It’s one of the fundamental questions of art. Who is a work of art ultimately about, the artist or the audience? In film we have the auteur theory, which argues that a movie is the creation of a single author, and that to understand that author is to better understand that movie. Our interpretation of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography and its recurring theme of wrongful imprisonment is enhanced by our knowledge of a story from Hitchcock’s childhood; his father had him locked up in a local jail for a couple hours to teach him a lesson. Hitchcock was scarred for life, but that scar produced some wonderful movies. So that brings in a second fundamental question: are the best artists the ones who are the most emotionally damaged?
Both of these questions are at the core the new documentary “The Woodmans,” a thought-provoking look at one troubled family of artists and their need to express themselves. Francesca Woodman committed suicide at the age of 22 after producing some of the most fascinating photographs of the 20th century. Was her work a cry for help or simply a darkly beautiful point of view of the world? Did her need to compete with her parents, both artists themselves, compel her need to create? “The Woodmans” by director C. Scott Willis offers no simple answers to these questions. He isn’t interested in absolving or indicting this family, but rather uses them as a case study to try to understand what makes an artist an artist.
Husband and wife George and Betty Woodman have been married for 54 years. George is an abstract painter, Betty a potter. They had two children: Charles, who grew up to become an experimental electronic artist, and Francesca, a photographer. Francesca, arguably the most talented member of the family and inarguably the most emotionally troubled, killed herself in 1981.
“The Woodmans” is filled with Francesca’s photographs, which are moody and surreal images of nude women, many of whom were portrayed by Francesca herself. Betty believes her daughter’s work was not autobiographical, but “The Woodmans” uses Francesca’s photographs as the visual accompaniment to the story of her life up to and including George’s recounting of his daughter final, tortured months, and they do not seem out of place in that context. But perhaps that’s my interpretation, and not Francesca’s intent.
When Charles and Francesca were young, the Woodmans consumed art the way most families consume food: creating and studying it was absolutely essential to their existence. We imagine children’s lives enriched by early exposure to culture. But maybe this particular family’s zeal for art pushed past love into something closer to obsession. When the Woodmans would go to a museum, George says, Charles and Francesca would be given a notebook and a time and place to meet so he and Betty could enjoy the art “without the children around our necks.” Director C. Scott Willis cuts between George and Betty’s interviews and footage of the pair working on their art, juxtaposing their babies with their “babies.” We see how incompatible an artist’s life can be with a parent’s life: the artist must be devoted entirely to one’s self and one’s impulses, which can leave little time or room for loved ones.
Am I suggesting George and Betty neglected their daughter and are therefore responsible for her death? Absolutely not. But George and Betty have clearly wrestled with guilt over Francesca’s suicide; in their darker hours, they may still wrestle with it (“Maybe I’ve been an absolutely horrible mother. I can’t go back and rewrite it,” Betty says at one point). Throughout the process Francesca herself remains something of a mystery, but that’s appropriate given the fact that “The Woodmans” is about her family and friends reflecting back on her life and her work and trying to make sense of her decisions. Francesca’s words, taken from her journals, leave nearly as large — and nearly as ambiguous — an impression as her photographs (“I am so vain and I am so masochistic. How can they coexist?”).
Perhaps the most moving part of “The Woodmans” is George and Betty’s creative reaction to Francesca’s death. Both changed dramatically as artists — maybe even improved as artists — in the wake of the tragedy: George took up photography after years of abstract paintwork while Betty abandoned functional pottery for more whimsical creations. Now she has an enormous mixed media piece hanging in the new American embassy in China. Betty says the most common reaction she gets to her work these days is joy; when people talk about her art with her they say it makes them feel “better.” The Woodmans may not believe in autobiographical impulses in artists’ work. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see them in theirs.