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‘Am I trying to disappear?’: Self-Fashioning in the Works of Francesca Woodman and Phoebe Stuckes

A 1940s movie star glows against a black background. Her hair is loose around her shoulders but still holds the curve of the curling iron. She is wearing a silk bra and over it a gauzy negligée which hints at the shape of her limbs underneath. Her posture and sideways glance are full of cool glamour. Soft light plays on the greys of her form. Whether intentionally or not, the photo on the cover of Phoebe Stuckes’s first full length poetry collection, entitled Platinum Blonde (2020), bears more than a passing physical resemblance to Stuckes herself, as an inspection of the author photograph on the reverse will tell you. I suspect that this is intentional, confronting the reader with one of Stuckes’s potential personas—a variation on the ‘wise-cracking party girl’ who is the subject of this collection. The photograph connotes acting, disguise, playfulness – themes present in Stuckes’s poems that she employs to engage with early modern methods of self-fashioning, at the same time challenging historical depictions of women in early modern literature. In Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), Stephen Greenblatt defines self-fashioning as ‘the ability and willingness to play a role, to transform oneself […] into another’. While Greenblatt is referring to the Renaissance nobleman’s aim of fashioning a public persona to accrue success at court, two of the hallmark techniques used to self-fashion—self-awareness and theatricality—are present in Stuckes’ work. Her personas perform their own methods of being, successfully or otherwise; they are navigating the development of their identities. This photograph of the actress, Veronica Lake, performs just one of Stuckes’s many potential personas; through it, she hides in plain sight.

Although she worked forty years before Stuckes, the artist Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) engages with the same concerns and techniques of self-fashioning in her photography. Mostly using her own face and body, she creates personas who inhabit ambiguous spaces. Sloan Rankin, a friend and fellow student at the Rhode Island School of Design, quoted Woodman as saying that she used herself as a model out of convenience, because she was ‘always available’. While there’s a flexibility to directing your own body that must have been useful, this comment could reflect a facet of Woodman’s artist persona, a self-created myth of herself as wholly independent, embarking on a project of self-discovery. Her self-portraits never reveal themselves in a direct manner. They depict young women who seem aware of the watching camera, and whose forms are often naked but never straightforwardly so; they are usually partially obscured or hidden. I choose the term ‘naked’ rather than ‘nude’ because, through her self-portraits, Woodman engages with long-standing traditions of depicting women in fine art, usually depictions by and for men.

In Ways of Seeing (1972), his influential collection of essays on art criticism, John Berger argues that according to artistic conventions, ‘A woman must continually watch herself […] Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight’. The woman, therefore, can never look (except when she is assessing the impact of her own appearance on others); she is only to be looked at. Art historian Harriet Riches writes that, ‘by using her own body, Woodman […] collapses the strict binary of artistic agent and passive model’, challenging these conventions. Many of Woodman’s subjects gaze at their spectator, transforming the viewer(/voyeur) into the viewed; it can feel uncomfortable. In one of her many untitled photographs from her time spent at the Rhode Island School of Design, Woodman crouches over a large mirror, wearing a jumper but naked from the waist down. Her head, slightly blurred, is turned away from her own reflection as she looks up and out of the photo frame. It’s the same reflexive self-awareness that Stuckes displays, a sort of ‘Yes, this is me—what are you going to do about it?’ attitude. Her direct, challenging stare could not be further from the way women interact with mirrors in Renaissance paintings, where the mirror often provides an implicit criticism of woman’s ‘vanity’. As Berger notes, in Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders (1610), the nude Susanna looks at her reflection in a mirror while several old men, unbeknownst to her, gawk at her naked body. By contrast, Woodman is aware of the potential gaze of a (traditionally male) viewer, as well as being self-aware. She seems more interested in looking at this viewer than herself, meaning that they cannot enjoy looking at her body unchallenged; she provokes and questions our looking.

There is a theatricality to Stuckes’s verse which, like Woodman’s resistance of traditional modes of depicting women, provides a counterpoint to Renaissance poetry about women. In blazons such as ‘There Is A Garden In Her Face’ by Thomas Campion and ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’ by John Donne, the poets portion out the female subject into separate body parts, drawing attention to a list of physical attributes instead of viewing her as whole and complex. Stuckes plays with this tradition by using her own body as the subject of many of her poems, often in ways that highlight her sexuality. In ‘Scorpion’, the speaker fantasises about getting a tattoo ‘of something spiky and black / stamped somewhere private and soft, / like my inner thigh, a scorpion / threatening my cunt with its tail’. Stuckes’s use of the word ‘cunt’ is piercing, marking the sexual potential of the speaker’s body just as the tattoo would, yet it is Stuckes who controls this narrative. Writing ‘cunt’ for Stuckes is like Woodman’s unsettling stare: it’s as if she knows how some people will read her and her poetry, and she doesn’t care. Indeed, she embraces it.

‘Gold Hoop Earrings’, too, engages with this performative self-fashioning, its speaker deliberately seeking out an audience for her whims. She says, ‘I’m going to acquire / some gold hoop earrings and find someone / to film me talking and talking’. Where before the speaker’s brain ‘used to shut itself off and go quiet […] when he put his hands / on me’, she is now ‘talking and talking’, insistent on having her voice heard. The reference to ‘film’, moreover, turns the speaker into a spectacle made for others’ entertainment, someone who can receive others’ validation. While she invites this viewing, it also holds vulnerability; the refrain ‘I’m going to’, which is repeated throughout the poem, is in the future tense—the speaker hasn’t achieved this validation yet. Likewise, the vague pronoun ‘someone’ echoes the anonymity of ‘he’, suggesting that to some extent she is looking to replace the person she lost. Much as she would like to project an image of herself as triumphantly independent, therefore, she still needs ‘someone’: she cannot go too far alone.

Like Stuckes, Woodman draws attention to her body as a performative, theatrical space, testing its boundaries by melting into her environment and shaping herself around the spaces she inhabits. She prefers decaying, run-down settings for her photos: in Rome, an abandoned pasta factory; in Providence, an old dry goods store which she used as a living space as well as a studio. In From Space2 (1975-6), Woodman drapes peeling floral wallpaper over her naked body, obscuring her face so that her form almost becomes part of the dilapidated house’s décor. This draws the viewer’s eye to her naked stomach, which is lighter in colour than the rest of the room, yet we can also see her arm clutching the wallpaper to her hips, hinting at the physical work that goes into creating such an image. In these spaces, Woodman influences the surroundings as much as they influence her; one of her untitled works made in Providence in 1976 depicts her sitting, naked but for some Mary Jane shoes, on a chair in an otherwise empty room. On the floor to her right is a silhouette called a shadowgraph, which Woodman made by lying in photosensitive powder. The positioning of the silhouette does not line up with where Woodman is placed, suggesting its potential as another kind of persona. I particularly like this use of the powder because its multiplicity implies movement and possibility, even perhaps a sense of photography’s peculiar magic, as well as underlining the physically ‘fashioned’ aspects of her portraits. Here, Woodman leaves her print on her surroundings as much as they impress themselves upon her.

One of Woodman’s most famous works, Untitled, from Polka Dot Series, Providence, Rhode Island (1976), portrays a girl in a polka-dot dress who gazes at the camera. Her hair and eyes are dappled with shadow and the splayed fingers of her right hand cover her mouth, so her expression is ambiguous: is she startled? Bold? Guarded? All of these things? None? Her right thumb is invisible—is it in her mouth? If so, is this pose childish or sexualised? Her left arm and hand cover her breast, but it’s unclear whether she is revealing or obscuring her body from the viewer’s eyes. Perhaps she is playing to the male gaze; as John Berger argues in Ways of Seeing: ‘Men survey women before treating them […] To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it’. Woodman has interiorised this male gaze—she must be aware of the questions she is prompting—yet she creates a character whose motivations we can only guess at. By not providing us with a solution, that is, to her self-fashioning, she maintains supreme control over the viewer, offering us puzzles to solve instead of easy answers. As the writer Deborah Levy puts it, Woodman ‘gives us something to find’. She engages us with the question of her positioning, her choice of subject and setting and costume—but she never tells us what that ‘something’ is.

In Stuckes’s poem, ‘Francesca Woodman’, she imagines a kind of magic whereby if she looks ‘hard enough’ at her own reflection, she might ‘metamorphosize / into another girl, slender, a bushel of / brown hair over my shoulder’. Just as in ‘Scorpion’ or ‘Gold Hoop Earrings’, therefore, Stuckes’s poem allows her to explore alternative modes of being without having to commit to them. Indeed, the image of a polka-dot-clad Woodman with her thumb in her mouth could have provided Stuckes with a visual reference for her poem, ‘Thus I became a heart-eater’, where the speaker consumes a heart-shaped doughnut. She begins the poem by describing herself as ‘like an open flame / at Candlemas’, and ends by saying, ‘I swallowed and sucked the sugar / from my fingers, like a disgusting child at a fair.’ The image of the ‘flame’ is anticipatory in its ‘open[ness]’, the connotations of ‘Candlemas’—the festival when a church’s candles are blessed for the year—evoke a sense of spiritual peace. The transition to the deliberately provocative image of the ‘disgusting child at a fair’, accompanied by the sexual connotations of ‘swallowed’ and ‘sucked’, is startling, not just because of its juxtaposition with the opening of the poem, but also because of its hyperbolic tone. However, there’s a knowing quality to Stuckes’s use of hyperbole, as if she understands that the image and its excess are likely to trouble the reader, and she is completely fine with that; it seems that she is primarily fashioning herself for herself. This is the power Stuckes grants herself through her excess; that she becomes a ‘heart-eater’ on no one else’s authority but her own.

I discovered both of these artists in lockdown. Their works gave me something to think about beyond the four walls of my room—Woodman, by expanding the spaces she inhabited as if by magic, and Stuckes, by analysing her own desires and intentions with stinging wit. Their works unsettle you and make you reconsider your gaze. Like the self-fashioning poets of Elizabethan England, they are constructing personas, but rather than being motivated by ambition, they are exploring. Their power lies in the creation of potential identities; through their work, they are figuring themselves out.

Artwork by Sophie Kean


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