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19 November 2010

Exhibition review: Francesca Woodman

A stunning exhibition of the late young American's photographs at Victoria Miro Gallery.

By Lucian Robinson

Francesca Woodman was just twenty two when she committed suicide, yet she left an extraordinarily complete, mature body of work, which largely consists of photographic self-portraits (though the exact definition of form contained in this description of her practice hardly does her justice). Taken from a recent retrospective in Italy, this new show of Woodman’s work at Victoria Miro takes a hundred photographs (mainly black and white silver gelatine prints) from her small archive. Woodman has had more exposure in the last fifteen years than many young artists can hope for over a lifetime, but it becomes clear why this is so when you see her work for the first time.

Owing something perhaps to the early visual style of Man Ray and bearing interesting parallels with the oeuvre of self-portraitist Cindy Sherman, Woodman’s work is separated from that of her contemporaries by its “funny ha ha” melancholia and the constant sensation of some sinister undertone that runs through her photographic corpus. Many of these photographs from the 1970s and early 1980s feel as if they could be still shots from Michael Haneke’s superb 2009 film The White Ribbon: they have that same feeling of latent catastrophe and ongoing decay and possess the same ahistoricism, the sense of being somehow outside history.

In one of her Rhode Island photographs, Woodman experimented with the idea of sustained movement on a still camera (with a very long exposure) diluting the human form, much in the same way as Jacques-Henri Lartigue did in his early photographs. The resulting image is profoundly haunting: it shows a form in a terrifying frenzy, barely human in its abstraction, seemingly split in two. A much later work taken at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire shows Woodman with her hands bound in tree bark, as if somehow imprisoned by nature against her will.

Her use of surrealist motifs offers another side to Woodman’s work, in such playful, technically intriguing photographs like the self-portrait in which she appears half beyond and half within a large folding series of wooden window shutters, a hand leaning teasingly over the edge of the panelled wood.

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Would Woodman have become a truly great photographer as these images suggest, or would she have been a female Rimbaud of photographic chiaroscuro, failing under the weight of expectation? The only thing that is certain is that she will live on, dancing, twisting, lying, writhing in these swirling, ethereal, dark on light, light on dark portraits.

Until 22 January 2011