Egon Schiele/ Francesca Wood­man

Tate Liver­pool presents a joint show of two of the arts most in­trigu­ing out­siders. Oliver Atwell dis­cov­ers more about the in­ter­sec­tion of their lives and themes

Amateur Photographer - - 7days -

On 19 Jan­uary 1981, a young female pho­tog­ra­pher fell an­gel-like from the loft win­dow of a build­ing on New York City’s East Side. She fell sev­eral sto­ries un­til she landed on the pave­ment be­low where she died on im­pact. The death of pho­tog­ra­pher Francesca Wood­man, then just 22, per­haps felt in­evitable, though per­haps we can only say that through the fil­ter of spec­u­la­tive ret­ro­spect. Just the year be­fore, Wood­man, fol­low­ing sev­eral un­suc­cess­ful at­tempts to have her work recog­nised and the break­down of a re­la­tion­ship, at­tempted sui­cide. Af­ter his daugh­ter died, Francesca Wood­man’s fa­ther, Ge­orge Wood­man, sug­gested that Francesca had fi­nally been tipped over the edge by the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts re­fus­ing her ap­pli­ca­tion for fund­ing.

What’s so ul­ti­mately tragic about all this is that, in death, Wood­man’s in­flu­ence grew and grew. Her im­ages – she pro­duced around 800 works in her short life – have be­come in­stantly recog­nis­able and her place within photography cir­cles is as­sured. This has led to much re­cent anal­y­sis and thought-pieces con­cern­ing the over­ar­ch­ing themes and ideas of Wood­man’s work. Much has been made, for ex­am­ple, of the fem­i­nist slant of Wood­man’s im­ages, though her mother, Betty, sug­gests this is some­thing that has been read into the work and, in­stead, much of her daugh­ter’s work was cre­ated in the spirit of hu­mour.

Visit any univer­sity photography class and you are guar­an­teed to find strik­ing traces of Wood­man’s work present in more than one stu­dent pro­ject. The strange and frag­ile na­ture of Wood­man’s work makes her in­stantly at­trac­tive to young stu­dents get­ting to grips not just with the pos­si­bil­i­ties and pa­ram­e­ters of cre­ative photography, but also with them­selves as liv­ing, breath­ing, au­tonomous in­di­vid­u­als. Wood­man tried to push the bound­aries of ex­per­i­men­tal photography by play­ing with the cam­era func­tion, such as shut­ter speed and ex­po­sure, as well as her use of the body as a com­po­si­tional and the­matic de­vice. You can see these ideas, par­tic­u­larly, the lat­ter in big con­tem­po­rary names such as con­cep­tual artist So­phie Calle and the pho­tog­ra­pher Cindy Sher­man. ‘[ Wood­man] had few bound­aries and made art out of noth­ing: empty rooms with peel­ing wall­pa­per and just her fig­ure,’ said Sher­man when asked about the in­flu­ence of Wood­man on her own work. ‘No elab­o­rate stage set- up or lights… Her process struck me more the way a painter works, mak­ing do with what’s right in front of her, rather than pho­tog­ra­phers like my­self who need time to plan out what they’re go­ing to do.’

Wood­man’s work is ap­pear­ing at the Tate Liver­pool as part of a joint show with another artist whose in­flu­ence has been thor­oughly noted and who also em­ploys the body as a strange and un­canny thing. Aus­trian-born Egon Schiele is con­sid­ered one of the ma­jor fig­u­ra­tive pain­ters of the 20th cen­tury and with good rea­son. His con­fronta­tional yet beau­ti­ful paint­ings are in­tense and rawly sex­ual. The fig­ures in his im­ages seem to twist, turn and con­tort on the can­vas yet stop just short of ren­der­ing them­selves as the kind of hideous, vis­ceral grotes­queries found in the im­ages of Fran­cis Ba­con.

Schiele’s nudes are, ul­ti­mately, strik­ing and hon­est; the in­ti­mate fleshy spa­ces of his mod­els are ren­dered so ut­terly vis­i­ble and alive. How­ever, Schiele didn’t re­strict him­self just to paint­ing others. Like Wood­man, he used his own body as a de­vice to ex­plore no­tions of iden­tity and hu­man­ity. As a photography mag­a­zine, this ob­vi­ously isn’t the space to get into the details of Schiele’s paint­ings but it is cer­tainly in­ter­est­ing to com­pare and con­trast Schiele’s works with Wood­man’s

and look at the ways in which they dif­fered in the use of the gaze – Schiele pro­jected his gaze out­wards to ex­plore the bod­ies of others; Wood­man turned the gaze in­wards.

Wood­man is one of many artists who have found them­selves posthu­mously ro­man­ti­cised (as her fa­ther pointed out in a 2014 in­ter­view with The Guardian, ‘Peo­ple like to mythol­o­gise artists’.) Note the open­ing line of this re­view and the de­scrip­tion of Wood­man falling ‘an­gel-like’ to her death. That’s a fairly typ­i­cal de­scrip­tion and it’s some­thing that seems to be the want of writ­ers de­tail­ing the lives of cre­ative women, par­tic­u­larly those who died by their own hand. What’s good about this ex­hi­bi­tion and the re­cent re­assess­ment of Wood­man’s work is that it cuts through this mythol­o­gis­ing and man­ages to get through to the gen­uinely unique and pro­gres­sive qual­ity of her work. Wood­man’s in­flu­ence on con­tem­po­rary photography is not only as­sured, it’s de­served.

Francesca Wood­man Eel Se­ries, Venice, Italy 1978

Un­ti­tled fig­ure and door by Francesa Wood­man

‘Stand­ing male fig­ure (self-por­trait)’ by Egon Schiele from 1914

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