by Tracy Bealer
While watching the 2010 documentary The Woodmans, I was reminded of the Yeats poem “Among School Children,” where he posits the seemingly unanswerable question, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” And the movie left me with some questions, of various answerability, of my own. The film centers on the surviving family of avant-garde photographer Francesca Woodman, who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of twenty-two.
Woodman’s body of work includes thousands of black and white images, many of herself, which focus on the female body in various stages of undress. The prints are exposed so as to make the figures seem ethereal, blurred, or otherwise impermanent. Woodman’s lack of early success as an artist, along with her documented struggles with depression, are a few of the narratives her family and friends offer for her suicide in the series of interviews that comprise the documentary. The film is, thankfully, less an attempt to “explain” Woodman’s death and more an investigation of how art and love can heal an unfathomable loss. (Both of Woodman’s parents, along with her brother, are also visual artists.).
Woodman’s mother Betty, a well-known ceramics sculptor, mentions her frustration with devotees of her daughter’s work who insist upon a biographical interpretation of the photographs, insisting that Francesca was most healthy when she was creating, and ceased taking pictures in the months leading up to her death. However, it is difficult to look at the images of Woodman produced of her naked body, distorted and vulnerable, and not imagine she was revealing something of her troubled mind.
This impulse reminded me of another female artist whose death seems entwined with feminist reception of her work: Sylvia Plath. The poet, novelist, and short story writer, who committed suicide in 1963 after a divorce from fellow poet Ted Hughes, wrote confessional poetry that lends itself particularly well to an autobiographical reading. Perhaps consequently, many young women have read her work, particularly her posthumously published collection Ariel, as an indictment of Hughes and proof he was complicit in, if not the cause of, her suicide. The biographical interpretation was so compelling to some readers that Plath’s married name was chiseled off her tombstone three times, and Hughes was mercilessly heckled and abused at public readings for years after his former wife’s death.
And I also can’t help but wonder if there’s a gendered component to this tendency. I have not come across similar readings of (or impassioned identificatory responses to) the work of Kurt Cobain or David Foster Wallace. For example, it is certainly possible to trace autobiographical elements in Wallace’s work, including his struggle with depression. However, I haven’t come across one analysis of Infinite Jest that suggests that narrow psychoanalytic reading is all his novel is about.
Is the image of a tragic young female suicide the twentieth-century equivalent of a male poet dying of consumption? That is, the de facto image of the tragically doomed, and therefore more emotionally genuine, artist? And what are the implications and consequences of young female artists identifying with, and conflating, suicide and artistic authenticity? In addition to Woodman and Plath, I’m also thinking about Virginia Woolf, Diane Arbus, and even “disputed” suicides like Frida Kahlo and Marilyn Monroe.
As an English professor, I am extremely hesitant to discourage any emotional connection my students feel towards a particular artist. So am I doing them a disservice by insisting upon a distance between the work and its creator? By drawing an arbitrary line between the dancer and the dance? But when I ask myself if reading Plath’s poems or Woodman’s photographs as autobiographical documents, or even suicide notes, diminishes their artistic value, the answer is: I think it does. After all, these women chose highly mediated modes of expression for even the most personal elements of self-expression (Woodman’s nude self-portraits, Plath’s confessional poems).
Artistic expression is not functional language—the way a restaurant menu is—it is symbolic language, meant to stand for more than its literal meaning. Additionally, understanding suicide to be the sine qua non of Plath and Woodman as artists reduces the complexity of their humanity to one desperate act.