"There’s a famous Diane Arbus photograph in which a pair of elderly, incredulous parents stare up at a son so huge that their apartment can barely contain him. The Woodmans is that picture."We couldn't stop talking about The Woodmans last night. With the documentary film as my only personal insight into the family dynamics of this "weirdly competitive couple" (as one critic termed it), I found myself bouncing back and forth, during gasps or guffaws from the audience, between thinking "But that's understandable, if you only consider how..." and "Oh, so that's why they think those of us in the art world are freaks."
At the very opening of the film, Betty Woodman (who I have never had the pleasure of meeting, but who I know to be an accomplished artist with a career many other artists would give a body part for), says she couldn't live with anyone who didn’t take art as seriously as she did...that she would "hate" them. In any other context, this wouldn't be such a controversial statement (a bit of hyperbole revealing an intense personal passion, perhaps), but as the film progresses and the audience members who don't know already begin to realize that the Woodmans' talented and remarkably driven daughter, Francesca, took her own life at age 22, the statement seems to take on a wider, even harrowing significance.
In general, the film is a stunningly frank discussion by Francesca's parents, George and Betty, and her brother Charlie (all artists with varying degrees of success in their careers) of what it means to make art the center of not only your own life, but of your family life. As the story began, with the parents' rigorous studio schedules and annual trips to Italy where the kids were allowed to wander unchaperoned through the great museums of Tuscany, I have to admit to being a bit jealous. What a marvelous childhood! And as Francesca developed into an artist (focused on photography, often using herself nude as her subject) who nearly everyone saw as having a sophistication and eye well advanced for her age, I thought, "That's because of the advantage her parents gave her. What a gift."
Then it all goes terribly wrong. The documentary suggests that Francesca's expectations for recognition were as advanced as her eye. She wanted the acclaim that she felt she had earned (remember she died at 22), and when it didn't come fast enough, she grew despondent.
It would be easy to oversimplify the Woodmans' lifestyle as a cautionary tale ("Look at what her unconventional childhood did to Francesca"), but in truth there is nothing to directly connect the parents' disciplined approach to their own art making with their daughter's decision to end her own life. Many other children in a similar situation don't make that choice.
Still, the dynamics of the family do send chills down your spine while you're watching the film. None the least of which is how the death of their daughter (and the fame and acclaim that have come for Francesca's work since then) coincided with changes in Betty and George's own work: Betty shifted from functional clay objects to entirely "useless" fine art objects, and, somewhat unnervingly, George seemed to pick up where Francesca left off in her photography.
As someone who sees it as part of my job to support and help artists as they navigate through the social complications of choosing art over more stable/conventional careers, this film is going to take me quite some time to fully process. Again, I think it's far too oversimple to see it merely as a cautionary tale. It's one family's tragic story, but there is plenty of triumph in their story as well. And in that way, like any other story, it merely reflects the complexity of life itself.
I'd be curious to know what you thought, if you saw it, though: