Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Last year I saw the 1975-81 photographs of Francesca Woodman for the first time when they came through San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, and was suitably blown away. Forget for a moment that she took most of her staged photos of herself, nude and ghostly, when she was still a teenager. Forget as well that she killed herself at the age of 22. Her work, as was posthumously discovered, and which Woodman herself knew from an early age, speaks for itself as innovative, confrontational and abstractly weird and way ahead of its time. When I learned that a documentary had been made in 2010 on her life, legacy, and how her artistic family helped shape who she became - for better and for worse - I figured I should probably check it out.

"THE WOODMANS", directed by Scott Willis, is a moderately decent documentary that nonetheless falls well short of explaining this complex woman and the forces that shaped her. The reason I enjoyed watching it is because it shows Francesca Woodman's photographs and videos over and over again, and her limited body of work is still incredibly stunning to behold. We learn that she was so driven and tormented by her own talent that she worked at it up to 24 hours a day - wrapping herself in wallpaper; posing on the floor in flour and then removing herself, as in at a crime scene outline; covering her arms with white birch and photographing them next to white birch trees, and so on. She shows how the truly gifted artist is just born with it. Her artistic temperament and talents eclipsed even those of her parents by the time she was a teenager, yet she veered off into a semi-disturbing vain exploration of sexuality and gothic themes, all with herself as her own muse.

Her parents, Betty and George, were and remain very talented in their own rights, and though reasonable people can disagree, I don't think they had a whole lot to do with the death of what I believe was probably a manic-depressive daughter in an age before well-tuned medication. I'm glad the film didn't go down the path of portraying them as overbearing, flighty/artsy parents who forced her into the life she chose. That said, they themselves are actually not all that interesting as people. Their explanations of "their art", as good as it is, and of "the artist's temperament", are trite and dull. The film lingers on their tentative, cautious statements as if they're being handed down on high from the Oracle of Delphi, and what follows out of their mouths is barely coherent or interesting. These are visual, not verbal, people.

Certainly I wish we could have learned more about Francesca while she was around, but she was reduced to taking fashion photos for a big photography house, when, as the head of that house realizes later, "We had one of the great artists of the 20th century working alongside us all along and didn't know it". This documentary is decent enough and a good introduction to Francesca Woodman's work, but is very flawed as a film and definitely deep in a third tier of documentary craft.