The Woodmans

Francesca Woodman, Self-Portrait Talking to Vince (1975-1978); courtesy George and Betty Woodman

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As an artist, Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) gained more from dying young and staying pretty than she did in life when no dealer would take on her elegantly choreographed photographs of women, many of them self-portraits. Times have changed: Woodman’s undeniable talent, unapologetic narcissism and suicide are perfect fodder for the age of Oprah. Her posthumous reputation has eclipsed the achievements of the remaining members of the family: mother Betty, father George and brother Charles–artists all.

Francesca is at the center of C. Scott Willis’s The Woodmans (2011), a harrowing documentary that encompasses not only unspeakable tragedy, but the vagaries of the artist’s life and the self-absorption it can engender. Watching Betty and George tell the story of their daughter’s fate is difficult, not least because of their obliviousness to how an abiding fidelity to art can stunt a person’s ability to connect with other human beings.

A collective cringe went through the audience when George, as a means of continuing his dead daughter’s vision, was seen taking photographs of a young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Francesca. And that’s not the only moment in the film when you’re brought up short by the lengths–often unseemly, sometimes delusional and, in Francesca’s case, final–by which art is favored over life. A riveting movie, yes, and recommended too, but The Woodmans provides enough reason to think twice about the succor art ostensibly provides.

© 2011 Mario Naves

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