By Caitlyn Collins | April 13, 2011
Director: Scott Willis
Death and art are hardly strangers to one another. In fact, one could argue cases were they have been tragically complimentary. Death often becomes the very catalyst for success, recognition or even acceptance artists were unable to achieve in life. (The tortured artist concept is so cliché, I almost feel ridiculous just having written it down.) The Woodmans, directed by C. Scott Willis, is, thankfully, not so much a documentary about the tortured (was she always?) young soul of Francesca Woodman; rather it is a documentary about her life and how she lived it. Most importantly, it focuses on what it means to be a member of the Woodman family.
Interviews with George and Betty Woodman provide the bulk of information on their family as well as interviews with Charlie Woodman, their eldest child, childhood friends of Francesca’s and college classmates. All are pieced together to portray Francesca’s life as a member of an artistic family and her struggles to find her own artistic voice independent of her parents and brother. Interspersed throughout the interview footage are Francesca’s own photographs, videos and writings from her personal journals. This documentary is worth viewing for Francesca’s photographs and video footage alone. The haunting original score by Lawson White really ties the entire film together.
The Woodmans begin their family story by describing their differing backgrounds; she a Russian-Jewish girl from Boston and he a WASP (his term) from New Hampshire. George describes them both as isolated people, neither of whom had very many friends. They started a family, much to the dismay of each of theirs, simply because that is what young married couples were expected to do in the 1950’s. The sense of isolation described by George never really seemed to dissipate while raising their children. Betty sculpts and George paints; both discuss their work as what they had to do. There was no question as to what was to be done with one’s day…art had to be created. Various childhood friends and neighbors seem to recall Betty always in the back of the house working clay. If they weren’t in their respective studios, they were often viewing art in museums while the children were given notebooks and pencils and sent off on their own. It is one of these very museum trips where Francesca seems to have begun her fascination with the female nude.
Before Francesca went off to boarding school, her father gave her one of his spare cameras. She seems to have had almost a manic attitude toward photography after this. She’s hardly ever described or remembered as being without it by any of the interviewees. In fact, one Rhode Island School of Design classmate, Sloan, became alarmed when Francesca called her shortly before her first suicide attempt to tell her she wasn’t taking any pictures. One summer Francesca stayed behind while the family went off to their Tuscan home, a place where she spent a good portion of her childhood. The images from this time period comprise a collection of mostly nude self-portraits, a theme that continued throughout her short career. She is described by one of her RISD classmates as having a “rock star quality”, showing up to art school knowing exactly who she was and what she wanted as an artist. Sadly, she did not achieve what she craved most from her photography, recognition. Many interviewed describe her as wavering between anger and melancholy because of this.
During this time, each of the Woodmans continues pursing their own artistic endeavors, and there seems to be, without question, a real competitive edge in the family. One that continues to thrive as some members have achieved more acclaim than others. And this is really one of the issues Willis tries to address. This and guilt. Are the Woodmans guilty? Are they responsible in any way for the death of their daughter? Have they even faced these issues? These are, I can only imagine, questions every parent faces when confronted with the suicide of their offspring. I do not believe Willis raises these questions to place blame in anyway, rather, there is an interest in capturing how life has gone on for the Woodmans. Inevitably this means delving into how they each handled the death of Francesca. This, of course, involves their artwork; it’s interesting how it changed for each of them. And it’s fascinating that Francesca Woodman continues to live on through the world of photography. Her works of art have retained their criticality and have provided her with a cult-like following in the art world. Each of the Woodmans lives on in their art.