You can’t speak ill of the dead, it would be in bad taste, wouldn’t it? But in this case I believe it is even worse taste to speak well of certain deaths. Let me explain: I find Francesca Woodman most irritating. Not just the circumstances of her life, which are highly suspicious, from her premature talent - being the daughter of two artists she has been exposed to their influence from an early age, her photos show everything but naïve spirit, they are too conceived, concocted, conceptual and yet strike me as artificial or professionally artistic and good - down to what must be defined tragic end by jumping or falling from the window of her (?) New York studio. Even more maddening are those who make an intellectual feast of her legacy, relate her work to this and that, but worst of all idealize her death. As the links keep popping up on my screen, I try to make sense of the lot. Sentences like “She was preparing to become an angel” are not just soppy and blatantly pathetic to the adults among us, they are downright dangerous to younger or more impressionable minds. Pity the victims of mental depression but do not ever glorify suicide. It has nothing to do with talent, nor art.
My impression is maybe superficial, instinctive as is my goal and in keeping with the spirit of this blog. I read her short biography with marvel and envy: winters in America, expensive exclusive art schooling in Rome, summers in Tuscany. Lonely as she may have been at times, her photographs betray favourable circumstances: her good health and looks, beautiful interiors, moody spaces one finds in big Italian villas or New York artists lofts (how many 22 years old artists can afford a window in New York to jump from, I bitterly wonder). I fear that all these things somehow lead her to her end. She must have been flirting with the thought of death as many adolescents do, and done so in earnest, the feeling enhanced by the hyper sensitivity of someone who thinks she is an artist: someone special. So she eventually was attracted by the void, and fell into her reflection as surely as Narcissus did, fatally.
This tragic and alas romantic (to the so inclined) epilogue to her life seems to give her work more importance and poignancy, but this is a delusion. Judge the work on its own merits, and try not to think of Francesca if you can. But it’s hard, isn’t it? She didn’t want you to forget her. This is, to me, the problem with autobiographic work.
Another famous suicide photographer that comes to mind is Diane Arbus, and her end too I find maddening. Maybe it’s the feeling of waste, maybe something else. I can’t help thinking that while she was photographing all these characters that she found, something deep was happening inside her wonderful and talented self. It’s not that hard taking pictures of freaks, try being one for a day. So in a way she might have fallen too in some reflection of her own. Rest in peace, both of them.