The Woodmans: True Believers in the Church of Art

Precocious, ambitious, and deeply disturbed, photographer Francesca Woodman committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22; her work was discovered in the late ’80s, and she has since been hailed as a prodigy. Along with her parents, Betty and George, Francesca is the subject of C. Scott Willis’ documentary The Woodmans. Raised in Colorado, the second child of a strong-willed ceramicist and a stubbornly unfashionable abstract painter, Woodman was brought up by true believers in the church of art. Her parents’ faith was absolute. To hear Betty state that she’d “hate” anyone who didn’t take art as seriously as she, or George complain bitterly about his lack of recognition, is to appreciate the pressure on their daughter—indeed, when Francesca moved to New York, her parents followed her. Willis allows time for Betty and George to struggle with their feelings on camera. Francesca is also heard, not only in the girlish voice of her video pieces, but through excerpted journals in which she frets even more than her dad about a stalled career. George suggests that Francesca’s fatal depression was triggered by a failed NEA application, and further notes that she jumped to her death less than a week before his big break: inclusion in a group show at the Guggenheim. Ultimately, The Woodmans is a haunting study in family dynamics, leaving the impression that Betty and George regard their doomed genius child as their greatest work of art.