Showing the artist in the nude and faceless, this photograph by Francesca Woodman makes for a curious self-portrait: the only identifiable body part of the young woman is perhaps her hand. The image is powerful and unsettling, making the viewer oscillate between amazement and malaise. As we look at this seated torso, the flesh pinned with clothespins, it is hard not to read this scene as a form of bodily mutilation. Pinching folds of flesh, clamping the nipples, the clothespins become tools of torture, even though, for Francesca Woodman, they were most likely instruments of emancipation.
Taken in 1976 in Providence, RI, where the photographer went to college, this self-portrait is representative of the meteoric oeuvre of Francesca Woodman who would die five years later. She used her own person and her own body as the primary subjects of her free-spirited, introspective mises-en-scène which deliberately foregrounded the idea of the feminine. Woodman’s art expresses its engagement by asserting limitless creativity, with the self as the main subject, and by experimenting with the possibilities of the medium through the artist’s own body.
This is precisely what is happening in this self-portrait with clothespins, which subverts traditional portraiture as well as conventional female representation. Frontally positioned and shot in available light, the body, distorted by the intrusive clothespins, loses none of its dignity: it proclaims its artistic and physical freedom to experiment. Made anonymous in this headless portrait and bedecked with everyday household objects, the body generates an assertive, transgressive feminine identity. It becomes emblematic of the singular mode of representation espoused by this female photographer, liberated from the Romantic canon of the genre. Or rather, liberated, period.
By Anne Laurens
Francesca Woodman, Robert Klein Gallery
January 4–29, 2020