Francesca and George Woodman (Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival)
The story of how a director finds his subject is often an interesting one. When C. Scott Willis met Betty and George Woodman at a party in New York, he had no knowledge of who they were.
Granted, the Woodmans are not necessarily famous, except for in the art world — where they are both known as established artists. Betty Woodman had a critically acclaimed solo exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006. But besides being recognized for their contributions to contemporary art, they are also known as the parents of one of the most important, beloved and notorious photographers of the 20th Century — Francesca Woodman. There is hardly an art student in this country who is interested in photography and has not developed a mild obsession with Francesca’s work. This is mostly due to her phenomenal inventiveness and radical approach to the medium, which she applied to mainly black and white portraits of herself in the 1970s. It is also in small part due to the fact that Francesca’s life and work was tragically cut short in 1981, when she jumped to her death at age 22.
Francesca’s work is stunning in its sensitivity and inventiveness. Her images evoke an aura of surreal mysticism, often featuring her nude body in extroverted poses that nevertheless suggest fragility. As her photographs partially address coming of age melancholia, they are often conceived as “one long suicide note.” Willis’ thesis however, diverts from this literal reading of Francesca’s oeuvre and instead sets out to show that it was while and when able to work, that Francesca Woodman was the happiest and most settled in life.
Though the story of Francesca and its impact on her family (which further includes her older brother David) is the throughline of Willis’ film, he takes much care in presenting each family member as a serious and devoted artist in his or her own right. George started as a painter, but recently has found his way to photography, strangely continuing the aesthetic quest of his famous daughter. Betty is known for her unique ceramic work; and David is a talented multi-media artist. All are filmed in conversation with their work at hand (in Betty’s case we even see her work in her studio repeatedly), revealing how very important art has been and still is in each individual’s day-to-day existence.
It is clear that there is no separation between life and art in the Woodmans’ lives. In fact, the making of art comes first in this household and we learn much about how the Woodman’s children grew up with viewing “art as serious business.” Art is the breath of life here that holds them all together, binds them to each other, and gives them strength as individuals.
It is this sense of prevailing vigor, which Willis traces in all three members of the family that explains how their art and their dedication to processing emotions through their work has helped them to live with the tragedy of Francesca’s suicide.
One of the film’s treats is that Francesca herself comes to life. Willis presents a large selection of her photographs and experimental videos. He also repeatedly zooms in on Francesca’s diaries, lifting a few lines off the page to allow her to have a voice in this overall account. It makes for a very intimate and nuanced portrayal of both the famous artist and private person. This is complemented by Willis’ choice of interviewees, who besides the family only include people who knew Francesca personally. The tone would have been quite different if sequences would feature art professionals analyzing Francesca’s work for us.
It was Willis’ goal to make an “honest piece of biography” and he has accomplished that. The way the Woodmans talk about Francesca’s life and death, in parts intellectualized and somewhat rationalized, makes clear that this is an emotional terrain they usually do not discuss. Willis states that he did not want the film to reach a conclusion, and as is the case in life, there are no ultimate answers as to why this blessed individual took her life. But what Willis does give us is an outstanding example for how life sometimes echoes on.