Wednesday, April 11, 2012

ART : An Angel in a Bell Jar


An Angel in a Bell Jar-----Francesca Woodman: A Retrospective

SFMOMA: November 5, 2011- February 20, 2012

The Guggenheim, New York City, March 16-

            She died at the age of twenty-two, jumping out of a window in an apartment in New York, leaving behind her a broken relationship, hundreds of photographs, and a handful of video clips.  These hauntingly beautiful black and white photographs (that came to the Bay Area just last winter) seem to commemorate the cold January morning of 1981, the morning she let herself fall from her window. This is the first time these photographs have been shown publicly in twenty-five years. And, there she is, in the 5x5 inches pictures, stopped by time, trapped in a space she created, caught beneath the emulsion, and diluted by light and shadow, like an angel in a bell jar. Was Francesca Woodman, the angel, was never meant to be viewed in real life? Always to be seen through a hazy lens? We cannot ever know, but these hazy lens photographs are the only way we can we fully understand her language. 

A prodigy in photography is rarely seen, yet Francesca’s parents, both of whom are painters, provided an artistic and creative environment that inspired Francesca to be just that: a prodigy. Starting at the age of fourteen, Francesca, in a short career of eight years, produced more than 10,000 negatives, over 800 of which are in prints. At the beginning of her career, she used female models, posing in nude. She prefers catching them off guard, shooting these naked female bodies in the most unexpected moment during a series of movement. Few of the women in these photos are aware of the presence of the lens, oblivious of their surroundings and fully indulging in themselves. There is a certain sense of simplicity in both the models and the background; the models are stripped naked while the background is just as bare: plain walls, broken curtains, pebbles, floors and empty windows.
            When she grew tired of the models, seeing them as redundant in her simple black and white world, she turned to a new approach: walking into the lens by herself. At first, she appears in the center of the photo, fully clothed, then half naked, and finally bare. Long exposure softened the edges in her photo, giving her a melting and dewey appearance. Reality, coming through the lens, is fixated on the film, drowned in a pool of chemicals, then developed into Francesca’s dream world, soft, blurry and light. Only in this dreamworld did Francesca find herself, flesh fading and bones turing into smoke. 

“The longer her shutter stays open,” as art critique Elizabeth Gumport told me, “the blurrier and more transparent bodies will appear.” Her interest in self-presentation emerges in a note written for her first suicide attempt. “Living is erasing,” she explains, “and dying is fixing certain things in place”.  She trapped (or preserved) herself in her dream world, like an angel in a bell jar.

            Some art historians see Woodman as a feminist hero, fully enjoying the pleasure of being “young, creative and female”, while others chose not to view her work under the aura of posthumous fame. When the photography curator of SFMOMA is asked to describe her feeling toward the first Woodman exhibition in the country, she only used one word, “distilled.” Woodman’s genius is never a gift: it’s a loan. A short-term loan loaded with attributes that only can be paid back by the most delicate measure of life.

To see more of her art, browse:



And, browse google images for Francesca Woodman.

The Woman Behind the Cultural Perspectives Section:
Asheley Gao is an extremely creative young woman, currently attending UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, a long way away from her home country of China. She is double majoring in Political Economy and History of Art. Her interest in life and exuberance is evident, not only in her work as an artist and academic, but also a friend and co-worker.

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