Friday, October 30, 2009
A portrait of the artist as a mother
I hoard my clean washing (note I say ‘my’, meaning ‘my family’s’, hmm…) till it reaches a pile big enough to justify a night spent folding it in front of the box — which in my case, not having a telly, means a DVD on the computer.
Having finished the first series of Mad Men — and since this week’s pile had grown to a size equalling a full feature-length movie (see how fun it can get?!) — I decided to watch Alice Neel, a haunting documentary about this extraordinary American painter.
Neel made portraits — of friends, family, lovers, poets, artists, and ordinary people... anyone who crossed her radar — infused with emotional intensity, her sitters challenging the viewer with their direct gaze.
I actually wrote a long section about Neel in The Divided Heart, which was cut out in the final edit. Embarrassingly, my first draft of the book came in at over 120,000 words, more than double that requested by the publisher, so there was plenty of material left on the cutting-room floor, so to speak, much of it investigations into women artists I admire.
As a woman and single mother, Alice Neel (1900–1984) did it tough, but remained utterly dedicated to her art.
The question of whether her obsessive devotion to painting — and the instability that came with that — was to the detriment of her children becomes the unintentional focus of the film, which was made by her grandson, Andrew Neel.
Neel spent much of her life on welfare and was isolated as an artist until the late 1960s and 70s, when the women’s movement embraced her.
In the film she says: “I always felt in a sense that I didn’t have the right to paint because I had two sons and I had so many things that I should be doing and here I was painting.
“… I wanted everything. I didn’t want just art; I wanted everything. Everyone wants everything but then they have to get practical and settle for a certain amount. But maybe I was never that practical.”
Neel lost her first two children, one through death, the other taken from her for complex reasons. These traumas permeated her work, its themes of motherhood, loss and anxiety, for the rest of her career.
In the film, her remaining, adult children have a complex relationship with Neel — loving her as a mother and friend, full of admiration for her work, and yet both nursing hurts that have profoundly shaped them as people.
“I don’t like bohemian culture,” her now very right-wing son, Richard, says. “People are hurt by it. I was hurt by it. People who are engaged in it don’t care about, or feel responsible for, those who are around them, or who depend on them.”
Her second son, Hartley (now a doctor), was badly abused by one of Neel’s long-term partners, and Richard’s father, communist intellectual Sam Brody. It is not stated directly but is suggested that Neel ignored this abuse because she desperately needed Brody’s belief in her as an artist at a time when her work had fallen out of public and critical favour.
And yet, through all his sadness, Hartley has the insight to say: “If she had been satisfied with the paragon of what women were supposed to be in her era, she would have accomplished nothing. She might have been the greatest mother and housewife and all that… [but] this was the other side of the coin in terms of the way Alice saw things. She didn’t want that stuff.”
By the end of this, I tell you, my washing was neatly folded but my heart was a complete shambles.