When she was a girl, artist and director Jane Anderson’s mother found a hoard of art packed away in trunks in an attic. It was the work of Jane’s great aunt, Edith Lake Wilkinson, and as a result Jane grew up surrounded by Edith’s painting, which helped her find her own visual sense.
Decades later Janes sets out to find out more about Edith, as well as to discover her place in the world of early 20th Century Provincetown art. The main thing they know about Edith is that she spent the last years of her life institutionalised, but they don’t know why. They also know she had a female companion, Fanny, who they presume was actually her lover.
Over the course of the documentary they discover a little more about Edith, including that while she’s pretty much unknown even by those interested in the the world of Provincetown art, she had been in the thick of it, and it may be the right time to rediscover her life and work. Jane feels an obligation to her Great Aunt, even if it proves difficult to fill in all the gaps of her life and find out what really happened to her.
While Packed In A Trunk has a potentially interesting subject and continually offers fascinating snippets of information, its problem is that it’s, well, a bit flaky. Quite frankly, when it gets to the point where they decide to consult a psychic and then treat it as if they’ve found out actual information about Edith, there is the sense of barrels being scraped. It also suffers from the fact that for a movie supposedly about the rediscovery of an artist, the focus is sometimes too heavily on her great niece, Jane, and her journey, so there’s a danger that Edith is still getting lost in the mix.
There’s a sense the reason for this is because the lack of information about Edith’s life, means she remains slightly obscure, even after all the research they do. After all, if we was a lesbian, she lived at a time when it was impossible to say that openly. Similarly, the fact she ended up in an asylum means that while other Provincetown artists were becoming established and their importance to the history of American art was being recognised, she was hidden away and ignored.
However, rather than offering full context to all this, the film just vaguely tries to tell us, and then starts treating conjecture as if it’s fact and using dubious methods (such as the psychic) to take that flakiness even further. Even something as fundamental as properly explaining who the Provincetown artists were and how they fit into the wider world of American art gets relatively scant attention. It’s not ignored, but at the end of the film, you’re unlikely to be able to explain it unless you already knew. Likewise, the documentary decides Edith was a lesbian despite the fact there’s no incontrovertible proof of this. It then spends fairly little time talking about what this means, other than that maybe being gay was accepted in Provincetown back then in a way that it wasn’t elsewhere, and that she and Fanny may have raised eyebrows elsewhere.
Even something such as the suggestion that Edith’s lawyer essentially stole her inheritance after putting her into the asylum is treated as if it’s absolutely true, despite there being no actual real evidence (at least that we’re shown), beyond family rumour and a couple of documents that might indicate he’s dodgy or might not.
All of this could have been pulled together and made to work, but Packed In A Trunk seems so infatuated with Jane Anderson that it lacks the objectivity and distance it needed. There is plenty in the documentary that’s interesting, but there’s often the sense that it’s not quite looking in the right direction to really get the most out of its subject. It does end well though, even if there are issues with how it got there.
Overall Verdict: Edith Lake Wilkinson is a fascinating subject for a documentary, taking in sexuality, gender, mental health and artistic posterity, but due to the way it’s explored, it’s not quite the testament to the artist it could have been.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac