Monday, January 17, 2011

Portrait of the Artistic Family: The Woodmans

Francesca Woodman is the sort of artist collectors love—a precocious and prolific figure who died tragically young. Of course, one must always remember she was also someone’s daughter. In fact, her father George and mother Betty are also artists accomplished in multiple disciplines. Years after her death, the Woodman family dynamic resists easy description, even for her parents and brother, who explore their complicated feelings for the late Francesca in C. Scott Willis’s The Woodmans (trailer here), the winner of the Best New York Documentary Award at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Though from different backgrounds, the WASPY George and Jewish Betty made a perfect, art-obsessed couple. However, when pressed, they admit they might have been a bit self-absorbed with their work, perhaps not infrequently leaving the kids to entertain themselves. Still, it reinforced their conscious efforts to instill the value of artistic creation in their children. It definitely took with their youngest, Francesca.

Even before attending RISD, Francesca Woodman had largely developed her provocative photographic style. Often shooting faceless nude self-portraits, her sexually charged work would have concerned square bourgeoisie parents, but George and Betty found it interesting. Absolutely certain of her talent, the youngest Woodman was impatient for the art world to catch up with her. She was also clearly prone to depression, which ultimately destroyed her. Ironically though, her posthumous acclaim is nearly as difficult for her somewhat vain parents and more retiring brother to come to terms with.

Willis’s film is scrupulously nonjudgmental, capturing the lingering guilt and denial of the surviving Woodmans, without absolving or condemning them. Still, given the dehumanized eroticism of her work, it is difficult to understand why her parents were not more concerned at an earlier stage.

While Woodman’s photographs are powerful, if disturbing, her experimental videos seen throughout the documentary have not aged as well. Yet her prints consistently show a striking sense of composition and her bold contrast of soft gauzy subjects and harsh industrial backdrops remains quite potent.

The question whether Francesca Woodman could have lived a happier life had she been raised by more conventional parents hovers unasked over the film. That is a tough place to go. In all other respects, The Woodmans is a very honest documentary, eliciting some real soul-searching from her few friends and immediate family. David Lang’s spare but elegant original score performed by So Percussion also nicely compliments the difficult introspection unfolding on-screen. Sad but smart, the film’s appeal should transcend the hipster art world when it opens this Wednesday (1/18) at New York’s Film Forum.