The Huffington Post

Elena Ferrante, Francesca Woodman, And Women Who Yearn To Disappear In Plain Sight

I haven’t read “Frantumaglia” yet, but, damn, the cover is powerful in itself.

Priscilla Frank

On the cover of Elena Ferrante’s highly anticipated upcoming book Frantumaglia, which translates to “self-portrait,” a young woman crouches beneath the window of a dilapidated house, her body cloaked in shards of wallpaper, peeled off into fragments, as flimsy as crepe paper.

It’s rare to encounter a wall, often understood as a rigid barrier more than a physical thing, in such a fragile state ― so easily broken, worn like a cloth.

The image is the work of Francesca Woodman, an iconic photographer who took her own life at 22 years old, when she jumped out of a window. It’s Woodman pictured in the photo, her figure blurred like a signature that’s not-so accidentally been smudged. The piece is a self-portrait, though Woodman’s image is purposefully and exquisitely obscured, her boundaries dissolved as if her body were spun of cotton candy instead of flesh.

Woodman’s image is a perfect foil to Ferrante’s words, as both women thoughtfully navigate the space between absence and presence, fame and anonymity.

Ferrante, for example, published her wildly beloved four-part Neapolitan Series under apseudonym, preferring to keep her identity anonymous. In a variety of interviews, Ferrante expressed her belief that the self-promotion required by artists and creators today ends up diminishing the power of their work. Stemming from a “desire for intangibility,” Ferrante opted to evaporate behind her richly textured characters and stories, which took on lives of their own.

Of course, her clearly stated desire was denied recently when Italian journalist Claudio Gatti outed Ferrante in the New York Review of Books, claiming that, because the author admitted to “lying on occasion,” she “relinquished her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.”

With his unwarranted and unwanted investigation, Gatti stripped Ferrante of her ability to hide in plain sight, as if the wall that once protected her was unceremoniously ripped down, haphazardly used to cover her exposed parts.


Woodman’s self-portraits also illustrate the intangible, depicting the moment when the delineated self gives way to something abstract and incorporeal. A body turned spirit, angel, or stain.

In her black-and-white images, which she referred to as “ghost pictures,” Woodman’s edges disintegrate, due to a skilled combination of long exposure shots, movement and time. If Ferrante sought to exist only in words and not in person, Woodman similarly strove to be only image.

I finally managed to try to do away with myself, as neatly and concisely as possible,” Woodman wrote in a note that accompanied an attempted suicide in 1980. The sentiment is eerily reminiscent of Ferrante character Lina Cerullo, who, in the prologue of My Brilliant Friend, disappears of her own volition without a trace, even cutting her image out of family photographs.

“She wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of sixty-six,” her best friend Elena writes upon hearing the news, “but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.” Determined not to let her win, Elena then begins writing the story of their lives, working to undo Lina’s absence. Woodman embodies elements of both Elena and Lina, the will to document her life and the desire to vanish from it.

Elena’s entire series, then, is an attempt to, through writing, provide Lina with, as she describes it, “a form whose boundaries won’t dissolve.” Woodman’s photographs, however, suggest such a thing is impossible.