Alice Neel is an artist best remembered for her portrait work. That she is remembered at all is an unlikely triumph of perseverance and good fortune. She was a magnificent talent, but she lived much of her life on welfare and labored for the most part in relative obscurity, only attaining a degree of celebrity toward the end.
“The interesting thing about this story is that she became famous,” says Neel’s daughter-in-law Ginny, “so it was worth it. Just the slightest twist and she could have never been much heard of. And then what – it wouldn’t have been worth it?”
Andrew Neel’s documentary portrait of his grandmother shows us a woman whose personal life was chaotic, but whose art provided any necessary justification. The other night I caught a bit of A Room with a View on Masterpiece Theater, and happened to see the scene in which the Reverend Mr. Eager, conducting a tour of Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica, explains to his gaggle of Victorian art lovers that although Michelangelo produced sublime work, “his life was not everything it should have been.”
From the perspective of polite society this is probably a not unusual failing in the lives of great artists, and it certainly seems to have fit Alice Neel. Born with the century, she arrived in 1921at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women as what she described as “the biggest virgin you ever saw,” but reformed quickly. She went on to live a complex, free-wheeling life that included at least one nervous breakdown and suicide attempt, a husband and a checkered roster of lovers, children lost, children raised, and an output over seven decades of some of the most arresting and distinctive portrait work of the 20th century.
“I don’t like bohemian culture,” says Richard Neel, the filmmaker’s uncle, at the start of the film. “I think lots of people are hurt by it. I think I was hurt by it.” He and his brother Hartley, Andrew’s father, survived a turbulent upbringing that included physical abuse by the succession of men in their mother’s life, and both sons pursued lifestyles far removed from the one in which they were raised. Richard, an investment banker, admits to having become “one of the most conservative people I know,” after growing up a leftie. Hartley, a Vermont physician, remarks wistfully that ““People want stability, they want security and stability. That’s human nature, you know.” But on balance both men look back at their mother with great affection. They still keep the apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where they were raised, because it helps them feel close to her. “She was a good mother,” Richard acknowledges. :”She was a gift.”
Andrew Neel’s documentary tries hard to locate the woman his grandmother was, with only limited success. Another child, Isabetta, was taken away to Havana as an infant by her Cuban husband in 1930, and Alice seldom saw her again. On one of the girl’s rare visits to her mother in New York, Alice painted a brash standing nude of the six-year-old. “I think it’s disgusting,” Isabetta’s daughter tells Andrew. “I would never have my children naked like that.” Isabetta committed suicide in 1982.
If the artist is an elusive target, the art is as sharp as a razor blade. The portraits are extraordinary. They see into the character of their subjects with a startling depth and immediacy. They seem to spend time within the psyche of the sitter. “Painting,” says Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, “contains duration. You’re seeing time happen rather than seeing time stopped.” Alice painted the obscure and the famous; her portraits include street people, family, neighbors, and such movers and shakers as Ed Koch, Bella Abzug, and Andy Warhol. She had very little regard for the standards of middle-class morality in her work, and her reclining frontal nude of critic John Perreault still has the power to shock. There are many nudes in her work, including children, men, pregnant women, and the artist herself in a self-portrait at 80. But the real nakedness is in the more “conventional” portraits, the intimate, revealing, often unsettling renditions of subjects whose character she captured searingly in paint.
The visual quality of this documentary varies wildly. There are fuzzy clips from 16mm home movies and videos. There are old interviews, and footage from a taped documentary on Alice shot in 1982 by Warhol disciple Michel Auder. That this material exists at all is a treasure, and it helps make possible some visual reconstruction of a life that ended a quarter century before this documentary was made. But it can be hard to watch. Andrew’s own camerawork, which he undertook himself without a crew, is sometimes shaky. The personal interviews with family members, particularly the filmmaker’s father and uncle, sometimes leave an uncomfortable taste of voyeurism, as in one scene when Hartley Neel asks his son to turn off the camera, and Andrew pretends to comply but leaves it running.
After those decades in which her work was ignored and disparaged as out of touch with modernism, Alice Neel was catapulted into the limelight in her last years. A major retrospective of her portraiture was held at the Whitney in 1974, and she was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The ultimate badge of cultural acceptance may have been a couple of appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. As Ginny Neel says, “The interesting thing about this story is that she became famous.” Without that phenomenon, we would not be looking back now at this remarkable body of work. And that would be a damned shame.
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be