Francesca Woodman’s reputation was sealed after she threw herself from a New York loft window in 1981. She was 22.
Her suicide followed a failed relationship and frustration with the lack of recognition that her arresting monochrome photography received. Much of Woodman’s practice focused on the female form, employing both models and herself as the subject.
In this image Woodman’s body is turned away from the viewer, soft flesh blurring out of focus – a trademark of her photographs – but the real interest of this image lies in the juxtaposition of her body with the alien form of an eel, sinuous curves suggesting a correspondence between the two.
The body here possesses the same mysterious sexual allure found in Edward Weston and Man Ray’s female nudes, but Woodman forgoes their focus on contemporary women to address the mythology of two archetypal femme fatales: Eve and Lilith.
The eel’s body is starkly black and white, and its coiled shape suggests readiness to attack. Instead of shying away from this potentially dangerous creature, Woodman’s figure is posed carefully around it, at once framing the eel and holding it in an artful embrace.
Rather than evoking an external encounter between the identities of male and female, Woodman’s image conveys a recognition of the eel as a shadow-self, of sexuality as an externalisation of inner creative energy. Her body’s slight movement suggests she is trying to imitate the eel’s arc, and the phallic fish is contained in a round bowl evocative of the feminine.
But, while the traditionally threatening image of the eel is diminished by the photograph’s revision of the sexual impulse, an element of tension remains – we cannot see the woman’s face.
We cannot know whether she feels herself to be under attack, experiencing pleasure, or simply dissolving from woman into eel. Therefore we cannot ascertain the true nature of the dynamic between the two bodies. The ambiguity of the artist’s presence is haunting, suffusing the image with irresolvable mystery.
Untitled (from Eel Series), 1977-78