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Originally published Friday, May 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Alice Neel": A multilayered portrait of an artist and her legacy

Tenacity might be the secret of success, but it often comes with a price. "Alice Neel," an emotionally complex and vibrant documentary about...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 4 stars

"Alice Neel," a documentary with Alice Neel, Robert Storr, Chuck Close, Hartley Neel, Richard Neel. Directed by Andrew Neel. 82 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains some nudity). Northwest Film Forum.

Tenacity might be the secret of success, but it often comes with a price. "Alice Neel," an emotionally complex and vibrant documentary about an American portrait painter who received major recognition in her final years, is a story about a lifetime's worth of tenacity and the damage left in its wake.

While the film is certainly personal, it is also a work of art history. "Alice Neel" focuses on Neel's unswerving belief in the distinctive power of her portraits, despite anti-portraiture trends in the art establishment since the mid-20th century. A number of experts — including Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, and Chuck Close, a photorealist painter and native of Monroe, Snohomish County — appear on camera, concurring that her work is of timeless value.

Those two inseparable sides of Neel's story, the personal and globally aesthetic, make it impossible to cast judgment on some of the more tragic chapters of her life. Even her survivors — including sons Hartley and Richard Neel, and the grandchildren of her late daughter, Isabetta — remark that her achievements might not have existed without a considerable downside directly affecting them.

Motherhood, children and loss are recurring themes in Neel's art. No surprise. Her first daughter, Santillana, died of diphtheria before her first birthday. Isabetta was abandoned as a toddler by a massively depressed Neel. (Isabetta eventually committed suicide.)

The Neel half brothers endured what Richard called a "bohemian" chaos. The younger Hartley (now a doctor) is the son of filmmaker Sam Brody. He says his father supported Alice in her work but was also abusive to her and routinely beat Richard. Richard, a successful lawyer, says he could fault Alice for not protecting him, but if she had, perhaps some other compensating quality might have dropped from her mothering.

Appropriately, "Alice Neel" is directed by the artist's grandson, Andrew Neel. Andrew's persistent, behind-the-camera search for an objective truth runs contrary to his father Hartley's obvious ambivalence, and the strain shows in the older man's attempts to cooperate in interviews.

But if it seems this film will not resolve everything for Andrew about family history, he certainly proves an energetic and discerning essayist about Alice's artistic legacy. Using visual metaphors and archival material, plus remembrances and commentary, the filmmaker focuses with appropriate intensity on her penchant for capturing unguarded truths about her subjects and their era.

The stripped-down psychology of Alice's portraits and the way her subjects seem to look at us with unbearable honesty are remarkable to behold in "Alice Neel's" concentrated manner.

There is a great deal more to Alice's story: the avant-garde of the 1920s; the government's support of artists during the Great Depression; the feminist movement of the 1970s, during which she became an icon. This rich film captures it all.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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