Francesca Woodman was born in Denver, USA, in 1958, from a family of artists.
In Alkmaar, Netherlands, Hellen van Meene was born in 1972.
Hellen van Meene was only nine years old when Francesca Woodman, then twentythree, committed suicide throwing herself out of the window of her flat in the East Village, New York City. Five years earlier, when she was nineteen, Francesca Woodman visited Rome with a one-year scolarship from the Rhode Island School of Design. The "eternal city" revealed to her the Renaissance and Baroque symbolism which is appears to be very relevant in her work. In Rome she also furthered her knowledge and understanding of Futurism and Surrealism. In the winter of 1978 and spring 1979, whilst back in New York, she wrote to her friend Edith Schloss: "I was homesick for Italy this winter for months and spent all my time reading in Italian" and "It's funny how while I was living in Italy the culture there didn't effect me that much and now I have all this fascination with the architecture, etc."
I know not whether Hellen van Meene has ever known about Francesca Woodman's work and life. Francesca Woodman's photographs are extraordinarily mature but, to appreciate fully we should take into account the "sensationalist" feeling generated by the suicidal act and the gender issues raised by her work. The retrospective presented at the Photographer's Gallery in August and September is likely to be interpreted as a sequence of gestures leading to her suicide: the suicide of one of the youngest and most talented women photographers in the 70s. As noted by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, «prodigies in photography are singularly rare; women prodigies virtually unheard of»
The recent exhibition that ran parrallel to Woodman exhibition was that of a young, and upcoming photographer/artist, Hellen van Meene, who brought a stark contrast of styles with its own raw and hard-hitting realism compared to the disturbing sense of genius and decadence that goes along with Woodman's work.
Hellen van Meene, the Dutch photographer who studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdan and has just won the prestigious Charlotte Kohler Prize, has a difficult task with her limited collection to compete with Woodman and her more comprehensive and complex retrospective.
Out of this duel what is more interesting is the opportunity given to compare two ways of using the camera to represent and express the female identity in teenagers: through an authobiography in Francesca Woodman, through tales on children-teenagers in Hellen van Meene's portraits.
Francesca Woodman's work is consistently developed around the study of the original and "naked" relationship between her female girlish body and the space. The role of the camera in this relationship is to scan and examine it in depth. Hellen van Meene's work displayed in this exhibition is an attempt to show through her characters the artificial and "transvestite" aspect of the female body, and the camera is there to provide a cruel and ruthless mise en scene.
The female subject in Francesca Woodman, naked or dressed, but mostly in black and white, is hardly central in the composition and almost impossible to define, and this shows a clear intention to avoid any stereotyped interpretation of her identity. In the book of tales on girlhood written by Hellen van Meene the characters of her portraits, colourful and in full light, are treated with a sort of naturalism off-key, and nevertheless their identity is not clearer nor more consistent.
The female figure in Francesca Woodman evaporates and dematerialises through a fast body movement [as in the series "House" (1975-76) where Francesca plays hide-and-seek with the light or behind the unsafe frame of a fireplace] and therefore she likes to identify herself with the fleeting presence-absence of angels [an entire series from the period spent in Rome is dedicated to "Angels"]. Francesca Woodman disguises her three-dimensional naked body as bidimensional flat and eroded old wall, striped off wallpaper, floating fabrics. This search for an immediate and instinctive relationship with and understanding of the objects, in which the camera plays the role of intermediary, becomes her main objective during the residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire during the summer of 1980: here natural and human forms inter-weave each other, so that arms mime and pose as trunks and patterns on the dress repeat flowers and leaf pattern's in nature [this research is already in the key image of "Then at one point I did not need to translate the notes; they went directly to my hands" (1976), up to the latest experiments in New York with more precious fabrics]
In van Meene's portraits, instead, the traditional stereotypes of the girlish portraiture, framed and edited in a sort of sensual but clumsy masquerade, are to verify the contradictions and ambiguity of that alleged natural state of the age they should represent. We can even trace some of the subject matters from Romantic painting, pre-Raffaelite, Vermeer and Brueghel, but these are completely alienated from their font and their historical relevance to show the pathetic and collapsing authority. The female figure, instead of silently evaporating and camouflaging, squeaks and unsticks: a sensual semi-naked breast clashes with a masculine face, a petrified expression in the eyes is out of tune with a delicate flowered dress, a childish body fights against an attitude of femme fatale. In an emblematic portrait, long black hair slips on the child's naked breast, and the arms stand uplifted as in an Ingres' Odalisque; but then in its purely descriptive style the portrait shows the awkwardness of the body with its unattractive features and its straggly mane. According to a similar disarmony the body often does not fit in the dress and the dress hardly contains the body.
The interior space in which Francesca Woodman acts is reduced to its ruins and to its essentials, and reproduced in infinitive variations. The subject's vague body gesticulates wildly to try to measure the room, as in the series "Space2" (1975-78). Or, in the series "From Space2" (1975-76), the body is unconfortably bending in a precarious showcase which is partially open, and tries a tactile and complex play with the glass that simultaneously locks it in and shows it.
In Hellen van Meene's photographs the background is mostly neutral, to help the viewers concentrate their attention on the character; indeed, it is also a natural landscape, a garden, the gravel bed of a river, so that the collision with the character is raised to its maximum degree and the mise en scene becomes a caricature: a loud caricature in colourful clothes, emphasised make-up and forced pose.
The use of glass in Woodman's photographs, as well as that of mirrors, is to metaphorically indicate the complexity of identity. Her face appears as a reflection from a mirror together with her body while moving on her hands and knees [in "Self-Deceit" (1978)] or it is the body itself to be simultaneously stuck, hidden and protected between a mirror and a leaf of glass. The title of this series, "A Woman A Mirror A Woman is a Mirror for a Man" (1975-78) is emblematic of her deep excavation (search) into those symbols that surround and translate the woman being.
The woman artist Francesca Woodman seems to perceive (regardless of her young age) the urgency for women in the 70s to re-discover their identity beyond the patriarcal ideology and its omnipotent symbolism. As in other artists more or less involved in the feminist movement, Francesca Woodman erases the images of the social history: her mise en scene is reduced to a bare stage, objects are represented at their zero degree and relations are verified in their archetypal and "original" form. Symbols are alienated from their historical frame and brought to the foreground to experiment the possibility of another interpretation, a pure relation with the female subject. In an outstanding image from the year spent in Rome, Francesca Woodman represents herself half hidden by the wall, naked and on her kness; in the foreground stands a lylium, a symbol of the virginal love, is ambiguously presented like a python with his straight head ready to bite, and the artist's pubis disappears as defended by the brisk movement of her hand. Indeed, in this case, the traditional contents of a symbol are deeply reversed.
While Francesca Woodman adopts the method of stripping and removing, Hellen van Meene loudly displays the eclectic and various forms traditionally attributed to teenagers: hers is a method of making up and contructing somewhat contrived imagery. As postmodernism has cancelled the possibility of any "original" and pure expression in a society lead by media and reproductions, the female image in van Meene is definitely alienated from her "original" nature, and there is no way of regaining it. She can no longer be identified with angels, nor is she armoniously treated: she is there, instead, to disclose her contraddictory condition of growing woman in this world and the impossibility of escaping from it.
Frequent traces, signals and fragments in Francesca Woodman are to attempt the building up of a female language from zero, a language that not necessarily communicates but that paradoxically aims to express a condition of existence and to give it an image. In "Self portrait talking to vince" (1975-78) a sort of clear bubble stands from Francesca's mouth, and the expression of the face is stopped in a surreal pose. The wasted language of traditional female portraiture in van Meene is asked to have its faked forms clashing in order to separate them from their unattained contents of pure female beauty, to reverse their classical meaning of natural female armony and to show them in their petrified and petrifying non-sense. In both cases we cannot read a word, because the communication has been moved from the verbal level to another level, that of photography.
And here the role of photography becomes so relevant. The photographic tool allows the two photographers to explore the gaps beyond any false naturalism and any pre-determined role, and to experiment with the uncertain and ambiguous acting of teenagers in their search for a new space as women: with a Flemish detailed light in van Meene, with a visionary and surreal expectation in Francesca Woodman.
In a precocious self-portrait at thirteen Francesca Woodman appears in an unidentified space, sitting at the edge of a pew, wearing a thick 'Norway style' jumper and a pair of jeans; she denies her face to the camera, so that we can only see her hair, but her left hand is holding a cable linked to the camera. This image seems to me an early comment on her interrupted work; which is not the realistic portrait of the author as an adolescent and of her mutating body, but is the revelation of an uncertain identity and of the photographic artifice which makes the complex representation possible.
Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Just like a woman, in Francesca Woodman: Photographic Work, catalogue for the first showing of Woodman's work at the Wellesley College Museum and Hunter College Art Gallery in 1986, p. 14.