Thursday, May 28, 2009

How Art Is Tearing Families Apart : Open Thread

Saw two films in the past week that took "art as a family affair" as their theme. Both were very memorable for different reasons.

"My Kid Could Paint That" has been around for a while (thank you Netflix!). Although it touches on some of the same debates that play themselves out here occasionally with regards to what we consider "art" and includes a lengthy and rather impressive interview with the New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, it mainly serves as an exposé/mystery about whether 4-year-old Marla Olmstead is the one true author of the abstract paintings that were (are?) selling at astronomical prices, or her father is. I was fairly convinced her father (or someone) must have at least "polished" a few of them based on seeing footage of her painting...there's no indication (even in the extended footage presumably showing her work out some ideas that seem far advanced for a pre-kindergarten-aged child) that she could have achieved the finesse we see in some of the other works. Or so it seems in the film...who knows.

What intrigued me more than the central mystery though was how the family, even the kids to some degree, were seduced by the "art world." Or perhaps it was the world of celebrity as it meets the art world. You saw even the mother, who was more protective and skeptical than anyone else around them about what this was doing to their daughter, clearly grow into the part of being famous. I suspected throughout that it was the father's burning desire to see his own work (which you suspected was the work he was letting his daughter take credit for) end up in major collections. At one point when some "expert" suggested you could hang one of these works in the Museum of Modern Art and no one would know the difference, the glee on his face seemed more satisfied than shocked. But again, who knows.

The other film (and I highly encourage anyone who can to see it [the New York Times called it a "masterpiece"]...it's playing at the IFC Center in New York) takes the authenticity and genius of its artist, the fictional French painter Paul Berthier, for granted. "Summer Hours" (or "L'Heure d'été") takes place long after Berthier has passed away, but the English version of his catalogue raisonné has just been published and there is a multi-city, multi-country retrospective pending that validates his importance in case we have any doubt from the snippets of work we see (which is really only a single drawing and a few notebooks that look entirely too fresh to my eye to be real, but...).

[Much of the description below might be spoiler-esque...consider not reading if you plan to see the film, which, I know, I'm recommending...so sue me...or better yet come back and read after you see the film]

But the impact of Berthier's accomplishments on his family, and in particular on the lives of his niece/secret lover (it is a French film) and her three children (by another man...it's not an Appalachian film) is long lasting. Although the film doesn't focus on this too much, you do get the strong sense that none of the children (adults with full lives of their own when the film opens) could live up to the greatness of their uncle in their mother's esteem. The oldest brother becomes an economist whose controversial books are too complex for anyone in his family (his mother, his lovely wife, etc.) to understand. The designer daughter flees to New York and seems to have bad luck with husbands/boyfriends. The entrepreneur younger son takes his wife and children off to seek fortune in China. When they get back together in Bertheir's amazing country home, where they grew up, to celebrate their mother's 75th birthday, none of them can seemingly escape quickly enough.

This film is such a rich tapestry of life and all its messy ups and downs (truly, virtually each scene is full of insights and little moments that take your breath away), but the part that keeps haunting me is the scene after the birthday party, when the mother sits alone in the dark in her museum of a home, left exactly the way it was when the hidden love of her life passed away, and tells her housekeeper/friend Eloise that she will die soon and that when she does she'll take with her all manner of memories and secrets that no one else should care about. But that what will remain are these objects...these vessels (the rare art deco furniture and paintings [Corots, Redons, etc.] that fill the house)...these will live on to mark the time and place, the lives and love that had raged in this house. Indeed, many of these objects end up in museums; despite their mother's wishes (and that of the eldest son) the three siblings eventually agree to auction off the art and sell the house.

One of the later scenes of the film has the oldest son and his wife walking through the Musee D'Orsay (which interestingly [and this is another thread] sponsored the film) where their artist-uncle's Louis Majorelle desk has been installed, only to be yawned at by gaggles of tourists with cell phones attached to their ears. The couple also pass by one of their uncle's vases in a case, and the son somewhat melancholically muses on how these objects were so much more "alive" when they were part of a home. (I couldn't help but think that's a nice problem to have [seeing the priceless objects you grew up with in a major museum], but....)

The final scene has the eldest son's rambunctious teenage daughter and son throwing one last beer blast with their friends in the house before the new owners move in. It's a joyful scene with blaring music and dancing and motorcycles roaring in the otherwise idyllic French countryside. While some viewers I know came away seeing it as upsettingly irreverent, this infusion of youth seemed to me the most optimistic moment of the film. It did give me pause though when the 17-year-old daughter wanders away with her boyfriend to a field where she had picked berries with her grandmother, and it becomes obvious that she would have preferred her family to keep this property. She describes a painting a her great uncle had painted in this spot and you realize that what you had assumed was a kid who could care less about any of the things her grandmother had so treasured was actually someone who longed for that connection in her life.

Consider this an open thread on the impact an art career can have on an artist's family.

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Summer Hours is indeed a masterpiece, the first film I've seen in quite awhile that I would attatch that word to.

The Musee D'Orsay is to be commended for lending the artwork to the filmmakers as it lends a beautiful authenticity to the film.

The film also talks about how the present generation is so concerned about today that they give away tomorrow from the next generation (global warming as opposed to globalism which the film also touches on).

Ah, time to see it again, it is sublime.


----ondine nyc

5/28/2009 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger Sean Capone said...

Wanted to comment only to acknowledge that I read it--but the story and its reflections are too sad to dwell on or explore more deeply right now.

5/28/2009 12:18:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

the story and its reflections are too sad to dwell onDespite my melodramatic title (and I should note, it was meant to be tongue in cheek), I didn't find either story "too sad" as much as simply ripe with food for thought. Perhaps it's different for artists, though.

5/28/2009 12:21:00 PM  
Blogger ArtistDan said...

Regarding how an art career can have an impact on family:

Joy Cooper was a regionally recognized artist know for her landscape and stillife oils but more for her paintings on china. She died at 99 still living on her own 20 years ago. I got to grow up spending summers with her in the southern Indiana farming country. Joy, my grandmother, kept me busy with all sorts of creative activities including crafts, painting, sculpture, and music.

As she was growing older, my dad became concerned about her being taken advantage of by people wanting to get hold of her artworks. He was convinced she was giving away art to selfish connivers when at that stage of her life the art should stay with the family.

Fortunately, my own art career has brought me in contact with several people who were recipients and collectors of my grandmother's art. Each have told me stories of how she impacted their lives as a teacher, friend, or neighbor. Having possession of a piece of her art was more than owning something material. They have all spoke more in terms of being honored to have something of hers and how memories are stored there.

Most importantly, I've been able to tell my dad about those stories and how those people he had thought so ill of were actually more touched by his mom than he could ever have realized at the time.

I can only hope to help Joy's legacy grow by also being an artist who can be a good teacher, friend, neighbor, and father.

5/28/2009 01:18:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

When I saw Summer Hours, I was in an extremely small minority that liked it. Most people seemed to find it tedious and bourgeois, rich people fretting about their privileges.

But as a seasoned Olivier Assayas fan, I picked up on the carefully weighted cultural picture – the allegory of modern France in the global market. Assayas is an ex-Cahiers critic and always very astute with his art references.

And these are just as moving as the individual dilemmas of the very schematic family – daughter a designer based in NY, older brother Paris-based academic working the EU circuit, younger brother marketing exec based in China, (pretty much Shanghaied there). How to divide up the cultural heritage? Make the most of it? The family collection really stands for France’s former cultural glory, especially early 20th painting. It gets chased into the decorative arts and industrial design, it gets marshaled by economics, branded and dispersed. Even putting most of it in a public museum in the end robs it of more intimate, personal meaning. It’s no longer just the well-loved and useful things around the house, they all remember from childhood. The faithful housekeeper’s innocent souvenir of a priceless vase, underlining this gulf.

The family itself is growing apart. Everyone wants the next generation, the children to inherit these treasures, but they’re really just projecting their own childhoods onto them. The kids’ actual lives are something quite different, mostly hidden. The sons and daughter that inherit the grand old house can’t afford to maintain it. No-one actually has the time to spend there. They are all on the move, inside and outside France. The death of the matriarch and subsequent rumors about her relationship with her brother-in-law, (the famous artist, whose works are now such a treasure to the family) are another way in which the past crumbles, former glories fade.

It’s a quiet film, more autumnal in mood that summery but it packs a quiet punch when you read between the lines.

Also, for real film buffs – the matriarch is played by Edith Scob, former star of Franju’s Eyes Without A Face – Assayas’ most famous film – Irma Vepp (complete with Sonic Youth soundtrack) was virtually an homage to Georges Franju’s Judex.

5/29/2009 04:08:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

So anyway – back on topic – I don’t think it’s art that tears families (even nations) apart, just time – especially now.

5/30/2009 03:33:00 PM  
Anonymous untitled said...

Thanks for the recommendation Ed. Just saw the film "My Kid Could Paint That." What about this for a question; the one, in fact, that kept me from considering the film much of a study on the modern art vs. child's art question: the work was weak. Seems to me that if a child is motivated enough to paint on a regular basis, and they are prompted to cover a large canvas over the course of time, so that essentially they're being managed by someone else (in this case the child's father) then we can get some very involved abstractions. But the paintings were, as the psychologist they showed on "60 Minutes" said, nothing particularly great, at least not on the level of an art work made by an adult.

Didn't anyone else recognize the lack of compositional purpose, the arbitrary use of color, and the formulaic markings?

This film was about media celebrity, as Ed stated, as well as the dynamics of the family and the public.

6/07/2009 04:00:00 PM  

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