The prize-winning documentary The Woodmans chronicles the histories of a family of artists through conversations, monologues, journals, and both fine art photographs and family snapshots. The film’s narrative, from its start with the marriage of George and Betty Woodman to its finish with their lives today, is marked by their daughter, photographer Francesca Woodman, whose reputation has skyrocketed in the decades after her suicide in 1981 at twenty-three years of age.
After the Tribeca Film Festival screening, director C. Scott Willis, unfamiliar with the art world before the project, told how he met the Woodmans socially. They told him they were the parents of the famous photographer, and Willis made the embarrassing error of asking if their daughter would mind talking to his daughter, who was studying photography. Out of that situation and the Woodmans’ account of what had happened, Willis was inspired to make The Woodmans.
“Why did Francesca jump off a building?” while never voiced, and positioned as one question among many, is addressed in the pained, incomplete way suicide is usually discussed. There is no “interviewer” or even unifying message or theme, just unobtrusive aesthetic shaping of the movement forward of lives.
Francesca’s precocity—many of her photographs were made in her teens—is attributed in the film to her immersion in art as she was growing up. However, the film underplays the centrality of sexuality to her and most women’s lives (Francesca experienced a romantic break-up before her death) and ignores the sexual politics of the declining women’s movement, which coincided with Francesca’s adolescence.
Since both George and Betty have been artists all their lives, there is necessarily much about their making of art. The parental Woodmans speak loftily of exhibiting to a wider public, but there’s material here for an indictment of the art world: the winner-take-all reward system, the commodification of artistic product (Francesca’s photographs financed tuition for a collector’s children), and the competition among artist friends and, yes, family. Yet, the background of well-appointed studios and a house with a pool in Italy could fuel enough lifestyle lust to gentrify numerous bohemias.
Francesca, who with little success tried commercial fashion photography and worked as a photographic assistant, does “talk” about money through a chorus of friends and her fashion photographs. Indeed, her parents bicker about whether being rejected for a National Endowment of the Arts grant contributed to her suicide. (George does mention that his father “helped the couple financially” but disapproved of his son’s marriage to a Jewish woman.) In a film about questions, some fall away in the family drama.
Yes, artists will find much to like in this film—sumptuous art, the quotidian discipline and physicality of art-making, a compelling score by David Lang—but the film also has much for feminists to ponder about the choice to parent.
The mother, Betty, emerges as the hero, directly addressing the responsibilities of mothering as they intersect with the self. She wanted to “experience” childbirth and mothering, but was terror struck when presented with her infant son, Charlie, Francesca’s older brother, who became a videographer; Betty says baldly, “Maybe I’ve been an absolutely horrible mother.”
She made her pots, used in the household but not to be broken, behind the family house while mothering young children. (Avoiding interruptions presents a challenge for any parent, or anyone, working at home.) Visiting art museums, the Woodmans habitually set the children loose with pads for copying art, while they looked at art uninterrupted. When Betty talks about her daughter, she seems more mother than artist. In contrast, George admits that his daughter’s intensity was what made her interesting to him. Originally an abstract painter, he is now working in photography. Near the end, Betty becomes the triumphant artist, when a commission is installed in the American embassy in Beijing.
The Woodmans started with a faux pas and records a generous baring of lives and scars. Finding answers is left for the audience—like life, or art.