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.

7 comments:

little red hen said...

I saw this documentary on the TV. some time ago, I remember finding it hard to watch but fascinating none the less. I seem to remember I was torn between a whole range of emotions and could not make up my mind how I felt about her. i guess it ranged from empathy and pity through to disbelief at how she could be so detached from the needs of her children.

Frances said...

May I join the conversation?
The entry was fascinating, and introduced me to an artist I had never heard of. I thought her paintings beautiful, although some brought up echoes of Joy Hester, to me.
Re her quotes. I would rather she had said, "I always felt that I didn't have the right to have two sons...(or a dog or cat for that matter)..if I wanted to devote myself to painting." And, "Everyone wants everything." Do they?

Rachel Power said...

Yes, I completely agree with you both. I also came away not knowing how to feel about Neel. She is quite a brash woman, and arguably needed to be the single-minded, obsessive person that she is in order to make the incredible work that she made. And yet here is an example of a family where the children really did suffer as a direct result of their mother's (I think it would be fair to say) neglect. That said, it was hard to get a sense of all she did do for them on a day-to-day basis when they were little, as that wasn't a focus of the film.
Again, too, one of those situations where if it had been a male artist the same accusations of neglect probably wouldn't be made, partly because there is usually still a devoted mother on the scene. You'd have to say Neel's children were treated far worse - indeed, abandoned and abused - by the men in their lives than by their mother.
This question of having to choose I find such a thorny one. Can we be decent parents if we are devoted to painting, for example, in the way Neel was? Are male artists expected to choose? Or is this a spurious question that ignores the fact that a mother is a key, irreplaceable figure of nurture in a person's life?
Is the joy that someone's art brings to hundreds of people more important than the fact that a few people (i.e. the artist's family) felt sacrificed to it?
In the case of male artists, I think this is often the conclusion.
In the case of Neel, do you think she felt she had a choice? And would her work been as sensitive and emotive if she hadn't had children, do you think?
As you can tell, this doco did raise all the fraught questions around art and mothering that I have been consumed by for the past few years or so. Big, important, ongoing questions....

innercitygarden said...

It's stuff that came up during a workshop I did a few weeks ago. The workshop was facilitated by an artist/father/teacher and attended by three mothers/artists/people who work for money. The facilitator also has a wife who has a creative life and is accutely aware of the question, as he puts it, "how do I work and create without being an arsehole?".

Partly, he's concluded, it's about acknowledging the creativity inherent in the work of parenting, appreciating rather than resenting the time spent cooking and playing with kids, so that when you do get half an hour of uninterrupted time you're ready to get your ideas on paper rather than being too wound up to work.

little red hen said...

Easier said than done at times though innercitygarden. I am at a point now with my children on the cusp of adulthood, one doing his TEE this week and another doing her's next year. I find them time consuming physically and also mentally and have found little time to juggle paid work, parenting and my art work. A bit like they were when they were babies actually. Then I had a reprieve where it got easier for a while to fit my art into our lives. However I keep focusing on the fact that in a blink they will be fully grown and doing their own thing and I will be just me in my 40's and all the time in the world to do what I want (with no more excuses!)

little red hen said...

Oh yes. Rachel you are right almost certainly had Neel been a man we might not even have known there were children!!

innercitygarden said...

It is easier said than done little red hen, but still I think worth working on. I've found it really difficult to find ways of working with my son around, rather than either moaning at a lack of childcare or leaving him with other people all the time. But it's also been interesting, it's meant rethinking the sorts of creative work I do and how I do it. There are certainly times when I have very little creative output and all the other stuff is overwhelming.

I've found reading craft bloggers really helpful and interesting, particularly because some crafts are easier to make accessible to children than some artforms. So I don't often have the space & time to draw or write at length, I do knit a lot, because I can knit when I'm commuting or reading stories etc. It isn't the same as finishing a drawing or stringing all of my ideas together, but at least I feel I've kept the creative engine running.

P.S. According to Anne Summers in The Lost Mother Constance Stokes didn't get very many paintings done when her kids were teenagers either