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Artists Who Died Before 30: Francesca Woodman

Updated on September 13, 2015
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

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Fine Art Photographer

Artists are memory makers… or rather, memory keepers. What we do is immortalize a time, an era, a community, a person in a portrait. It is why we are still fascinated with a little known lady captured in the Mona Lisa. It is why an era that lasted a little more than 11 years and dancers who only danced 2 years at best, are immortalized forever in the posters of the Moulin Rouge by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec. It is why the era of this artist will be forever remembered. This is a story of an artist who didn’t live long but left an indelible mark and influence for the future generations of Fine Art Photographers.

It’s so sad when anyone dies young, but doubly so for artists because there is so much more they could have done to make the world a more beautiful, colorful place. The sad fact is that artists feel deeply, all the highs and all the lows of life. Sometimes I envy people like my mother, who have a very “even keel.” People like that seldom get mad or upset (although when they do, look out). However they also don’t get overly jovial or jocular. Every day is a straight line from sunrise to sunset.

Gratefully, I don’t live like that. I am one of the artists. When I am happy, I am a very ecstatic, giggling fool. And when I’m sad, I am in the dismal dumps. No halfway for me. I feel it all and it often shows up in my work.

That’s what happened to most of these artists who died young. They felt too deeply the pain of life. And some just succumbed to sickness, sadness and drug addiction before their work was done. This is the story of the extra short life of Francesca Woodman ( 1958-1981).

“Am I in the picture? Am I getting in or out of it? I could be a ghost, an animal or a dead body, not just this girl standing on the corner…?”

— Francesca Woodman
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Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman was a young surrealist photographer who captured her self-portrait as female body trapped in domestic space. Her photography combines a childlike airiness, (or is it ghostlike?) with an undeniable feeling of darkness. She committed suicide at 22 years old by leaping out a window.

She was born in Bolder, Colorado to artist parents, so she was surrounded with art from an early age, even getting to spend time with them in Italy. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975, spent 1977 and 1978 studying in Rome in the Rhode Island School of Design honors program. Then she went back to Rhode Island to graduate in 1978. She was trying to break into fashion photography in New York City but her solicitations did not lead anywhere. This is when she became depressed because of her constant failure to land a job and a broken relationship with her boyfriend.

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Rejection hurts

After surviving one suicide attempt, she lived with her parents in Manhattan, getting therapy and seemed to be doing better. That’s when they let their “guard down.” She killed herself by throwing herself from a loft window in New York City at the age of 22. Her father felt the suicide was due to her recent rejection for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

I know how rejection feels. It is very crushing when all you want is enough to survive and create more art. Rejection must be one of the hardest things for an artist, who naturally feels things deeply, to endure and overcome. By the very nature of what we do, we are set up for rejection. Yet this is the very thing that often fuels our desire to do better and “show them” for the next time. Unfortunately, Francesca didn’t make it to that place.

“I was inventing a Language for people to see…” (last journal entry. January 19, 1981)

— Francesca Woodman
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Surreal and haunting

The work of Francesca Woodman is so stark and poignant that it makes you confront things about yourself that you may not know were there. Art can be easily dismissed, saying “I don’t get it,” or “that doesn’t make sense,” but photography is different in that it captures what is really there, yet can still have a message. I think the way Francesca captured women locked in the walls of a home, crushed by the front door and cowering in the corner, says a lot about how we women think of the “housewife.” We embrace it because that’s what we are supposed to do, but we always seem to find a way to rebel against it at the same time. We get a job, or find things to do outside the home, got to college, etc. But when Francesca was taking her surreal photographs, those methods may have been out there but the ghost of the “housewife” lives on.

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“Real things don’t frighten me just the ones in my mind do.”

— Francesca Woodman

Woodman Family

I am sorry that this biography of the Woodman family has Portuguese subtitles but it is so good and complete a story of the whole family that it is worth overlooking the subtitles. It is however, over an hour long. So take time to see it when you can sit back with a cup of tea and enjoy the art. Be forewarned, there is nudity in the video because of the candid shots of Francesca working some of her photographs in the nude.

“I finally managed to try to do away with myself, as neatly and concisely as possible…. I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, some work, my friendship with you, and some other artifacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things.”

— Francesca Woodman
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Original in her style

She chooses black and white photography because there is something really artistic about black and white. It eliminates peripherals and focuses on the light and shadow. Her work has no real progenitor. It seems to have just jumped into her head and she did it as she imagined it. Many artists can claim influence from one artist or someone else’s technique but she doesn’t seem to have that. She uses long exposure times and movement to deny her face to the camera and therefore be “any woman” in many of her poses. Many seem ghostly, a specter of the home, the eternal housewife-witch, or the liberated psyche in flight. In one series she seems to be locked in a Looking Glass much like Alice in Wonderland. I love this concept because I just love children’s books, children’s stories and spoofs on them. There are many things you could see in these photos if you let yourself stare into them long enough.

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Influenced Brook Shaden

Francesca Woodman has been a profound influence on people going into Fine Art Photography since, like my favorite photographer Brooke Shaden. You can obviously see the Woodman influence in her work. Even though Brooke uses color, it is usually desaturated and muted with sepia. Brooke has the benefit of being able to use Adobe Photoshop to further manipulate the images she takes where Woodman didn’t have that tool in the 80’s. Her work doesn’t look obviously manipulated or “photoshoped” though, like many photographers’ work does. I think that is why I admire it so much. It is truly fantasy Fine Art.

Brooke Shaden

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Does death bring fame?

The question is, Would Francesca Woodman’s work have been as well received and admired today if she had not tragically thrown herself from a window at 22, and lived on to do more and explore more in her medium? Are artists revered because they are dead or because they are good? Who knows?

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Artist's stories are compelling

I appreciate the stories and struggles that artists have to endure to make the mark in history that some of them have made. Many times it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I know that it seems like artists who are not very talented or who show no more talent than some others who did not achieve fame did, however it is a lot of chance, happenstance and who you know more than talent most of the time. In Francesca’s case, her tragedy was one of the factors that propelled attention in her art, as well as the grieving family she left behind.

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Artistic Comments Welcome

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 21 months ago from Fresno CA

      CorneliaMladenova,

      It is true. They even made a movie about it once where an artist and his friend fake his death and the friend makes tons of money while the artist is still hidden and painting pictures. But it all goes badly, of course and the friend is put on trial for the artist's murder. You know it wouldn't be such a bad idea if you could still live to enjoy the fame created by your death. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • CorneliaMladenova profile image

      Korneliya Yonkova 21 months ago from Cork, Ireland

      Have never heard about this great photographer. What a pity she had so tragic final. For me it is not surprise that many artists become famous after their death. I am more than sure that they are tracked by greedy art brokers and merchants and after the respective artist passes away, those awful people by their works at a very low price then sell for millions. :( Sad but true :(

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Thank you, Lawrence, that's very profound. I think Francesca would have agreed, although I'm not sure I to wholeheartedly. I would have loved her to stay around a little while longer. Thanks for your comments. They are always enlightening.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Denise

      The ancient Greeks used to say "Better a short life full of glory than a long one in obscurity" I think this fits woth this story.

      Lawrence

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      teaches12345,

      My pleasure. She had a fascinating way of expressing herself with the camera. Think what she could have accomplished now with the advent of Photoshop. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      This is quite an interesting post on art and the artist Woodman. I think the her art form expressed her well. Thanks for bringing this artist to our awareness.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      drbj,

      Yes, indeed. I hate that we were robbed of what more she could have brought by some depression that should have been treated. The mind is an awesome and scary thing. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 2 years ago from south Florida

      What a troubled soul Francesca was, and what a pity she left this earth too soon.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Rachel L Alba,

      Well, I know her boyfriend saw most of them before he broke up with her and her friend Slone did, and of course, her parents were her fans. I love in the video how her father said after seeing her photographs, that he felt his were immature and childish. He thought about never taking another photo as long as he lived. But in the end, after her death, he picked up his camera again and inspired by her work, began making photo art somewhat carrying on her legacy. That's nice. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      florypaula,

      Yes, maybe half the attention was because of and in the wake of the tragic end, but the other half truly enjoyed her point of view and the images she captured. You are right about artists capturing feelings, their own and sometimes touching those of the audience too. That's the thing about being human, we all share a common ground: our feelings. If a artist feels he/she has truly captured an emotion on canvas or whatever, then they're sure to touch the same feelings and emotions in the viewer as well. It's Art 101, always consider the viewer and direct the viewer's point of view and emotions. If you can do that successfully, you have made it! Thanks so much for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 2 years ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      How sad that someone could actually feel tortured in soul to end ones life. Her pictures portrayed that to me. I wonder how many people saw these pictures before she ended her life? Thanks for sharing, Denise

      Blessings to you.

    • florypaula profile image

      Paula 2 years ago

      I think artists also capture feelings or state of minds ... when someone takes a picture is almost as you could tell what state of mind that person was in: happy, sad, lost, foggy and so on. My opinion.

      It is so tragic that this girl died at such an young age. Her work seems dark and twisted but also really amazing. I am sure she would have had a lot more to "say" if she had more time to do so.

      I have also asked myself the same thing often, if maybe some artists become greater just because they died (any type of death). I don't know either, but I do feel that maybe some of them wouldn't have had the same success alive as they have it after death.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      peachpurple,

      You are right but like I said, artists tend to feel things really deeply and don't get over hurts very quickly. I know. I thought my heart would literally break when I suffered a loss... but I lived, remarkably. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      It sounds scary that arts could lead one not to accept failures

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Larry Rankin,

      I'm so thrilled that you like them. Actually I'm learning a lot too. I have read about all these guys before but when you write about them, it forces you to get more accurate about places and dates and I think, you remember better too. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Wonderful series of artist profiles. I'm learning a lot.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Dana Tate,

      It is like buried treasure or treasure lost... who know how much more she could have/would have done if she hadn't ended it all. Thanks for reading about her and commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Pollyanna Jones,

      It is an awful thing to have happened. I don't know why she felt she couldn't go on but it is a terrible tragedy. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      purl3agony,

      Yes, they are well known now. Isn't it a shame that there aren't time machines so artists could see into the future that their lives and work isn't a bleak as they think it is? Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      TristanDoes,

      True. My heart goes out to her family. What a crushing thing to have happen to such a creative person and artistic family. thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 2 years ago from LOS ANGELES

      I also never heard of Francesca Woodman. Her vision was intriguing to say the least and what a tragedy to die so young. When a gifted artist dies young, its like buried treasure. This was an enjoyable article.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image

      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      I'd not heard of this lady before your article, so many thanks for writing about her. She deserves to be known and remembered. Her photography is beautiful. What a tragedy she chose to end her life.

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 2 years ago from USA

      Great hub! Francesca's story is particularly sad because her photographs are now well known and her talent is greatly respected. At least she left an enduring legacy of her beautiful photographs. Thanks for sharing this insightful hub!

    • TristanDoes profile image

      Tristan 2 years ago from Indiana

      They are definitely interesting photos. It's a shame that she went out like that!

      Really cool pics, though.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image
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      Denise McGill 2 years ago from Fresno CA

      Elsie Hagley,

      My pleasure, and you are right about how her images make you think. I love art for that. I'm certainly glad I introduced her to you. Thanks for commenting.

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Very interesting article, I have never heard of Francesca Woodman, what a terrible way to end her life and so young.

      The photos sure give you food for thought as you said.

      Thanks for sharing her story with us.