking in this picture: she has intentionally removed the mirror from the position of self surveillance from the wall, placing it instead on the floor. It is usual in portraiture for the mirror to stand in for the viewer's gaze; in this picture, however, we have no access to the reflection, which is obscured by Woodman's actual body. This gesture feels rather aggressive, as if Woodman is rejecting the mirror and its symbolic connotations in favour of thrusting herself outwards, as if she is coming out of the mirror or breaking free from it. This could be seen as a metaphor for wanting to shatter the view of women as objects of visual pleasure and vanity, the notion that the existence of a woman lies in being something visual, an image, while her essence remains elusive. The fact that Woodman's face is distorted expresses her reluctance to be a stationary image: the distortion demonstrates that she is moving, an active participant in this picture.

Although not obviously dressing up and engaging in role play, Woodman does partake in forms of masquerade, illusion and evasion. In the (above left) photograph, Woodman's face is blurry, deliberately distorted by vigorously moving her head so that the camera on a slow shutter spend captures multiples of her head and hair in the process of movement. This form of disavowal,of obscuring her face, denies our visual pleasure and our desire to know her face, which in a sense means that this obstruction acts like a mask. Lorenzo Fusi says of the wearing of masks, "The mask is, in a sense, a veil, an element of separation that sometimes, paradoxically, gets us closer to the intimate sphere of those hiding behind it, instead of creating further distance. It exposes more than it covers". What Woodman's mask exposes is an ambivalent attitude to her own selfhood. It can also express the way in which Woodman refuses to be seen, so in blurring her face whilst her body is in sharp focus Woodman performs a deliberate visual split between herself and her body that prevents her body/appearance being seen as solely "herself" that is then objectified.

Woodman's work subtly negotiates the representations of her self/image away from the possibility of an objectification of her young body, by instead veering towards the realm of radical narcissism. It is by acting out the stereotypes of feminine beauty and desirability that one learns about how the performance of womanliness is constructed - this can be seen in the everyday acts of little girls dressing up in their mother's clothes and make-up, mimicking adult poses and flirtatious behaviour – yet this is not just innocent play but in fact the rehearsal of "life lessons" on how to perfect the performance of patriarchy-inscribed femininity. Woodman's work features these trying-ons of adult womanliness, particularly the way in which images of woman are depicted in art. As Fusi points out, "The Ego-woman expressed by Woodman sometimes uses the same modalities of representation made ready and adopted by man, in order to get to know herself and define herself precisely as a woman, other-from-man....Woodman's work gives strength, autonomy and power to the female point of view according to different modalities. Only rarely are typically male visual strategies and conventions ever adopted: the body is like an exotic object on display in the cabinet of curiosities of man's world, that is to say the eye of the other".

Femininity is a game to play for the young Woodman, and by mimicking the female images present in sexist history of art she also makes fun of them. Woodman examines and tries on the patriarchy-constructed roles of "womanliness" on offer. She then looks back at her(self) through the eyes of a desiring other (that is not to say that this performance of masquerade is not also pleasurable for Woodman herself). For Woodman as for Claude Cahun and the Hawarden Daughters, playing with ideas of identity and appearance is pleasurable as well as enabling, it becomes easier to see beyond the unhelpful and limiting socially-constructed notions that dictate what women are or should be, and instead reveals that we are not all reproductions of an abstract higher form of idealised femaleness. Amelia Jones states, "In its radical narcissism, where distances between artist and art work, artist and spectator are definitively collapsed, such body art practices profoundly challenge the reigning ideology". These self-portraits of desiring glances, mimetic masquerades and playful evasions offer strategies of resistance to the repressive portrayals of women's gender identity in art: they provide an alternative image that touches something Other that is us - not others to ourselves but Other to the fictions of inscribed femininity.

Illustrations:

Francesca Woodman, Space2 Rhode Island, 1977
Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Rhode Island, 1975
Francesca Woodman, On Being an Angel, Rome 1977

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