Although director C. Scott Willis has framed a document of two artist parents who watched the professional reputation of their daughter “eclipse their own”, it was difficult to view The Woodmans as a portrait of Francesca Woodman. Can a cinematic portrait really be made from slices of friendships, acquaintances and family who witnessed fragments of a complex and compartmentalized persona? Apart from her journal, the artists’ daughter seemed to only open up when in dialogue with her camera.
Before her suicide at nearly 23, Woodman had developed a complex suite of body-based black and white photographs, created in Colorado; Rhode Island; New York; Rome and Florence. Despite the creative support of her parents and RISD faculty, Francesca Woodman’s work never achieved recognition in the New York gallery scene of the late 1970s. Regardless of a consistently specific language and visual sophistication, Woodman’s work was then dismissed by galleries as immature. She died young without gallery representation, but left a legacy that in the past thirty years has been revisited and reevaluated as a significant contribution to contemporary visual culture.
I saw this film with an art collector who compared Woodman to Ana Mendieta. Aside from similar life facts (untimely death, unrepresented, expatriate experience, body-based works) I didn’t see a comparison in how their distinct works each look and feel. Maybe because I missed Woodman’s show at Marion Goodman a few years ago, the work was less fresh in my mind, but a resemblance is undeniably there. Mendieta restores the body, Woodman disassociates it. Mendieta’s transience begins with the body steeping into the earth, Woodman’s transience is a feeling soaring above its cage. Mendieta negotiates repercussions of exile in her work, Woodman shows the psychic tension of entrapment.
Mendieta developed her series Untitled (Glass on Body) 1972, at the University of Iowa. Woodman made a similar series, Space Series: 1975-78 in Providence, Rhode Island at RISD. Neither Woodman nor Mendieta officially aligned themselves with feminism—maybe that term felt too constricting for young artists who don’t like rules. But their works reference messages of critical analysis central to feminist discourse: female form as a vitrined fodder for public spectacle.
That Woodman’s work is often described as Surrealist surprises me. To merely call it surrealism will link Woodman’s work to a movement’s preoccupation with female hysteria. Since I don’t believe in female hysteria, I don’t see the connection. Woodman was a content-over-technicality producer of photographs (500!) that challenged temporalities. Woodman’s influences range from the American Southern Gothic to explorations of figure-space, culminating in intimate, fleshy sensualities surrounded by decay—more than metaphor, a likely influence of life in Rome.
Beginning with a self-portrait at age thirteen, Woodman’s work revolves around the body’s relationship to self and space. Despite its reliance on personal symbolism, the work gains its power from a raw honesty Woodman cultivated into an expressive visual murmur. Among dilapidated interiors of an abandoned warehouse and cracked plaster walls, her figure often appears as an ethereal presence. Sometimes, only blurry enough to register as a force of light, a light in nervous contrast with the casual melancholy of her staging and photographic spontaneity. With peeling wall paper as camouflage for her breasts and pubis, Woodman merges foreground with background, recreating the tension of presence versus invisibility.
“Her work makes vivid the fragile psychic space between one’s own inner image and one’s attempt to be joined with it in the external world, even to the point of being enjoined by it.“—Peggy Phelan
Presence and visibility are integral verbs to Woodman’s explorations. Her earliest works show an obscured face and long-exposures that blur movement, qualities defining her most iconic contributions. What The Woodmans makes clear is the family dynamic that shaped Francesca Woodman’s upbringing. Betty and George instilled into both their children a sense of competition, commitment to the arts, a spartan work ethic. Their children went to museums and roamed freely with a notebook while the parents looked at art together, carving quality time for themselves on museum trips.
While the Woodmans taught in Colorado University and maintained their large studios there, they also owned a large villa outside of Florence where their summers were spent. Francesca attended one of (if not the) most prestigious private boarding school in the US: The Phillips Academy at Andover. As an undergraduate at RISD, Francesca’s peers recount her self-assuredness, her “rock star” charisma and fierce determination to succeed. So, given this intellectually stimulating environment (artist parents, a resplendent Italian villa, privileged schooling) what was it that made Francesca Woodman feel invisible? What motivated a gruesome plunge from a rooftop, five days before her father’s big break in a group show at the Guggenheim?
The film doesn’t answer that question, but attempts to paint a portrait of Francesca through her absence. Although The Woodmans is well done and very much worth seeing, it bravely brings parts of her story into focus. Passages from her journals are exquisite. But a portrait is more than collected material, edited and sliced. If Francesca Woodman herself could not portray a totality of her own self (only vignettes from inner conditions) how can anyone else properly portray her? The Woodmans informs about Francesca the photographer, but Francesca the person remains unknown.