All posts tagged “suicide


The Woodmans, C. Scott Willis (2010)

710tNVz1QVL._SL1077_I suppose this might seem quite exciting and exotic if you didn’t go to Sarah Lawrence. If you did, you will likely be reminded, as I was, of everything you loved and hated about dear old Sadie Lou, and beyond that everything you still love and hate about art and artists.

The Woodmans are white and privileged and care passionately, in the Romanticist manner, about making art. They are all of them — father, mother, son, daughter — ambitious, insecure, massively narcissistic, and mildly talented. The daughter, Francesca, the sine qua non of this movie and the family’s small, self-gnawed niche in art history, is not necessarily any more talented than any of the others, but she is, we are led to believe, the most ambitious, the most insecure, the most massively narcissistic, and — the documentary seems to want us to make a causal connection — the most successful.

Though not in her lifetime. The poor young woman killed herself at 22. She was upset a boyfriend, upset her work wasn’t being seen, upset about not getting a grant from the NEA. So she killed herself, at 22, and then became successful.

We’re reminded of Sylvia Plath and think forward to Sarah Kane, but may I say out loud what I hope I’m not the first to think? We’d be reading Plath and watching Kane even if they hadn’t killed themselves. Do we know that about Woodman? If she hadn’t self-mythologized and been effectively marketed by her craven and jealous parents, and had instead lived to a ripe old age making emo self-portraits in beautifully empty studios in Tuscany, would anyone remember these photos except the RISD professors and students who thought she was so cool and intense and enviable at 21?

I’ve seen a lot of contrasty nude self portraits made by incandescent from-money up-all-night white girls with dirt in their hair. The broken furniture casting Caligari shadows under hot lights, the Man Ray motifs, the double exposures symbolizing this, the long-exposure blurs symbolizing that. In college in the 80’s those photos seemed revolutionary and way better than Titian. But then I grew up, and some of those girls did too, and we learned that making art isn’t about passion, and it sure as hell isn’t about whether or not you get an NEA.

I am not blaming or belittling Francesca Woodman. She was a talented and vibrant young woman and her death was a tragedy, and she may have become a good artist had she lived. I am a little bit blaming her parents, who obviously instilled in their daughter early on and in dangerously concentrated form the shibboleths of Romanticism. I am additionally blaming the 20th century for conceiving of the idea that a young woman making nude self-portraits is always to be read as self-empowering and never as self-objectifying. I am mostly blaming Western culture in general. It’s amazing any of us get out of it alive! Oh wait.


Thank You for Your Service, David Finkel (2013)

This is literary journalism at its utter finest. Finkel’s first book, The Good Soldiers (2009), is the best book I’ve read about what it was like to be a soldier in Iraq; this new book is the best I’ve read about what it is like to have been a soldier in Iraq. I am not kidding when I say that it seems to me, after having read both books, that the emotional and physical traumas of having fought seem comparably dangerous and debilitating to the traumas of fighting. Fighting, everything happens at once, you’re with your friends, your environment is complex and alien and ever-shifting, there’s little time to think. Coming home after having fought, you have nothing but time to think. Instants of experience in Iraq become unending operas of nightmare when you’re back in your cul-de-sac in Kansas. It takes half a second to get both your legs blown off, and then the rest of your life to try to feel like a whole person again.

You should read this book, whoever you are, so I won’t say too much more about it except two things. One: Finkel’s a masterful journalist and if no one’s yet called him the Michael Herr of Iraq allow me to be the first. Two: I particularly appreciated here the way that Finkel draws our attention to the traumas endured by the families of soldiers returned from war. If veterans are forgotten, and veterans whose war wounds are invisible rather than visible (mental health problems, traumatic brain injury) are doubly forgotten, then triply forgotten are the wives and children and mothers and fathers who have to try to pay the mortgages and put food on the table while also trying to cope with the presence of a beloved but shattered person in their lives. These veterans’ families are fighting a war too, and their patrol will never end.