Alice Neel

Alice Neel


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

If you haven't heard of Alice Neel, don't feel bad. For most of her lifetime, hardly anybody had. Struggling in poverty and obscurity for many decades, she came to sudden prominence partly due to being hailed as a feminist icon, though the feminist movement was something she never much cared for.

Despite all her suffering, and despite the effort it had taken her to compete in a male dominated world, she had no interest in seeing herself as a victim of oppression - it was her opinion that the world was inevitably a tough place for everyone but that, generally speaking, one could always get what one wanted if one was prepared to put up enough of a fight. And if one were tempted to resent the world for its toughness, one might find it redeemed by its people. Painting portraits in the slums whilst other artists thrived on commissions from the rich, Alice didn't see a universal humanity in everyone, but, rather, focused very much on individuals, thereby approaching an understanding of the human experience.

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Alice was born at the dawn of the 20th century, and her personal history is inextricably bound up with America's. This documentary, made by her grandson, provides a copious quantity of archival footage through which to experience that history, her life providing a focal point much as her portraits provide a glimpse into particular periods.

It's a fascinating story, taking in the wars and the Great Depression, changing attitudes to women and everybody from Richard Nixon to Andy Warhol. For much of her life Alice could barely afford to feed herself, yet she constantly bought paint and canvas, painting as if it were an addiction, mostly in Cuba and New York. She lost a baby to diptheria the year before the vaccine came out, she was abandoned by the men in her life, and her daughter was taken away from her, eventually meeting a tragic end. In her latter years Alice was ravaged by cancer, yet she painted till the end.

Other people also paid the price for this, and the film doesn't shy away from it. Alice was devoted to her sons and supported them wholeheartedly in becoming whatever they wanted to be (which, ironically, was comfortably bourgeois); she respected them completely as individuals, yet she never gave them the protection they needed as children. Other people around her were burnt up by the fire of her single-minded ambition.

It's doubtful that any other filmmaker could have got so close to this, but Andrew Neel's family connections help him to access some remarkably intimate stories. His camera lingers on faces to create its own very personal portraits. Ironically, Alice's face, shown in archive footage, is often blurred - although we catch her smile, her bright eyes, her ever-present sadness and humour, she retains an elusiveness she would never have allowed her subjects.

Although Alice came into contact with the rest of the fashionable art world only toward the end of her life, there are a number of famous figures in this documentary whom aficionados will enjoy spotting. The real treat for art lovers, however, is the huge quantity of images of her work to be found here, beautifully arranged by period and allowed to contribute to her story. But this is far from being a film aimed exclusively at the art crowd. It's highly accessible and anyone with an interest in recent history will find it fascinating. It's a fine tribute to a formidable individual.

Reviewed on: 21 May 2009
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Alice Neel packshot
A portrait of the famous portrait painter Alice Neel.
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Director: Andrew Neel

Writer: Andrew Neel

Starring: Michel Auder, Phillip Bonosky, Chuck Close, Marlene Dumas, Cristina Lancella, Jeremy Lewison, Juan Martinez, Andrew Neel, Hartley Neel, Richard Neel

Year: 2007

Runtime: 81 minutes

Country: US


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