On the death of a daughter
The life of late photographer Francesca Woodman and the frank observations of her artist parents
By Iain Millar. Features, Issue 221, February 2011
Published online: 07 February 2011
The mechanics of most dead artist biographical documentaries are usually fairly predictable. There’s the archive footage, the well constructed narration laying out the difficult early years, the mid period and the arrival (mostly) of one degree or another of success. Dealers and critics make respectful observations, friends reminisce. Often there’s the involvement of a producer (the one with the money to spend) who might be interested in seeing the artist kept in the market spotlight. It can be done well or it can be done badly, but the arc remains more or less the same.
The director of “The Woodmans”, C. Scott Willis, a veteran of many television news documentaries for the US network ABC and others, says that he is “more comfortable working in the world of armed conflict than the world of emotional conflict”. After watching his film one can sympathise.
“The Woodmans” is a portrait that has as much in common with the dysfunctional family crisis novels of Jonathan Franzen or Lorrie Moore as it does with a typical artist biography. And for all that, it’s ostensibly a work of fact—the story that it tells is a very partial account of grief, denial and pain that is as gripping and disturbing as any lauded work of fiction.
Francesca Woodman was an unknown 22-year-old photographer when she took her own life in New York in 1981. From 1986, following a retrospective of her work at the Wellesley College Museum, her star has risen and she is now regarded as an important artist whose death at such a young age robbed the art world of a great potential talent.
But while Francesca is the absent star of the movie, it is the principal supporting players—her artist parents George and Betty—who steal the show with their account of their own lives, their reactions to their daughter’s death and their take on what it means, to them at least, to be artists.
Francesca and her brother Charlie grew up in a household where art was everything to their ceramicist mother and painter father. An early quote from Betty spells it out: “I couldn’t live with someone who didn’t give making art the importance that I give it. I would just hate them.” For the Woodman children this meant summers spent touring Italian galleries where they would be sent off on their own with sketchbooks, and the constant worry that they might break one of their mother’s pots or plates, which were put to use around the house. Early childhood diabetes meant that Charlie nevertheless came under his parents’ close scrutiny, often leaving Francesca to fend for herself. By the time she was a teenager, her sense of self was such that she elected to go to boarding school. Her father gave her a camera to take with her and within a year she was making striking work. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she moved to New York, ambitious to make her mark. But she could find little outlet for her creativity and, after succumbing to depression, threw herself from the roof of a building. If this seems a hasty summary of her life, then it’s because it’s not Francesca Woodman’s story that is the most compelling part of the film (in many ways it’s an all too familiar, if sad, story), but rather her parents’ reaction to her talent, her suicide and her posthumous success.
Betty and George’s lives as artists are led with almost monastic rigour, and the clearly related sense that their children were expected to follow suit is never far from the surface. It’s only after nearly an hour that one’s instinctive sympathy for parents who have lost a child is undermined. It happens when George says to camera: “One of the chapters in my life is the loss of the person to whom I was greatly devoted. But I was greatly devoted to that person because of the characteristics that made her in some respects a fragile and vulnerable person… as a child, if she had been more interested in the peer girls and what people were going to wear to the high-school prom, I would not have found her so interesting or been so attached to her.” Is such a cold statement a reaction to long bottled-up grief? You want to think so. But then a little later he points out: “I had been producing paintings for years but had not really had much success in bringing them to the attention of the public. I had been invited to be in an exhibition of 19 artists at the Guggenheim Museum. Francesca killed herself five days before the opening. So when I felt this scattered life of mine was coming into focus, it was all scattered back again.” (After Francesca’s death, George turned to photography, and now makes work that seems like a pale imitation of daughter’s.)
In a similar vein, Betty, who has enjoyed more success as an artist than her husband, reflects that having Francesca’s posthumous success in their lives has been “wonderful… but it’s not always wonderful and at times it really rubs you the wrong way. Hey, I’m an artist too!”
Even her brother Charlie (less prominent in the film, also an artist) observes: “Some members of the family have achieved more commercial success in the art world or fame in the world of exhibitions or museums. Francesca’s already done that and Betty’s already done that. It can make some things that I’ve accomplished that are significant seem less significant than they are.”
“The Woodmans” is a survivors’ story with an uneasy edge. It’s hard, wrong perhaps, to judge others on the way they deal with great pain and loss or account for their own actions with hindsight. And perhaps much that would have put the surviving family members in a better light was left on the cutting room floor. But what was said to camera remains. And maybe to put that on public record is not the best way to deal with what is, ultimately, a very private tragedy.
The Woodmans is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Centre, Chicago, 11-17 February; the Jacob Burns Film Center, Pleasantville, New York, 16 February; the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 18-24 February; the Northwest Film Forum, Seattle, 25 February-3 March; The Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 10-13 March
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