outside, but if she squawked or sounded like she needed help, I was to go right in." Francesca's father,
Consider the image in question (facing page, top left) and you pick up a powerful sense of this backstory: it has a wonderfully secretive quality. What happens in a museum when all the visitors go home? In this one, a kind of ghost appears in the form of Woodman, who can be glimpsed behind a large vitrine in which sits the huge and alarmingly toothy skull of some unidentifiable animal. "Francesca couldn't make her mind up," says Betty. "First, she wanted to be naked. Then she thought she'd wear a leotard." Not that I should get the wrong idea. "This wasn't a performance. She was concentrating on the picture. That was why she didn't want people around. She didn't want any distractions."
I look at the photograph again, but I can't
agree. Francesca's head is tilted back, her mouth is slightly open, her fingers are stretched wide over the glass of the vitrine. Surely it is quite clear that she has seduction in mind. However wild, however toothy, however dead, this strange animal, you gather, will soon be putty in her hands. The sequence, titled Space (1975-6), is one of several photographs that will be included in Zigzag
a new exhibition of Woodman's work at
Woodman committed suicide in 1981, at the age of just 22. As a result, it is her self-portraits - funny, artful, neurotic, and occasionally painfully honest - that have always attracted the most attention. People want to see this extraordinary lost girl; they remain convinced that her primary subject was herself. But her parents refute this.
"People do latch on to certain images," says Betty, on the telephone from their home in
storytelling, her tendency to (self) dramatise.
"People like to mythologise artists," says George. "But it's the real facts that are of interest to us." Fans and critics alike, he and Betty believe, tend to ignore the humour in his daughter's work, and often claim for her
a feminism she wouldn't have recognised (these people are perhaps provoked by her nakedness, by the way she pinches and pulls her flesh as if it were all just too much).
"You can reinterpret her pictures, if that's your point of view," says Betty. "But I don't think that was there. Everybody was tied in knots about politics in the 70s, but she wasn't interested." Their memory of Francesca is that she wasn't a "deeply serious intellectual"; she was witty, amusing. "She had a good time," says Betty. "Her life wasn't a series of miseries. She was fun to be with. It's a basic fallacy that her death is what she was all about, and people read that into the photographs. They psychoanalyse them. Young people in particular feel she's talking about them, somehow. They see the photographs as very personal. But that's not the way I approach them. They're often funny." The photographs in Zigzag include playful visual jokes: a pair of fingerless "gloves" made from the bark of tree and modelled by Francesca, whose arms are raised so as to resemble the spindly trunks of the birches nearby; a disembodied pair of legs mirroring a charred-looking V-shaped groove in the ground, as if her body left this impression behind when she unaccountably fell to earth.
Life as a working artist can be hard: the Woodmans, both artists themselves, know this. "It's terrible!" yelps George. But it wasn't Francesca's work that troubled her; it was the art world, competitive and precarious, that she found scary. In a published essay about his daughter, George quotes a line from her gnomic
Why did she put herself in the images? Francesca once said that it was just a matter of "convenience": she was always available, whereas finding a model would take time. "I do think that was it," says Betty. "Though telling yourself what to do is also much easier than telling someone else to smile, or to look this way or that."
In her lifetime,
"For us, it's a bittersweet thing," says Betty. "We don't have much distance from it." There is a pause, and for a moment I wonder if we have lost the line. But then she's back. Francesca, she believes, might eventually have begun to work in other media. "We have some beautiful paintings of hers. In fact, we just found one all crumpled up here in
a great deal of time in
"She was kooky, and at first I didn't want to be anywhere near her," says her friend, writer and journalist
What did Berne make of her work? "I loved it. She was way more sophisticated than the rest of us. She was 21, and yet so many people were jealous of her. But in your 20s, everything feels so urgent. You think you've got to be famous in 20 seconds, all the more because she had been making this very good work from the age of 14. The pressure was intense." Like Betty and George, Berne believes Francesca's photographs are too often viewed through the sombre prism of her early death. "Let me just emphasise: she had a great sense of humour. There's a great deal of wit in them, and irony." Unlike the Woodmans, however, she insists her friend was political. "We used to make fun of the feminists, but we were feminists ourselves. We read such a lot." In the past, Woodman's suicide - she jumped off a building in lower
The first solo shows of her work opened in 1986, and drew a great deal of attention. More crucially, she was championed by American critic
"Her appeal has grown rather than waned," says
In the end, you can only return to the images themselves, the best of which are not only beautiful, but endlessly beguiling. Of those that will appear in Zigzag, the one I love the most consists mostly of a huge pleated curtain, on top of which are balanced three large, decaying leaves. Woodman has been pushed into a corner by this weird construction: we see only an elbow and half of her face; her eyes are cast down. It would seem deathly, funereal, if it wasn't for the fact that over the whole thing there falls, like
a blessing, a bright rectangle of sunshine. There is something so subtle about it, so charmingly odd, that my fingertips tingle when I see it. It makes me feel covetous, and strange, and somehow powerfully female. ¦
'People like to mythologise artists. We were artists, and all our friends were artists, so that was normal for Francesca':
Light and dark:
a series of Woodman's untitled works. She produced more than 800 photographs
'She was very loyal and intense': Woodman first picked up
a camera when
she was just 13
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