Art & Individuality

To undertake a voyage of discovery in pursuit of a vision, to risk one’s skin in the quest for renewal and then, in the end, to deliver a work that sings—only the artist’s individuality triumphing over the collective’s mediocrity can achieve this. In this series I will honour works of art that, through their singularity, testify to the triumph of individuality.

All photographs by Francesca Woodman

(except the first, the last, and one other)

Francesca Woodman in 1979


From ‘Fish Calendar – 6 days’, Rome 1977

Everything pertaining to play once pertained to the realm of the sacred.

Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 2007), p. 79


The terrible thing about dying is that you can only do it once.

Alberto Giacometti, interview in Qu’est-ce qu’une tête?  Film by Michel Van Zele (ARTE France-Les Films d’ici, 2000) DVD


Wherein lies the allure of Francesca Woodman’s photographs? What accounts for their bewitching power? A veritable cottage industry of criticism has arisen in an attempt to respond to these questions. From art history (surrealism) to biography (suicide at twenty-two), from feminism (vicissitudes of subjectivity) to philosophy (the Kantian sublime), critics and commentators have spared no effort in a bid to honour this artist and shed light on her work. However worthy much of this criticism is, my gut tells me that only a work of art infused with the spell Francesca casts can truly honour her. I attempted this in my novel Mara, Marietta: A Love Story in 77 Bedrooms. Here, then, I will take a different tack, throwing my essayist’s hat into the critics’ and commentators’ ring, and try to approach the work through the woman, the life through the death.

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of Fancesca’s work is its ‘disquieting mischief’. If ‘mischief’ is ‘a playful inclination to tease or disturb’, ‘disquieting’ intensifies the teasing and disturbing, introducing the notion of the uncanny: the return of the repressed, whether triggered by repetitions, doubles or blurred boundaries between life and death. All these elements of the uncanny are found in Francesca’s work. Indeed, photograph after photograph stages a confrontation—between motion and immobility, absence and presence, animate and inanimate; mirror and flesh, image and text, serenity and sex—in order to evoke the uncanny. She turns dilapidated rooms into sacralized space, a place for the performance of adolescent rituals, games of hide and seek with identity, of chaos to cosmos and back.

Self-Deceit #1, Rome, 1978

From the House series, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

To this adolescent obsession with metamorphosis—wherein the body is the vector for seizing the fluctuations of the self and appropriating the world—her images owe their uncanny quality. As for our bewitchment, our fascination with Francesca, it largely derives from the conjunction of her personal risk-taking and her image-making mastery, of her emotional turmoil and her artistic control. On one side, the obsessive concerns of adolescence; on the other, the calm maturity of her artistic vision. On one side, the present body where past and future battle, where the quest to find affiliation takes place; on the other side, an unfailingly effective, fully realized (not ‘experimental’) aesthetic. It is the conviction with which Francesca engaged in her struggles that accounts for her compelling images; in other words, it is her ethics of authenticity that gave birth to her aesthetics of the uncanny. In this intimacy between ethics and aesthetics, be it said in passing, she is like Rimbaud.

From the Angels series, Rome 1977-78

Untitled, Rome, 1977-78

Francesca’s images, however often they may be ‘mechanically reproduced’, maintain their ‘aura’, that stamp of aesthetic authority of which Walter Benjamin spoke. There’s more to that aura, however, than the halo of the artist’s hands: hovering over the images we also discern the aura of death. ‘Back projection’, many critics would object, ‘the work must be considered independently of the life’. That’s a valid point of view. Indeed, as I have argued, Francesca’s work stands on pillars of Apollonian calm, even if they are reflected in pools of Dionysian turmoil. For my part, however, I cannot ignore the Dionysian pools; indeed, if between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky I would not want to choose, if I had to, I’d pick the epileptic over the aristocrat, the tragic over the epic, Crime and Punishment over War and Peace. Unapologetically, then, I will now try to shed some light on the shadow of suicide that hovers over Francesca’s images.

Scott Willis’ film, The Woodmans (2011), is indispensable viewing for anyone who hopes to gain a deeper understanding of Francesca. It features extracts from her diaries, and interviews with her parents, brother, friends and others who knew her. In the mirror of this circle each of us will try to place the square of Francesca’s suicide; thanks to Scott Willis and his interviewees, however we do it, we will do it with dignity. In this essay, all quotations by and about Francesca are transcribed from the DVD The Woodmans.

On 19 January 1981, Francesca threw herself to her death from the roof of a public building near her Manhattan apartment. She was twenty-two years old, two and a half months shy of twenty-three. ‘She just emotionally fell apart. I don’t know why’, said her mother, Betty, who went on to add: ‘She felt she was a very good artist, that she had a very good body of work and she should be recognized. She had something to say, and why weren’t people listening?’. Her father, George, pointed out that since September 1980 she’d been ‘very distressed’. On 19 January 1981 she’d had ‘a crappy day’: She’d learned that the National Endowment for the Arts grant she’d applied for had been refused, and  found out that her bicycle had been stolen. She’d called several people, but couldn’t reach any of them. Her psychotherapist phoned her parents to express his concern that she’d missed her appointment. Later that day, the police, having identified Francesca by the clothes she was wearing, reported her death. New York. Winter. Monday.

Francesca had attempted to kill herself before. The firemen had to break down the door of her apartment and take her to hospital. She wrote to her closest friend, Sloan Rankin: ‘Dear Sloe Plum, after weeks and weeks and weeks of thinking about it, I finally managed to try to do away with myself as neatly and concisely as possible. I do have standards. My life at this point is like very old coffee sediment. I would rather die young, leaving various accomplishments, some work, my friendship with you and some other artefacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all these delicate things.’

Francesca had tried to get her work shown in New York. She was told to come back in a few years. She’d tried to break into fashion photography. Her vision of fashion was too ‘avant garde’.

Untitled, New York, 1979-80

Untitled, New York, 1979-80

Sloan was alarmed when Francesca told her she’d stopped making images. Her diary entries around this time include: ‘I do not want to read, draw, talk or see tonight. I hope this doesn’t last long.’  ‘This evening I am so pleased. Real things don’t frighten me, just the ones in my mind do.’  ‘This is the fifth night I have not been able to sleep. I think when I come down from the insomnia high I will be disappointed in myself. The effort to do away with this attitude in my work has had strange effects on my life.’   ‘It is that life as lived by me now is a series of exceptions. I was (am?) not unique but special. This is why I was an artist. I was inventing a language for people to see the everyday things that I see and show them something different. Nothing to do with not being able “to take it” in the big city or with self-doubt or because my heart is gone. And not to teach people a lesson. Simply the other side.’

Betty Woodman (b. 14 May 1930) is a ceramic artist whose work has received fairly high-profile recognition. George Woodman (d. 23 March 2017) was a painter who took up photography after Francesca committed suicide. A selection of his paintings was shown in a group exhibition at the Guggenheim that opened days after his daughter died. Both Francesca’s parents, then, were artists. Scott Willis’ interviews with them are very revealing; indeed, his documentary is a very good ‘portrait of the parent as an artist’. So, in trying to assume her genealogy, to take up her place in a line of affiliation—as every adolescent, in order to become an adult, must—Francesca needed recognition: her own reflection in a mirror was no longer enough. In New York, as Sloan Rankin put it, Francesca ‘didn’t fit in’: recognition was elusive.

In Rome, however, where Francesca lived from May 1977 to August 1978, she did ‘fit in’, she did receive a certain recognition. Elizabeth Janus and Isabella Pedicini have written eloquently about this period in her life.

Invitation to Francesca Woodman exhibition, Rome 1978

Giuseppe Casetti, Edizioni il Museo del Louvre, Roma

Francesca never quite managed, then, to find her place in her genealogy. Sex might have helped her to do so. After all, for the adolescent or young adult, a satisfying sexual relationship is the foundation of individuality, marking as it does a reset of one’s relations with one’s parents. On this score, Sloan Rankin had this to say of Francesca: ‘She had incessant sexual attempts. It was sad that it was something she did that didn’t have an emotional meaning beyond the fact that it might have worked itself into a photograph a little bit’.

When her demons became too insistent, Francesca decided on radical action: She who so often had figured movement in her photos would now seek not only stillness, but the eternal. She would build a temple, freeze time, and thereby shut her demons out; via the inorganic, she would tranquilize herself.

Caryatid (Study for Temple Project), New York, 1980

Blueprint for a Temple, New York, 1980

Just as in sex where a singular intimacy implying a real relation eluded her, so a temple promising eternity and refuge from her Furies proved illusory: she could not turn herself to stone. Death offered her a way out of this impasse.

In Francesca’s case, it would seem, the sublimating function of art was fatally short-circuited, making her ideal of artistic purity tyrannical. In the sovereign sphere of her art, in the sidereal realm where she broke down in tears, what angel was there to hear her cry? None. Just as down here, among the mortals, there was no-one. Lacking recognition, her proud isolation overcome by radical loneliness, she felt the chill chafing of a hand reaching out to her. She took it.

The hand of death is always cold.


You can listen to the tracks in full with a registered Spotify account, which comes for free.

Patti Smith, ‘Redondo Beach’

Late afternoon, dreaming hotel
We just had the quarrel, sent you away
I was looking for you, are you gone, gone
Called you on the phone, another dimension
Well, you never returned, oh you know what I mean
I went looking for you, are you gone, gone
Down by the ocean, it was so dismal
Women all standing with shock on their faces
Sad description, oh I was looking for you

Everyone was singing, girl is washed up
On Redondo Beach and everyone is so sad
I was looking for you, are you gone, gone?

Pretty little girl, everyone cried
She was the victim, of sweet suicide
I went looking for you, are you gone, gone

Down by the ocean it was so dismal
Women all standing with shock on their faces
Sad description, oh I was just looking for you

Desk clerk told me, girl was washed up
Was small, an angel, with apple blonde hair, now
I went looking for you, are you gone, gone

Picked up my key, didn’t reply
Went to my room, started to cry
You were small, an angel, are you gone, gone

Down by the ocean it was so dismal
I was just standing with shock on my face
The hearse pulled away and the girl that had died, it was you
You’ll never return into my arms ‘cause you were gone, gone
Never return into my arms ‘cause you were gone, gone
Gone, gone
Gone, gone

Untitled, Rhode Island, 1979-80

Photo: Robert Mapplethorpe


The words for ‘Redondo Beach’ were written in 1971. I was sharing a space near the Chelsea Hotel with Robert [Mapplethorpe] and my sister Linda. One afternoon I had a rare argument with my sister and she left. She didn’t return and by nightfall I was worried. Needing time to think, I took an F train to Coney Island and sat on the littered beach until the sun rose. I came back, wrote the draft and fell asleep. When I awoke, she had returned. I showed her what I had written and we never quarreled again.


Patti Smith, Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Notes and Reflections  (NY: Anchor Books, 1999)



‘She was kooky, and at first I didn’t want to be anywhere near her,’ says her friend, writer and journalist Betsy Berne. ‘We were in the same dorm, and I couldn’t get away from her. She seemed to have been born in the wrong century – she was totally outside pop culture; she never watched TV; she couldn’t have cared less about music.’


Rachel Cooke, ‘Searching for the real Francesca Woodman’, The Guardian, 31 August 2014


I just don’t know what to do tonight
My head is aching as I drink and breathe
Memory falls like cream in my wounds, moving on my own

There must be something I can dream tonight
The air is filled with the moves of you
All the fire is frozen yet still I have the will

Trumpets, violins, I hear them in the distance
And my skin emits a ray, but I think it’s sad, it’s much too bad
That our friends can’t be with us today

Untitled, New York, 1979-80

‘Today I came from Newport, seething with ideas and a new hat.’


By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2019 | All rights reserved