The Poetry of Francesca Woodman

The exhibition WOMAN. The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s  at Bozar, Brussels, features a beautiful collection of images by Francesca Woodman.

To state the obious: her images are very poetic. To quote this nice article:

Taken between 1972 and 1981, Woodman’s photographs are almost all black-and-white and have a general softness of focus not often seen these days. They depict a world almost identical to the one captured by earlier generations of photographers, as if Woodman’s camera were a filter through which the neon clutter of contemporary life could not pass.


I had seen images before, but never such a big collection (about 50 I guess). To see a multitude of her images, makes it an even more intense experience.

Her photographic language was one of subtility. Her nakedness expresses more fragility than temptation. Nothing seems forced, although a lot of pictures feature a sophisticated scenography. In these, Woodman often seemingly attempts to come into union with the desolate setting – be it the roots of a tree, inbetween the cracks of earth in a dry field, or a window or a door in a squat.  But if angel wings appear in the setting, she seems to run away from them. Or do they elevate her?

angel wings

What struck me the most is that these images, as good poetry, are delicately multilayered and open for interpretation, as the angel wings in the picture above.

Take this beautiful image for example, taken in Rome.

francesca woodman - flower - rome

At the exhibition, where the pictures were presented in 14 x 14 cm (5.5×5.5″) prints, I thought the object behind the corner was a stick and mask. As if Woodman had discarded a mask, or was dubious to put it on. Only at home, when browsing the internet and watching the image on my computer screen, I saw that it had nothing to do with masks. It is actually a Calla lilly (from the arum family). A beautiful white flower – the word kalla in ancient Greek means beautiful. Does the female figure wait for the flower to be handed over to her, or is she refusing it?

Reading about the origin of the name of the flower in Greek mythology, a first new layer opens:

The myth is that Zeus brought his mortal son Hercules to his wife Hera to nurse from her as she slept. Zeus wanted his son to have divine powers from drinking Hera’s milk, but because the child was from another woman, Hera flung Hercules away from her when she woke up. Her milk flew out through the universe to create the Milky Way, and a few drops fell to Earth, where beautiful white lilies sprung from the ground. In Roman mythology, Venus, the goddess of love and lust, saw the flowers, and in a fit of jealousy over their beauty, she made them grow a large pistil in their center.

When looking at the symbolism of this flower, the picture becomes even more intriguing:

The calla lily was by the Romans in association with the winter solstice. The lilies were forced to bloom indoors during the darkest time of year to celebrate the preservation of the light and bringing the light indoors. Calla lilies were often associated with funerals, only later to become a popular wedding flower.

The lily was a sacred flower to the Minoans and also prized among the ancient Jews. In Christian iconography, the flower came to represent purity and chastity. In contrast with this, the flower’s large spadix, a phallic flower stalk containing many male (pistillate) and female flowers, was symbolic of lust and sexuality among the Romans. As mentioned above, calla lilies have been viewed as a symbol of death and associated with funerals. In this capacity, they have been placed on the graves of youth who have suffered untimely deaths.

Purity and chastity but also lust and sexuality; winter, death, but also rebirth:

The calla lily plays a role in the Christian Easter service as a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection. In many paintings and other works of art throughout history, the calla lily has been depicted with the Virgin Mary or Angel of Annunciation. For this reason, it has been associated with holiness, faith and purity. Additionally, as the cone-line flowers blossom in spring, they have become symbols of youth and rebirth.

(…) they are traditional symbols of divinity, marital bliss and true devotion. More specifically, the calla lily marks the 6th wedding anniversary. However, they have also been used at funerals to represent sympathy and the purification of a departed soul. The exquisite calla lily is an appropriate flower for any occasion that involves major transitions, rebirths and new beginnings.

All these multiple possibilities suit well with the figure of Francesca Woodman. For me, this picture has now become the symbol of the power of her images.






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