What is the price of pursuing one's dream? What is the real price of art?
This documentary on portrait painter Alice Neel attempts to answer those questions. From the very beginning, Alice Neel's role as both artist and mother are brought sharply into focus.
We see her son, Hartley, and he tells the camera, "People want stability; that's human nature." He then asks a very basic question. "Why does somebody create an image of anything. Why?"
His half-brother, Richard, then states, "I don't like bohemian culture. I consider that a lot of people were hurt by it. I was hurt by it."
Before we know much about the artist, we know this: her children suffered. Richard explains, "We always had this dream that she'd be recognized and we'd able to get some money by her work. It really didn't work out that way when we were children."
An artist friend of mine once made a series about why there weren't more women artist, at least more well known women artists. They were too often caught up in the drudgery of motherhood and wifely activities--cooking, cleaning and mending clothes and wounded bodies and souls. Yet not all women allowed their motherhood to get in the way of art.
Alice Neel (1900-1984) was not so well known in her younger years when she was on welfare, having children by different men and painting in an impressionistic style that was not fashionable. It was a time for abstract expressionism and pop art. Yet later in life, the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective, a vindication of a messy life and neglecting motherhood.
The documentary was written and directed by her grandson, Andrew Neel, and fortunately isn't always flattering but also doesn't quite have the distance that might give a more balanced objective view. Neel includes interviews with her two surviving sons. They, Richard Neel and Hartley Neel, are middle-aged and do not give entirely glowing accounts of their childhoods although not all of it is negative. There is a heated moment between father (Hartley) and son (Andrew) that could have been avoided if a third-party had been involved.
Alice Neel also lost two children--one to an early death and another was taken from her care. From this she drew inspiration or perhaps a better word is she became obsessed with certain subject matter and yet she did have children in her care.
Alice did appear in a film, Allen Ginsberg's Beatnik movie, Pull My Daisy, and in this documentary we see her in archival black and white footage. She is a solid gray-hair woman by then and not the impetuous woman who threw herself into destructive affairs, marriage and political involvements.
Her work uses line, color and form expressively. The background seems to be a second thought. Yet the result is the figures pop out, alive, vibrant with personality.
Of course, if you're not up on history, art and otherwise, or old enough to remember, there was a movement in the 1960s and 1970s that questioned where were all the women artists. In the 1980s, there were the Guerrilla Girls who questions "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?" There was also a "weenie" count--naked men versus naked women. Americans are still a bit hesitant to show full-frontal male nudity although female nudity is more widespread than ever. Hollywood and Los Angeles being where Hugh Hefner has his Playboy mansion and where Larry Flynt publishes.
These acts of feminist protest aren't part of the documentary, but it is clearly stated that had Alice Neel been everything people thought women should be, she would not have been able to create her art. There is some question about her painting nudes of children, if it were proper, if she took into consideration how the child might feel later in life and Alice Neel is not the only example of this gray area between art, pornography and exploitation.
The feminist movement is credited by some in causing art historians to cast Alice Neel's work in a better light, when someone realized that women could be artists as well as muses.
One might consider it a bit sexist to question the Alice Neel's neglect of her children in favor of her art. I remember being shocked to learn, outside of my art history class, that Paul Gauguin has deserted his wife and five children. In that respect, questions about childhood seem out of place in this documentary, but perhaps the problem is rather that we need to take better account of how male artists dealt with fatherhood.
This documentary is a fascinating look at one woman artist who put art before motherhood. It has a cluttered feeling--too much left in, too much left unsaid, too many buried feelings not adequately expressed. What is the real price of art? And should we evaluate both male and female artist in the same manner?