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Body and soul

By Claudia Zanfi

Francesca Woodman (Denver 1958 – New York 1981) spent the most part of her childhood in Italy in the Florentine countryside, where she lived in an old farm with her parents, who were also artists. The charm of the old house had a notable influence on Francesca’s research; the high-ceilinged rooms, the crumbling walls, the old decorations are all felt to be surfaces like ‘skins’ in which to cover oneself. From this the young artist created works in which her body becomes almost transparent as it fuses with various types of material in continuous transformation, as if wanting to penetrate beneath the very surface of the walls. This covering over with decorations, dry glue and the flakes of plaster of that style of architecture constitutes a desire to transform one’s own body, that of the artist who almost disappears in order to leave space for the continuous metamorphosis of the material on her own body. It is the purgatory of the body, the purification of the flesh through hundreds of evolutions before reaching the only possible paradise: death.

It is not easy to understand if such a destiny, especially in those years of overt sexual rebellion, was an integral part of female art work. But it is known that there were other extremely important figures present in the international artistic panorama who dedicated their lives to the theme of the body as an object of laceration and transfiguration: the Cuban Ana Mendieta and the Franco-Italian Gina Pane. Like Woodman, they chose to document their research through the “traces” of their passing on the earth, of their weird and wonderful existences, of their joys, their fears, their expectations, right up until the final tragic gesture: the act of love and most absolute desperation. The whipped body of the artist, the rose thorns stuck into flesh and the shrouds stained with blood are all elements of a study which evoke the notion of martyrdom, sacrifice in a laic spirituality aimed at redemption from pain; the body as a holy space, a sort of cathedral in which self-awareness disappears. Woodman’s work is not exhibitionism; or rather it is a mystic representation in which the artist transcends her own body in order to reach the pure essence of the gesture.

Francesca Woodman’s performance work is documented by a series of intense photographs, for the most part in black & white, which follow her artistic development from her precocious debut (1971-1972) up until the last poetic shots of herself in a birch wood (alongside the spotted bark – another surface seen as a skin, with branches taking the place of limbs) in 1981, and the last collection with the ‘blue prints’ taken on her return from Rome to New York.
The entire opus of Francesca Woodman was put on show at the Galleria Sozzani in Milan from the 18th January until the 25th February 2001 in collaboration with the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris. The artist’s parents, Betty and George Woodman (now guardians of their daughter’s photographic patrimony) were present at the inauguration. All of the images on show here are taken from the short monograph edited by Jen Budney and published on the occasion of “Modena per la Fotografia 1996” at the Galleria Civica of Modena Claudia Zanfi