Psychic Risk and Creative Ghosts
Published on January 19th, 2011 | by L. Caldoran0
Most 22-year-old NYC-based art school graduates are forced to scrape out a living as office temps, baristas, and the like, if they can find work at all, until they manage to gain some sort of entrance into their chosen field. Thirty years ago, Francesca Woodman ended up throwing herself out of a window instead.
“The Woodmans” seeks to examine Francesca’s short life in the context of her family background. Her parents, Betty and George, are a sculptor and painter, respectively: the bold colors and abstract patterns in their work seem to exist in a universe apart from their daughter’s haunted, haunting black-and-white photographs. Even the frames of Betty’s glasses are full of bright, multi-hued shapes intermingled. Former college sweethearts married for over 50 years, the senior Woodmans tried to impart to their children the value of art and the priority it should hold in one’s life: in addition to Francesca’s photographic talent, their son Charles is now a video artist.
The product of a privileged upbringing—summers in Italy, education at boarding school and RISD—Francesca was gifted and artistically precocious. The soft, girlish voice heard in her smeary home-video footage belies her intense, driven personality: one college classmate refers to her as having a “rock-star quality.” Highly prolific in her creative output, she can be seen as a sort of art-world Rimbaud, both peaking and subsequently burning out young with largely posthumous acclaim.
Francesca started shooting nude self-portraits in her mid-teens. Despite evening-news hysteria about “sexting,” it’s actually fairly unusual for a girl of her years to be so comfortable displaying her nude body, particularly in images that flirt with overt fetishism like one in which the flesh of her torso is pinched by several clothespins. This places her in a similar realm as older contemporaries Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke, body-based artists who wrested the female nude from the “male gaze” by acting as both subject and object of their own work.
“The Woodmans” displays a number of Francesca’s prints, vital to understanding how so much praise could be heaped on an artist so young. (Contrast this with “Sylvia”: since the filmmakers were unable to secure the rights to Plath’s poetry, Gwyneth Paltrow makes the subject seem little more than a drippy lovesick doormat.) Many photos were shot in dilapidated buildings and peculiar poses, the subject hidden behind torn fabric or fragments of wallpaper (the latter may remind one of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous Gothic tale).
Since Francesca is no longer around to speak for herself, others must speak for her. As a frustrating result, many tantalizing questions about her life and work are barely touched on or quickly glossed over, like the “much older” boyfriend she had at 16 when she began taking nude photos, or the period of collegiate one-night stands that apparently caused her much emotional pain and conflict. Given the sexually-charged nature of her work, how might either of these events have influenced the images she made?
She did at least keep a diary: “The Woodmans” wisely quotes her through onscreen text rendered in poetic fragments rather than hiring a narrator. Her thoughts seem to alternate between genuine insight and youthful musings glossed with lyrical pretension, to the point of attempting to make her suicide seem profound: she says it isn’t about “not making it” in the big city or about teaching people a lesson, but implies it to be a brave, graceful bowing-out to her artistic career. One may be reminded of the man who recently wrote a 1,900-page thesis as his suicide “note.”
In any case of youthful suicide (or murder, for that matter), the constant question asked by both peers and elders is why? George Woodman speaks of the “psychic risk” in art, the danger of getting too intimately involved with one’s material—and Francesca did struggle with depression for some months beforehand. Ultimately, despite any amount of speculation or justification, there’s only overall reason: when things seem so overwhelmingly dire that one finds it more difficult to stop the causes of the negativity than to stop one’s own life.
Interestingly, both George and Betty saw drastic stylistic changes in their work after Francesca’s death. Betty branched out from functional ceramics to more abstract sculpture, while George shifted from painting to photography: what we see of his photos seems thematically and aesthetically an inferior echo of his daughter’s work.
Moments of apparent jealousy or criticism of Francesca’s success also come out: George complains of the fact that she didn’t photograph fountains or the Spanish Steps when in Rome, and was concerned that she “took too many pictures of herself,” finding it potentially narcissistic. Perhaps these bits of mild sniping are understandable: while both are respected artists themselves, it’s rare for parents to have to live up to their child’s reputation.