Humanizing The Mythology of The Artist: The Woodmans at Film Forum

by Will Brand on January 21, 2011 · 8 comments Reviews

Francesca Woodman, the precocious photographer who tragically committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22, is today widely known; she's had solo shows at major museums, is represented by blue-chip galleries, and has received critical attention from the likes of Rosalind Krauss and Benjamin Buchloh. She forms, in many ways, a perfect artist stereotype — young, intense, sexy, dead — and so has grown an outsized myth as a sort of Van Gogh for the late 20th Century. C. Scott Willis’s The Woodmans, on now at Film Forum, refuses to feed this myth. Rather, it is a carefully drawn, at times wrenching family portrait, and a biopic only in the negative: we’re told the basic biographical facts, yes, but most of our impression of Francesca comes from the void left in the people she left behind. They’re remarkably candid when interviewed, and their pain and confusion is still apparent 30 years after her death. Willis lets this play out largely without comment, treating an easily-romanticized story with just the right amount of understatement and maturity.

Though the title is a misnomer — one Woodman obviously has top billing — Willis does introduce us to Francesca's parents as artists and people independent of their daughter. Still vibrant but passing 80, the elder Woodmans are reasonably successful artists themselves, with a ferocious work ethic – at one point, her father speaks disdainfully of the idea of a working artist having hobbies. It’s clear they hoped to instill the same values of expression and industry in their children (Francesca’s brother is a video artist). George, the father and an abstract painter, seems to have been closest to Francesca: he dotingly tells the camera about her youthful enthusiasm for art, her wonderful eye and early accomplishment, while showing us a series of early childhood sketches that to any eyes but a dad's would look wholly typical. Betty Woodman, Francesca’s ceramicist mother, makes a much more conflicted figure. We’re never quite put at ease with Betty, the more successful of the two artist-parents, and her answers seem defensive: often, unprompted, she asks rhetorically whether she was a bad mother, or ignored her daughter for her career, always answering herself with “No”. It’s clear that her relationship with her daughter was more complicated, more competitive, and that Betty most of all has not fully come to terms with Francesca’s death. When asked about possible reasons for her suicide, it is Betty who blames Francesca’s boyfriend, and George who remembers she had had a grant application rejected that day; this seems telling. Unsurprisingly, both artists mention using their art as a mechanism for coping with grief.

Francesca herself emerges only slightly idealized, a worthy achievement given the general reportage of her story. She was headstrong, self-absorbed, and immensely driven: this we knew from her standard artist-myth. Willis, though, softens these traits into a believable young woman. The nudity in her photographs that we might have read as confrontational or militant is transformed by the accounts of her friends into merely an expression of her openness; in an archival video of the making of one image that seems to speak to loneliness and loss, we hear Francesca beaming about how well it’s turning out. It’s not the sort of stuff you’d include to portray her as an unstable genius – it’s the sort of stuff you’d include to portray her as a roughly normal, if talented, young woman, with a self-aware practice and a healthy work ethic.

Where he avoids the myth of the tortured artist there, however, Willis buys into it at other points. Francesca herself is repeatedly called one of the best photographers of the 20th Century, despite producing only about five years of work.  Artists are described as “special”, the art world “wasn’t ready” for Francesca’s work – such routine ideas about the art world crop up often, probably because Willis is himself an art-world outsider.

The Woodmans has some obvious exclusions. Most glaringly, Francesca’s posthumous success is written off as being simply a matter of the art world ‘discovering’ her work, and rewarding her in proportion to its quality. Of course, this is not really what we do in the art world: artists might be born, but famous artists are made. Francesca Woodman's BFA work received a prominent solo show, with a catalogue including Abigail Solomon-Godeau and Rosalind Krauss, a mere five years after her death; the story of how that happened, who made Francesca Woodman famous, and why they did so, is left out. It’s not that there’s anything suspicious about Francesca’s posthumous fame – as the film makes clear, it seems to be exactly what she would have wanted — but only that it would have been an interesting story to hear.

One of the most important figures in her life – her boyfriend at RISD, artist Benjamin Moore – is neither interviewed nor discussed in any detail. He obviously declined any part in the film, but choosing not to examine him at all leaves out a crucial part of the story for two reasons: Moore’s relationship with Francesca Woodman was clearly a factor in her emotional state, and he is still actively selling and loaning out Woodman’s work. It would have been interesting to see that explored.

Ultimately, The Woodmans is a good film. By the low standards of art biographies, it’s an incredible film. It tells the story it wants to tell – of a family drama, the loss of a child, and art's capacity to both antagonize and heal – well, though at times Francesca’s work approaches mere ornamentation for the main story. The interview style time and again lets pauses in the conversation simmer and simmer until emotion boils over, and the resulting rawness produces some of the film’s best moments. The music is excellent if you are a wind chime enthusiast. The Woodmans is showing at Film Forum through Tuesday, February 1st.

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  • Carrie

    Thank you for writing about this. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and you make several interesting points. I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea that the boyfriend continues to make money from her photographs, particularly as he was an active contributor to her emotional state. I would like to think he could make money elsewhere rather than profiting from her work.

  • image maker

    Mr. Brand you state that “Moore’s relationship with Francesca Woodman was clearly a factor in her emotional state, and he is still actively selling and loaning out Woodman’s work. It would have been interesting to see that explored.” But, you offer no proof that Mr. Moore has done what you said. In the film, even Francesca Woodman’s friends said that Mr. Benjamin Moore tried to stay as a friend to her. Some of Ms. Wooman’s acquainatnces have sold her work. One acqauaintance sells her work to pay college tuition for his daughter; but, it was not Mr. Moore.  

  • Jane

    I find Francesca Woodmans photos incredibly captivating.They are right up my alley,I just really like the style and mood of them, that dreamy atmospheric vibe.They have been called enigmatic,ethereal,haunting–just really creative and interesting.Some ofthem are downright disturbing.In her younger years it seemed as if she was just full of raw talent but later something just broke and if some of the images reflect psychological states they could be seen as downright depressing.
    What is interesting to me is that I was also in high school photography around the same time as her,the late 70s ( I am two years younger.) I thought I was pretty talented but geez,compared to her stuff mine was just really generic,with the standard ‘poses’ and such.I wish I had experimented more.I certainly never explored the idea of fooling around with exposure times and such,wow wish I had.I wish I had done more self portraits,just seen myself in different lights.I think I had inclinations toward surrealism and such but just was too young and unaware to explore it.I wish I had just gotten more creative with the self portraits.They would have been nice to have years later—

  • http://twitter.com/ellelunette Lori

    Wow.  o

  • http://twitter.com/ellelunette Lori

    Wow, one of those times where you wonder if you saw the same film as the reviewer!  I came away disturbed by Mr. Woodman’s relationship with Francesca. I believe Ruth is painfully aware of her contributions to the tragedy, as well as those of others in Francesca’s life. She states clearly that she can’t live in that place and get through the rest of her time on earth, however.

    I saw Ruth as a woman who’s come to terms with ambiguity, guilt, loss, maybe even betrayal, and makes her art with all of that. My background is as a psychotherapist, and when I saw the art George makes now it made me very, very uncomfortable. The imagery he uses holds a very different theme than the nudity of his daughter. His young bare breasts are paired with virginal pigtails and peter pan collars, and layered on his naked young daughters image. Middle aged men producing art like that talks a loud sound, imo, and not at all the one his daughter made. the fact that he blurs these together without consciousness speaks to something scary to me.

    Then when he talks about Francesca’s life I see at the very least a projection of a womanhood onto a young girl. The fact that a 14/ 15 year old girl is a. comfortable publishing nude photos of herself from day one of shooting, combined with b. the fact that she was dating a “much older” man and staying with him at that age could be indicators of an experience with blurred adult/ child boundaries. Like when her father talked about wanting to see the museums without “kids hanging around their necks,” andj how brilliant she was with her camera, much  better than he was.

    One of her friends mentions her competition with her parents to “succeed.” She learned the lessons they taught her too well, it seemed to me. I’m surprised no one else has mentioned these elements, almost like it’s the elephant in the room. Very curious, to me, anyway.

  • Maia Reim

    I just saw the film last night and it was revelatory for me. I think that her parents, particularly Betty, each deserve a look at their artwork. But for me, the interest is in Francesca’s brief creative period and I would like to see a documentary that focuses primarily on her work. I too, am disturbed by the derivative direction that her father has taken with photography.

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