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This fascinating documentary offers viewers an insight into Francesca Woodman's approach to art, as well as her personality through interviews with her family and close friends. However, as the title suggests, Francesca is not the sole subject of the film. The documentary unveils the lives and work of Francesca's parents, George and Betty, both artists themselves. We learn much about the familial-context and the art work-ethic of the Woodman household and its influence on Francesca's work. Many profound and troubling questions arise from interviews with Francesca's parents: Did their obsession with art lead to neglect and the intense need for recognition and affection that Francesca exhibited? Did Francesca suffer from long-term mental health issues, which were missed by her parents or misinterpreted as artistic eccentricity by those around her? Do her works show a young woman who felt vulnerable, isolated or exhibited an unhealthy sexual fixation? Do her parents feel guilt over her suicide and if so, how do they deal with this? I was also left questioning whether the fact that Francesca's father has started to produce work strikingly similar to his deceased daughter's was a form of therapy or tribute or whether it was cynical and exploitative as well as whether there is more to the Woodman's domestic story than her rather stoic parents reveal.
All in all, a wonderful insight into the life and work of a family of artists, which raises many important questions and contexualises Francesca Woodman's work.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
The Tragic Suicide of a Girl with Great Talent7 April 2013
- Published on Amazon.com
Several thoughts about this film: first, it is very good. The girl, Francesca Woodman, whose life and suicide it describes, was an amazing photographer. Her images, which are liberally displayed throughout the film, are astoundingly good. I had never heard of her before seeing this, and this has made me her fan. She is truly brilliant, in her few short years she created an utterly sublime body of work.
But, and in spite of this triumph, she killed herself in 1981 by throwing herself off a building in New York at the age of 22.
This documentary exploring her brief life and that brilliant work is basically a series of interviews with her parents and brother (all of whom are artists as well), and a few of her friends, juxtaposed with her pictures, some black and white footage she shot of herself making art, and excerpts from her journals. It's fascinating, very well done.
As a survivor of suicide myself, as someone who has had to struggle with someone I love taking himself so violently from us, from those who loved him, I feel great sympathy with her survivors. And while I also sympathize with Francesca, who was an extremely sensitive girl suffering from clinical depression when she died, I have no sympathy with her final act. On that level her story is infuriating. A child of such privilege and talent, but so narcissistic and with such a sense of entitlement. Her journal entries are too much to take, really. Such adolescent self absorption, filtered through her years at Philips Andover and in Italy, and then RISD; where she clearly got immersed in the likes of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, seeing as how well she took on that same high romantic angst ridden nihilistic "artist's" schtick that they perfected before her.
To quote her precisely:
"After three weeks and weeks and weeks of thinking about it, I have finally managed to try and do away with myself as neatly and concisely as possible. I do have standards, and my life at this point is like very old coffee sediment, and I would rather die young leaving various accomplishments, some work, my friendship with [the recipient of this letter here quoted], and some other artefacts intact, instead of pell-mell erasing all of these delicate things.."
"I see myself this fall piddling past each day, I don't know if I can do another year of dishonesty.."
So, in all her holy authenticity, she did herself in 5 days before a 25 year retrospective of her father's work as a painter was to open at the Guggenheim in New York. The crowning moment of his career to that point, where as he says in the film his life was finally coming into focus after years of diffuseness, and she blows it all apart again for him. Astonishing.
Like she's Shelley sailing her skiff off into oblivion, or Van Gogh shooting himself in the heart, or Woolf wading into her pond.. Really. How stupid and pathetic. And in our ridiculous morbid obsession with such spiritually turgid drama, we all voyeuristically indulge in her cult of death while her family and friends suffer the shattering pain of her loss.
If we really could divorce the work from the life of the artist (which we can't - the signified and the signifier are metaphysically one, which is what makes art so holy - in viewing it we all collectively commune with her through the artefact which merges with our consciousness and understanding, this is true even in cases where the artist is anonymous) Francesca Woodman's work would still be great, still be significant. It is truly tragic therefore that her death will always now be associated with it, through her own deliberation. The work and that final act are now in symbiosis, the work somehow casting her death in a perverse romantic light, magnifying it. An uncouth tragedy, that.
But as her father says in the film, he would resent all the attention she has received (far more than any of her other family members, who as mentioned are all also artists) if it did not deserve it. But it does deserve it. Which is why this film is worth watching, because Francesca Woodman is a great artist. And so her life is worthy of our attention, and her work our veneration. A tragic, yet triumphant beauty and minor transcendence, this.
Before seeing this I hesitated at the description of her work being heavy with self-portrait nudes. I've grown very tired of prurience these days; tired of aggressive images that are sexually provocative. I'm so jaded and weary of it. Because things seem very blurry these days and getting blurrier, in that so much of fashion and art photography has become pornified - taking on some of the aesthetics of porn, and playing with us on that level of response, which of course varies with each of us, but you usually sense when they're trying to elicit that. I end up feeling both cynically manipulated and then finally bored by it all. Not having seen Francesca's work, I was unsure if I was interested enough to watch this; the same ambivalence I feel every time I renew my Vanity Fair subscription these days. Her work ended up being really refreshing however, because it is very aesthetically clean. She is in the Robert Gravesian sense naked, not nude; her work art not artifice; a revelation of the human form divine, and like really good art often does you come away feeling transfigured seeing it, not complicit in an act of treason.
In sum and closing, this is a tragic tale, but one couched in beauty. Francesca Woodman is clearly one of the greatest photographers who have ever worked. She deserves a place in the canon, her work needs to be seen. It is a hideous shame that she chose to annihilate her talent when it was so very young, but that is nothing next to the cruelty that she inflicted on those by whom she is beloved.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
An Examination of the Parents as much as Francesca24 Jun. 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
Like the previous reviewer, I have never heard of Francesca Woodman until this documentary, which as well turned up on my Netflix queue. After seeing her work, I was really impressed and interested in her photographs.
This documentary explores the family of The Woodmans, which is the parents, Betty and George and their children, Charlie and Francesca. This family is all about art and nothing else. The documentary seems at first to focus on Francesca who grew to great celebrity, especially in the past decade, for her unique and passionate photography in the 60's and 70's. It was, unfortunately, not until after her suicide that her art began to take notice.
We listen to her friends and family talk of Francesca and the passion, inspiration and persistence of her work through photography, which at the time was still young in its idea of art. Looking at her works now, they do appear to be quite modern and has since influenced many photographers. But while alive, Francesca was thought of as fragile, alone, sad, desperate, needy or curious. She did not seem to have many friends, but at the same time her world seemed small. She had written in her diaries that she liked her photos to be small to create the intimacy between the viewer and the picture.
In retrospect, however, the parents, from the way they described their upbringing of Francesca, was as if she was in the way of their ideals. They said they were not interested in having kids and it was as if they were an accident. In their travels, such as to Italy, she was sent off with some guide so the parents can experience the artistic world without nagging kids around. Francesca, at least, seemed focused enough at her young age to immerse herself in the world of art (perhaps learning from her parents). This is where she cultivated her vision when she would draw from the works of art around her.
Looking at the body of Francesca's work is quite revealing about herself, especially when we learn of her relationship with her parents and what her parents were like. The majority of these photos are all self-portraits in the nude. One might say that the camera was the only thing that gave her the attention she desired. And her camera and herself was her world.
After her suicide, the parents did not know how to grapple the situation and so they did what they know best - they did more art. It seems to me that the art they did was not only a means of expression, but also a crutch to hold on to. I dont see either of the parents really emoting on the issue. The mother said she avoids feeling any guilt (not to say guilty is something she should feel, but avoiding it would imply its there). It seemed they almost pitied her, rather than grieve. What I felt from the parents from watching this documentary is that the parents were in some way jealous of Francesca's abilities as an artist and at the same time selfish. George may have found a way to identify with his daughter a little by carrying on her career as a photographer (he was a painter previous to her death). The examples they showed in the film seemed similar to Francesca. The mother does ceramics. Although she is recognized internationally, I dont find them attractive by any means, however, thats just my opinion.
I am being a harsh critic of the parents in their influence on Francesca, but there is always two sides to the picture. You might say the parents did exactly the right thing, because anything different and Francesca might not had the drive, focus and passion to create what she envisioned. She might be normal or just mediocre. But the circumstances were ripe for such powerful imagery to force its way out of someone in such a manner as it did. So while her art did not save her, she was able to leave behind her footprints in the world to be recognized, admired and inspired for those that review her works.
The documentary is excellent and well done. It brings you nicely into this world that I never knew existed and was happy to explore it.
21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
A FILM PORTRAIT OF A FAMILY OF ARTISTS18 Jun. 2012
Anna V. Carroll
- Published on Amazon.com
Until today (June 17, 2012) I had never heard of George Woodman, Betty Woodman nor Francesca Woodman. This documentary popped up as a film I might like to watch on Netflix. Having studied photography in the 70s and 80s, I was curious why I had never heard of Francesca Woodman nor seen her work. She killed herself in 1980 in her early 20's.
This beautifully photographed film introduces you to artist George Woodman, his wife Betty who is famous for her work in pottery and clay. Son Charles is involved in multi-media art.
The story begins in Colorado where the Woodman's lived and worked. George, a WASP, married Betty, who is Jewish. He says his family did not approve. They probably wouldn't have approved of him marrying a Catholic, either. This was 60 or so years ago. Obviously, this marriage worked on many levels. In the film Betty declares she could not love any man who did not create art. They move to NYC in the early 80s and buy a rustic country house in Italy, too. These are not struggling artists, and appear never to have been.
Betty and George spend all day and every waking moment making art and thinking about art. "Very needy," is how Francesca is described by everyone in the film. Of course she was. She was on the lowest rung on the Totem pole in her artistic family. First George, then Betty, then Charlie and then Francesca. She goes off to art school back East and her father gives her one of his old cameras. She finds her voice and purpose in life.
She becomes her parents. She becomes obsessed with taking photographs. Composing them in her mind, her eyes, and then, in reality. She is the focal point in virtually all of them. She takes thousands of frames of nudes of herself in various poses and places. She speaks in a little girl voice on tape. She moves to NYC to an apt. that appears to be a loft of some kind. NYC is not always kind to creative people. Some flourish and others die on the vine.
Francesca morphs into one of the many privileged women photographers who have had a life of ease since birth, friends who praise them, beautiful times in Italy and beyond, time and space to photograph and hone their craft, and they kill themselves. She felt she was a genius and should be recognized as such. Been there, done that. Understand her frustration because all artists look at their work and think they're unique and should be celebrated. Including myself.
The 'Art World' has always dwelled on artists who take their own lives, or die young from overdoses or accidents. While the spotlight and attention is focused on people like Francesca, hundreds of thousands of American artists from all creative outlets struggle to be seen. There is astounding talent in this country that none of us will ever see because they are not controversial, unstable emotionally, or drug-addled.
I wish there was an entity in this country that would publicize American artists who have an outstanding talent and not someone the media feels is 'interesting.' 'Art' in this country is owned by media conglomerates, not the art galleries. Millions of dollars are spent yearly on art/photography/dance schools by parents. The artist graduates and has nowhere to go. Lofts are not affordable any longer. There seems to be a war against creativity these days, and the landlords are winning.
In the scenes with her parents talking about her suicide, no tears are shed, but you feel the grief that has chewed its way into their bones. This film was made in 2010, 30 years after her death. The father says, "Well, you know it was a hard day for her. She had just learned she did not get the government grant she applied for and someone stole her bicycle." Her mother says she has never gone near the feelings of guilt she felt. She was so consumed with making art she lived in her own little world. Still does. George is in his late 70's and Betty is in her early 80's. Still making art. Betty has an art installation in the US Embassy in Beijing, China that takes up an entire wall.
A handful of their friends (artists/writers/childhood friends)speak of Francesca's frailty. I cannot imagine being a member of a family of artists and trying to fit in and make my own way and say, "Hey, look at me! I have talent, too!" The artist friends speak of how modern her photography looks and how the world of art finally caught up with her. How ahead-of-her time she was.
In the early 70s, my next door neighbor in Greenwich Village was a young Austrian photographer who was already making photographs like Francesca's. Virtually the same ones. Like Francesca, she thought she should be recognized and shown in NYC art galleries. Unlike Francesca, she did not kill herself. She became anorexic and severely depressed and had to be hospitalized. She eventually returned to Europe where she was exhibited and found a group of people who liked her work. This is the name of the game. In order to have your work truly appreciated you have to be dead by your own hand or a total emotional mess. That makes good press. You are then considered exotic, eccentric, tightly-coiled.
I enjoyed this film because it introduced me to the Woodman family and their work. I never would have heard about them had I not stumbled upon this film. George and Betty seem incredibly kind and soft-spoken. They live in their own little world and always have. They are obviously not the type to frequent all the A-List Art Celebrity parties. They are not the see-and-be-seen type, it appears. Their entire lives have been dedicated to making art. An obsession, to be sure.
Through the years it has always frustrated me beyond words to discover an artist or photographer's work only to learn they killed themselves long ago. If Francesca had just matured more as an artist, tried a little patience, endured, she would be alive today to enjoy the fruits of her labor. You will come away from this film angry, confused and yes, dazed. But it is so worth the journey.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Art First29 July 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
This is a documentary about the Woodmans, a family of artists. At the time of the filming, Betty, a clay artist, is about 80 and George, a painter-turned-photographer is 77. There is a son, Charlie, who we don't see much of, and it's unclear what medium he words in. Then there is Francesca, who committed suicide in her 20's some time before the filming. One of the flaws of the film, in my opinion, is the lack of clarity about its intent. The title suggests that it's about the whole Woodman family, but, as I've already mentioned, Charlie is only a footnote, and the whole focus soon becomes the life, death and work of Francesca.
Most of the film consists of an interview with George and Betty. There are a few interviews with friends and associates of Francesca and a couple with Charlie. There is footage of her diary, and, best of all are views of Francesca's work, both still photographs and some films. Her work is exquisite and it makes the film worth viewing, in my opinion.
Well I'll stop writing "in my opinion" because obviously this review is an expression of my opinion. I think it's the intent of this site to give viewers the chance to review films, not necessarily to pass judgments on the people in the films. However, many reviewers do express their personal feelings about subjects brought up in films, and it does make for interesting reading. I will take the lead of reviewers Carroll and Velasquez, niether of whom hesitated to give their opinions.
One of the questions that came up for me, after seeing this, is why did the parents consent to do this film? If I had a child who committed suicide, would I sit for hours and talk about it for millions of strangers to see? Perhaps, if the purpose of the film, was to show how they dealt with the event and how they became better people by their struggle, it would have some psychological or spiritual value. But that isn't the case with this couple. To me it looks like they haven't dealt with it. The idea of blame, guilt, or personal responsibility looms like a huge elephant in the living room. No one dares mention it, but its presence dominates the whole room. George somewhat dismisses what led Francesca to kill herself by saying that she had a bad day....someone stole her bike and she didn't get the grant she'd hoped for. Betty, at one point, say, in an almost matter-of-fact way, "Maybe I was a bad mother" and shrugs her shoulders.
At another point they admit that they began to be somewhat concerned when the body of Francesca's work were nude self-portraits. They did wonder, they say, if she were becoming a little self-obsessed but then when they found some photos of other nude people their minds were set at rest. After all, one of them said, they were raised as artists and the nude was definitely a popular subject in art of all periods. One of Francesca's friends expressed concern about Francesca's obsessive sexual behavior but no one in the family seemed to worry about that. The idea that the girl might be crying out "Look at me!" obviously never occurred to them.
In the opening interviews Betty and George talked about their meeting and what attracted them to each other. For Betty, George was a big, handsome man, and "he liked her." Betty made it clear that she could only be with someone for whom how things looked was paramount. She said she'd hate anyone else. George also says that what drew them together and what continued to keep them together was their shared interest in art. "Interest" is not a strong enough word. I'm trying not to say "obsession" but that is closer to the truth. George expounds his strong "work ethic" saying that "whether or not you felt like it, you went to your studio every day and did art. If no inspiration came, you sharpened pencils until it did." Betty had her studio in their back yard and that's where she spent her time. Clearly the kids grew up knowing full well what was important in life, at least in the lives of Betty and George. George admitted that he had never intended to have children, to him children were just these little people who ran around down there on the ground. Betty did say that "she wanted the experience of having a child" but when the baby was put in her arms she had no idea what to do with it.
When the children were still small, Charlie was diagnosed with Diabetes I and the parents devoted more attention to him than to Francesca at the time, they said. Maybe that's how Charlie got his share of attention. Francesca grew into a fragile, needy, young woman who apparently used her sexuality to get attention. She had a boyfriend for a while. She wrote in her journal, that she "loved him because he had a beautiful upper lip." It was said that he was abusive to her but she clung to him until he finally left her. It would have been interesting to have seen some interviews with him. We see a short film of him shaving, with Francesca's baby-like voice in the background.
As the interviews with George and Betty progress and they discuss Francesca's suicide more directly, they do deepen. I had the feeling that Francesca was closer to George than to Betty and it seems to me that George was the one who took the death in to a deeper degree than Betty did. He abandoned painting and took up photography, doing portraits of nude young women, in a way very much like Francesca did. Betty soldiered on, continuing with her art. When asked if she experienced "guilt" she said that she didn't let her mind go there. The film shows her working on a large piece which was hung in the Amreican Embassy in Beijing.
One thing that struck me, that hasn't been mentioned elsewhere in these reviews is the stark contrast between Francesca's work and that of her parents. George's paintings were abstracts, done in clear, light, bright colors. I liked them very much, personally. Betty's cermamics also featured clear, vibrant bright colors. Betty herself, dressed like a walking rainbow, from head to toe---brightly colored printed headscarves, glasses with blobs of colors, many patterns in her clothes, all the way down to her shoes and sox. It reminded me of Wavy Gravy, the Hippie Clown of the 60's. Personally at I loved it--I'd like to know where she got those glasses. Their home, too, is filled with bright objects. Francesca's work is all in black and white and wispy shades of gray. True, black and white film is much cheaper than color film, so one can dismiss the difference in tone that way. That said, one can't ignore the moods of the two bodies of work. Betty's piece for the Embassy, is a huge, wall sized work of fabric, paint and ceramic pieces, that vibrates with color. It reminded me a little of Matisse's paintings. I liked it very much. Betty said, at the end, that people tell her that her work makes them feel happy. And then she adds, that maybe she's trying to make herself feel happy.
I agree that we don't get to judge Betty and George. They are only human and probably did the best they knew to do accoring to what they believed. Betty said that they had no religion, that art was their God, so they acted accordingly. We do get to question their decisions and values though. I would ask if the act of putting paint on canvas or making a clay pot are more important than giving a child a happy, healthy childhood? How important is the surface beauty of a person? Charlie, the absent child, says that there is heavy importance on commercial success in this family and apparently he has not won that. Francesca was despondent because she didn't get recognition for her work. Something else to think about.
At the end of the film we see a show of Francesca's work. Individual photographs now bring in huge sums of money. One interviewee, who had a stack of them, said that anytime he had to pay a tuition bill for his kids in college, he sold one of Francesca's photos. It's nice, I suppos,e that her work is getting the recognition that it didn't get in life. We don't know how much George and Betty profit from it. That brings me back to my original question: why did they agree to make this film? I hope it's a good answer.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
The Woodmans10 July 2012
Carlos E. Velasquez
- Published on Amazon.com
Every human being is guided by a motivation or a set of motivations, trying to reach an end that sometimes eludes us. This is certainly true in the arts, and the extraordinaire documentary "The Woodmans" provides strong evidence of this. It follows the lives of a family of artists, especially the daughter -- the late Francesca Woodman --, and gives us a glance of what makes artists do what they do.
Directed by C. Scott Willis, the film slowly introduces us to the remaining members of the Woodman family: Betty (the mother), George (the father) and Charlie (the son), and right from the beginning we notice that this is no ordinary family, as art rules their lives. Perhaps, Betty says it best, when she affirms, "I couldn't live with somebody who didn't give making art the importance that I give it. I would just hate them." We then learn that Betty and George have been together for 57 years, and married for 54. However, while we see them at work, either painting or doing sculptures, the conversation inevitably turns to Francesca, their deceased daughter. We are told, for example, that she was intense, hard-working, focused, fun, creative, and fragile. We see her fantastic photographs - mostly nudes of herself --, and realize that she was truly a master that deserved to be discovered and admired. We not only hear testimonies from her parents and brother, but also from childhood friends, art college schoolmates, employers, and other artists. One thing for me is to try to describe her photographs to you, and another is for you to see them - they are just amazing. There was so much that she wanted to say with her body and that of her models, with work that she did in New York, Colorado, Italy (where the family owns a house) and other places.
In addition to the interviews, the director also presents parts of Francesca's diaries, and we also discover that she was a talented writer, and that she basically documented her downfall to the last day. At one point, for example, she wrote, "The efforts to do away with this attitude in my work have had strange effects on my life." One of her last entries, before she committed suicide at the age of 22, on January 19, 1981, was, "I was investing in a language for people to see the everyday things that I also see."
It is fair to say that, although most of the film is about Francesca, we get to see some of the work that George and Betty do, and how their daughter's death affected their lives. In fact, we witness Betty putting together a huge painting that would be installed in the US Embassy in China. However, we don't get to see much of Charlie, who, it seems, works on video art. At any rate, it is the work of Francesca that really thrilled me, and, as it happens after some icons die, she now has the recognition that she was craving for, and her photographs sell for lots of money. Nobody understands the torment of genius, as somebody said. (USA/China/ Italy, 2010, color and B&W, 83 min).
Reviewed on July 8, 2012 by Eric Gonzales for Kino Lorber.