Like MY ARCHITECT, Nathaniel Kahn's celebrated 2003 film about his father, the architect Louis Kahn, Andrew Neel's fascinating but troubling documentary about his famous grandmother is more than a mere biography of an important 20th-century artist: It's also an intimate portrait of a family member that questions whether or not "great artist" and "good parent" can ever be combined in the same person. The painter Alice Neel dared to defy the conventions of a pre-feminist era to become one of the great artists of her generation, but not with an enormous emotional cost to her self and her family.
Using interviews with friends, art critics and, most importantly, family members, as well as clips from previous films made about his now-famous grandmother, Andrew Neel's documentary traces Alice Neel's story from her birth at the dawn of the 20th century, through her years as a struggling artist during the Depression and the equally lean postwar years. As she developed as a painter, she began to concentrate mostly on figurative portraiture — Alice Neel had a knack of finding the detail that would capture the individual as well as the tenor of the times -- and she eventually moved to Spanish Harlem so as to better capture the lives of the people who mattered most to her: the forgotten poor. Neel eventually found the recognition she craved -- she's now considered one of the greatest portrait painters of the 20th century -- but success came late and throughout most of her career Alice Neel lived in poverty. Nevertheless, she remained smilingly obstinate in her refusal to compromise on her art, even when she found herself at odds with contemporary trends in modern painting and society's expectations of how a "good" wife and mother lived her life. This unwavering dedication to her personal vision and her determination to live and paint as she chose, however, had a downside and it's from Andrew Neel's interviews with his father Hartley Neel and uncle, Richard Neel, that the real heart of the film emerges. Richard and Hartley -- sons by two different fathers -- clearly resented the poverty and the lack of certainty and structure of the bohemian lifestyle, as well as the emotional neglect they sometimes faced as the children of a free spirit. Richard in particular felt the brunt of Alice's non-traditional approach to family structure when Hartley's father, a temperamental socially conscious documentary filmmaker named Sam Brody, began physically abusing him. Alice, regrettably, did nothing to stop it. (Interestingly, these bohemian children grew up to become steadfastly bourgeois professionals). The saddest story, however, involves Isabetta, the daughter Alice Neel had with her first husband, a Cuban painter named Carlos Enriquez. Knowing that she'd never be able to support a child on her own, she gave Isabetta to her husband's wealthy family when the marriage ended. The loss of her daughter resulted in a nervous breakdown for Alice, while Andrew Neel's interviews with Isabetta's children tell a tragic tale of abandonment, resentment, deep depression and eventual suicide. But, as Hartley Neel points out, had Alice satisfied the expectations society had of women during her lifetime, she might well have been a great mother, but never a great artist, something that was terribly important to her. He, like most everyone interviewed in the film, seems to realize what Alice Neel faced in her lifetime, and it's this sympathy — if not exactly total forgiveness — that makes the film so memorable.
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