It's hard not to imagine Francesca Woodman's own interest in art as somewhat vexed.
Real things don’t frighten me, just the ones in my mind do.
-- Francesca Woodman
"I wish I didn’t waste my patience so endlessly in my living life because there is never enough left for study or play." In her journal entries, Francesca Woodman sounds much as you might imagine, based on her photography. Or more precisely, she sounds this way in the entries selected for The Woodmans, entries that alternately corroborate, complicate, and challenge other people's memories of Francesca.
As its title suggests, the other people in C. Scott Willis' documentary are primarily her family, her parents Betty and George, and her older brother Charlie. Artists themselves, the Woodmans consider the complex and unresolvable questions surrounding Francesca's brief life and bracing art. It's clear enough that the stakes of art are high for all of them. Charlie, an associate professor at the Electronic Art at the University of Cincinnati, remembers a childhood shaped by his mother's sculptures (she made "practical" art for a long time, plates and jars: "I managed to do it around the children," she says) and his father's painting. "My mother," he says, "art is the religion for her." She puts it another way: "I couldn’t live with somebody who didn’t give making art the importance that I give it. I just would hate them."
It's hard not to imagine Francesca's own interest in art as somewhat vexed. But the film cautions against projecting your readings onto her, as an individual. As it traces her chronology -- her time at her parents' homes in Boulder. Colorado and Florence, Italy, her semesters at RISD, and her efforts to work in New York's fashion industry -- it doesn’t pretend to understand what she felt or thought about her work. It does, however, let her friends and family go on about it. Childhood friend Patricia Swain remembers the Woodmans' conviction that "The valuable thing to do with your life is create art." And it's this tension, between your interest in the frankly mesmerizing Francesca and your discomfort watching people talk about her that makes The Woodmans so unusual. Where so many documentaries let you assume the truthfulness of their subjects, here you're more inclined to wonder.
This wondering has to do with the possibilities of art per se (photos, documentaries, plates). It has to do with occasional moments that seem edited to make a point (it closes on George's observation about a child's coffin: "I'm afraid some poor child has departed"), it keeps its distance from the art. Your wondering also has to do with the visible difficulties subjects have talking about Francesca. Having endured her suicide -- at 22, she jumped off a building in New York -- they are plausibly troubled. After all, they observed her as she struggled, so visibly. The film intimates these struggles with her images (mostly still, some video and audio). She began taking photos early, her father recalls, focusing her lens repeatedly on herself and friends who resembled her (say, Sloan Rankin, her roommate at RISD).
Though it's tempting to read images as if they're exposing something about the artist, Francesca's photographs are, rather famously, both intimate and remote, intensely emotional and abstract. George, who notes the "psychic risk" of being an artist, also resists the usual presumptions about what art can mean:
The idea that art expresses yourself, that your self is what it's all about, is really distant for [Betty and I], and when we look at someone else's work, we don’t think, "This is telling us about that person." I don’t know. What does a work of art say? Forget the artist.
As a work of art in itself, The Woodmans is aptly elusive. While Francesca's photos seem to invite interpretation as well as some sense of intimacy, they also refract such desire. At the same time, the film complicates your relations with Francesca's family, especially. It's not that you would expect absolute (or even abject) comprehension following such tragedy, or even coherence in dealing with Francesca's legacy -- the art that continues to fascinate and, no small thing, sell (Charlie observes, succinctly, "There's an element of competitiveness in the family"). Betty puts off a question about "guilt," long-pausing as she says, "I tried to stay away from it, because I think that there's no way of dealing with it."
Betty's art -- not that it necessarily tells you how she's "dealing" -- has become larger and less "practical," walls painted with bright colors and vibrant shapes: "Somehow, without my planning it this way, my work seems to be about making people feel better," she says. George, on the other hand, has turned from painting to photography. In particular, he shoots young, thin women who sometimes, the film shows, holding images of thin young women. The potentially creepy multiplicity of the reflections is desperately meaningful -- if you were to sort out meaning along conventional psycho-biographical lines. It's as if the photos challenge you to see in them what you believe might be there. And in that, however troubling they may be, they remember Francesca in their own way.