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.