Francesca Woodman was not a survivor. Or, rather, the photographer who—along with her parents, Betty and George Woodman—is the subject of The Woodmans, is a survivor of a different sort. Precocious, ambitious, and deeply disturbed, she committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22; her work was discovered in the late ’80s and she has since been hailed as a prodigy.
A body artist who used photography as her medium, Woodman was more expressionistic (and artier) than older contemporaries Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Nan Goldin; she made elegantly povera nude self-portraits and rawer Portapak performance videos as a form of psychodrama that concealed as they revealed. Even during her brief life, she was a cult figure. Woodman amazed classmates when she entered RISD in 1975: “There was a real rock-star quality to Francesca,” one recalls in C. Scott Willis’s documentary. “Her concepts were far beyond the level of the class.” As The Woodmans makes clear, however, Francesca had been schooled to be an artist all her life.
In a way, the film is a tragic version of Lena Dunham’s recent indie hit Tiny Furniture. Raised in Colorado, the second child of a strong-willed ceramicist and a stubbornly unfashionable abstract painter, Woodman and her brother, Charles, himself a video artist, were brought up by true believers in the church of art. Their parents’ faith was absolute. To hear Betty state that she’d “hate” anyone who didn’t take art as seriously as she, or George complain bitterly about his lack of recognition, is to appreciate the pressure on their daughter—indeed, when Francesca moved to New York, her parents followed her.
Willis, who has had a long career as a TV documentarian, allows time for Betty and George to struggle with their feelings on camera. Francesca is also heard, not only in the girlish voice of her video pieces, but through excerpted journals. Her parents question their self-absorption, a trait clearly passed on. Francesca wonders how she can be both vain and masochistic and frets even more than her dad about a stalled career. George suggests that Francesca’s fatal depression was triggered by a failed NEA application and further notes that she jumped to her death less than a week before his big break: inclusion in a group show at the Guggenheim.
Ultimately, The Woodmans is a haunting study in family dynamics. After Francesca died, Betty switched from functional to fine-art ceramics; even more dramatically, George began photographing young women posed in the nude. The Woodmans leaves the impression that this tough, tireless, weirdly competitive couple regards their doomed genius child as their greatest work of art. There’s a famous Diane Arbus photograph in which a pair of elderly, incredulous parents stare up at a son so huge that their apartment can barely contain him. The Woodmans is that picture.