The word that seems most often repeated when it comes to the work of Francesca Woodman is ‘gothic’, yet what struck me most in the comprehensive exhibition currently on show at the Guggenheim is the honesty and rawness of the work.

Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976. Gelatin silver print, 13.3 x 13.3 cm. © George and Betty Woodman

I wasn’t overly familiar with Woodman’s images before coming to the exhibition, and perhaps due to our recent viewing of the Ian Curtis biopic Control, what weighed most heavily on me when viewing the work was the knowledge that she, like Curtis, had committed suicide in her early 20’s. Whilst I still believe that all creative work should exist outside the context of it’s making, it’s hard to view Woodman’s work without it being imbued with knowledge of her youth and the contracted time in which the work was created.

Born to artist parents, Woodman’s youth was divided between Colorado in the US and the Italian countryside where she spent summers with her family (1).  She began photographing in her early teens at high school before continuing her studies at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.

The bulk of her work can be roughly divided into 2 periods, the images produced in Rhode Island between 1975-77, and that made in Italy between ’77-79 (2). The majority of images feature Woodman herself, exposed, ghostly, present, dissolving, trapped, free. Whilst I say that it’s impossible to view the work without being aware of what is to come, I think it’s important not to mythologise the images, to read them as harbingers of the future.

Francesca Woodman "Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976,"

To me, the images represent an artist so confident in their medium and their vision that they are free to explore what it is to be in the world, what it is to explore your identity and your gender. Many of the images from the period from ’75-77 were taken in an abandoned house in Rhode Island, a setting which has done much to add to the ‘Victorian’ and ‘gothic’ tags which are so readily applied to Woodman’s work. But rather than focus on the romanticism of the built equivalent of crumbling lace, the Rhode Island images show Woodman exploring ideas about bodies in space, about the organic softness of the body interacting with the solid geometry of the objects we build around us.

Francesca Woodman "Then at one point i did not need to translate the notes; they went directly to my hands," Providence, Rhode Island, 1976

The work which was produced in Rome  in ’77-79 follows a similar theme, but to me appears much stronger, more weighty, despite there only being a few years between them. The images feel more symbolic, the composition and components carefully arranged in the way of a Renaissance painting. Still exploring the body in space, Woodman’s work now feels iconographic.  Her images from Rhode Island have the sense that the most important creative moment is in the act of creation, Woodman’s later work feels like it is now the image itself that holds the essence of what she is exploring.

Francesca Woodman "Untitled, Rome, 1977-78"

Woodman continued to work for several years after returning from Rome, basing herself in New York before her death in 1981. The work which Woodman has left behind forms an incredible document exploring ideas of identity, gender and the way we inhabit the spaces around us. It will always be difficult to view Woodman’s images without the veil of myth that her youth and suicide bring, but it is a worthy pursuit in order to witness the work of an incredibly talented artist.

The Francesca Woodman exhibition continues at the Guggenheim New York until June 13.