Performing the Interior: The Artist as Subject in the Photography of Francesca Woodman

Read the other posts in this series here.

On day three of our celebration of FotoWeekDC, we look at the enigmatically beautiful photography of artist Francesca Woodman on display in Shaping a Modern Identity: Portraits from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection.

Francesca Woodman first began her experiments with photography at the age of 15. Two years later, as a student at Rhode Island School of Design, she continued her exploration of black and white photography and film until she took her own life at the young age of 22.  Despite her short lifespan, Woodman was prolific, creating over 10,000 negatives in just 7 years.

Francesca Woodman, Providence, Rhode Island,  1975-76, Gelatin silver print, Courtesy George and Betty Woodman

Francesca Woodman, Providence, Rhode Island, 1975-76, Gelatin silver print. Courtesy George and Betty Woodman.

Woodman’s Providence, Rhode Island is one of only two self-portraits in the installation. While Harry Callahan’s portrait of his wife Eleanor strove to achieve formal autonomy without an introspective look into his subject matter, Providence is an exploration of Woodman’s inner psyche. She perpetually looked to herself as the subject of her own works, using her body to convey her inner emotions and thoughts. Her admiration for the fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville shows in the lushly shadowed and textured scenes Woodman shot in an abandoned house in Providence, Rhode Island, where her own figure often blurs into a ghostly, dematerialized form. In Providence, Woodman navigates both past and present; she appears in prairie-style dress and shoots with medium-format film reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century, yet her disposition is urgent, contemporary. The camera captures her in the dilapidated interior in the midst of movement (seen in the blurred lines of the hem of her dress and her arms) with her arms eerily extended towards the doorway as she stares out at the viewer. The open door suggests a way out of this transient space, but it is unclear if the artist is willing to leave and whether or not her arms are beckoning the door open or closed. This early photograph demonstrates the performative quality of Woodman’s photo and video oeuvre in which the artist engages with her space, using her body to explore the environment around her as well as her internal state.

Looking Inward: Artist Self-Portraits

Images of two sculptural self-portraits made by Xavier Veilhan

(Left) Xavier Veilhan, Xavier, 2006. Polyurethane, epoxy paint, 59 3/4 x 20 1/2 x 18 in. Private Collection, New York © 2012 Veilhan / ADAGP, Paris, and ARS, New York Courtesy Gallerie Perrotin. Photo: André Morin (Right) Installation view of (IN)balance. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

If you haven’t been in person to see Xavier Veilhan’s sculptural self-portraits in his exhibition at the Phillips, (IN)balance, you’re in for a surprise. What you can’t tell from these image is that the statues are just shy of life-size. Measuring about 5 feet tall, these statues seem to be exact replicas of the artist—just tinier. This (no pun intended) small but significant detail begs the question: what is the purpose of a self-portrait? Is it to record a moment in time, to challenge oneself to make the truest likeness possible, to make an inward-looking statement, or all of the above?

Veilhan answered this question in part during a recent interview with Express‘s Mark Jenkins, stating “for me, they’re not really self-portraits. There is no attempt to show something psychologically about myself.” But what about the artists who do intend these likenesses to reveal something about themselves?

I looked to our own collection to investigate the relationship between artist and self-portrait, and found that I had a lot to work with. We have a stoic Paul Cézanne, a somber Käthe Kollwitz, a dark Edvard Munchthe list goes on. Among diverse styles, I found a consistent message: this is who I am as an artist, inside and out. In contrast to the free experimentation you might find in other works by these same artists, self-portraits tend to have calculated details. Cézanne’s facial features are constructed with his signature block-like brush strokes, Milton Avery strives to exemplify the bohemian artist (note the dangling cigarette, beret, and all), and Augustus Vincent Tack actually uses one of his own paintings as a backdrop.

My personal favorite self-portrait in The Phillips Collection is the one by Piet Mondrian. After a lifetime of associating this artist with stark, geometric grids, the fluid and painterly style he uses here came as a shock.

Amy Wike, Publicity and Marketing Coordinator

(Left) Piet Mondrian, Self-Portrait, c. 1900. Oil on canvas, 20 x 15 1/2 in. Acquired 1958. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. (Middle) Milton Avery, Self-Portrait with Red Tam and Scarf, 1938. Oil on canvas, 22 in x 14 in. Gift of Louis and Annette Kaufman Trust, 2008. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. (Right) Joseph De Martini, Self-Portrait, c. 1943. Oil on canvas, 48 7/8 x 30 1/4 in. Acquired 1943. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Happy Birthday Paul Cézanne

(Left) Paul Cézanne, Self-Portrait, c. 1898. Lithograph on paper, 21 53/4 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1949. (Right) Camille Pissarro, Portrait of Cezanne (State I), 1874. Etching on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1954 (?).