09 August 2012

The Woodmans

Francesca Woodman made visionary photographs. She created a body of work that her peers and parents recognized for their specific genius, and that have since gained worldwide renown, been collected by major museums, ripped off by fashion photographers and form the basis for a cult. She’s big on Twitter. Much in the same way young female poets have to contend with Sylvia Plath, young female artists wrestle with Francesca Woodman’s visions.

She achieved this before she committed suicide at 22 by jumping off a tall building in New York. The suicide, like it or not, adds the glamour of death to her story, as it does for Ian Curtis, Adrienne Rich or Vincent Van Gogh.

The Woodmans is a documentary about her family. Her father, mother and brother are all artists themselves. None of them, as they themselves note ruefully, have reached anything like the acclaim of Francesca. They’re collected; they’re in the Whitney and so on, but: not that famous.

Betty, a Russian Jew from Boston married George from New Hampshire and Harvard. George’s family, classically WASP, refused to have anything to do with him after the marriage. They moved west, got jobs at the university in Boulder and had children, first Charlie, now a video artist, and then Francesca. “Gift/calamities,” as George calls them.

Betty and George – “so very married” as Francesca would write in her diaries – share a fierce commitment not only to art, but to living life esthetically. They eat from the dishes Betty, a ceramicist makes. Their house in Boulder is a modernist art installation as much as a home.

"Our children learned that art is a very high priority; you don’t mess around. They learned this is a very serious business at an early age, " Betty says. The couple buys a farm in the hills outside of Florence. They send the children to the Uffizi with notebooks so the parents can work undisturbed.

Betty’s ceramics are functional, cheery, decorative. George’s paintings are abstract, cool, about pattern and repetition.

At 13, Francesca receives a medium-format camera as a gift from her father. She starts taking photos and never really stops until the end of her life. They’re mostly self portraits, mostly nude, dreamlike, gritty, mysterious, personal, Dionysian, even. "My art is about myself, for a lot of wrong reasons," wrote Francesca Woodman in her journal.

That is, everything her parents’ work is not.

Yet they recognized the brilliance of her photographs immediately.“She was so good; she made my own work look kind of stupid,” George Woodman says. “I wouldn’t mind getting a bigger slice of that cake myself.”

After boarding school at Phillips Andover, Francesca arrived at the Rhode Island School of Design a fully-fledged artist with a distinct vision. She worked hard. Her fellow students were awed and impressed. She was “intense,” “dramatic,” a “rock star.” Some loved her.

Next, she went to New York. Her parents had also recently moved there wanting to jump start their careers.
Francesca struggled, couldn’t find work, didn’t get a major gallery show, ended up assisting a fashion photographer. A breakup with her boyfriend triggered depression. Suicide attempts followed. Her parents “babysat” her, and found her a therapist who in turn prescribed medication. She seemed to do better. Then, late January, she threw herself from the top of a building.

The story turns back to the family and friends. The friends choke up when they speak of Francesca’s suicide. George and Betty know what the filmmaker’s up to, respectful as he is and as the documentary is. They do not shed tears. Betty’s eyes harden. It’s a subject she won’t deal with. Period. George, haunted, won’t say much either. Old school. Or, wary survivors.

After their daughter’s death, Betty stops working. Then she turns away from functional to fine art ceramics.  George reacted differently to her death, as Betty notes with a hint of a mother’s jealousy of a daughter’s place. He couldn’t focus, then turned to Emily Dickinson’s poems.

The film shows George at work. He’s taking photographs now with a medium-format camera of young women who are frequently nude. The model in the film is reminiscent of his daughter. The photos themselves are layered, lush and sensuous.

As the film draws to a close, we see Charley arrive at the Tuscan farm with his wife and child. Betty’s commission at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing goes up, an exuberant mish mash of color.  We see the surviving Woodmans in the lobby, robust in old age, he a hale country doctor from New England, she, an indestructible babushka in striped socks and sandals.

The documentary, directed by Scott Willis, is lucid and respectful. It’s an authorized version. He had access to Francesca’s diaries. Her words float up out of the notebooks. He features her photographs throughout. She made some videos as well, and he uses these to great effect, the soft-edged black-and-white VHS dusty and ghostly. We hear her voice, surprisingly girlish.

It’s a tasteful film, made up of well composed shots and close ups, mostly of George and Betty, and it remains their story, finally. It’s brisk, too, clocking in at 82 minutes. Formally, it’s straightforward – talking heads, the subjects working, the subjects at home, archival material, well crafted. It pulls back at key moments and lets you draw your own conclusions, or makes you fill in the blanks.

It leaves several unanswered questions. The main one is: Why did she do it? The suicide itself, as central as it is to the story, is handled briskly. There’s very little description of her last few months. The parents resolutely do not want to open the door to any theorizing. She got sick. We tried to help. She died.

In some ways, the whole situation reminded me of a lost, American Thomas Mann story. Art can kill. It's a fatal disease, a kind of Dr. Faustus bargain with the devil, a virus that destroys. Or: is it art that's responsible, or a blind devotion to art above all else that can be as destructive as greed or sexual fixation? What is art worth? How much should you be willing to devote to creating great work? We routinely say whatever it takes, and then most people are too lazy to follow up with that commitment. But what is it worth to get into the permanent collection of the Whitney? To be an art star -- that is, to be collected by the fashionable and the rich? Is that the measure?

Let's say, we're all Zen and it's all about the work. So, are the pleasures and pains of creating something in the studio and the discipline and time spent in that worth, say, a daughter? A son? We generally see art as a positive good, or even in our secular times, as the ultimate good. But what does it cost?

Assuming that depression led to the suicide -- and, let's be clear, suicide and depression don't have to go together -- but assuming that her depression was the cause: would she have been diagnosed earlier? If you examine the work by Francesca, does it seem moody and alienated in a modern way, a romantic kind of fascination with the dark? Or can/should you reduce them to being symptomatic?

Can the exquisite kill? I'm not implying that the Woodmans themselves exhibit the kind of hysterical refinement you see in The Pillowbooks of Sei Shoganon. But what would be the consequences of pursing a purely aesthetic existence above all else? Is there a point when it crosses over from enriching daily life to becoming a weight, a heavily enforced obligation to make each moment a kind of epiphany of beauty?

The levels of pain that George, at least, must have endured, can only evoke sympathy. But somehow, you can't help but judge, weigh, and wonder.

In the end, it terrified me. Deaths of children do that to me. I felt both sorrow and pity, and, I have to say that a few times I found myself thinking that they, the survivors, were monstrous mediocrities – but how much they had worked to make it there, how truly brilliant and accomplished they are. And yet, they’re only going to be Salieris to Francesca’s Mozart. And they know it.

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