Joan Mitchell: Portrait of An Abstract Painter
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A powerful and intimate portrait, JOAN MITCHELL: PORTRAIT OF AN ABSTRACT PAINTER captures Mitchell's independent spirit and testifies eloquently to Mitchell's art. One of the great abstract painters of the 20th century, Mitchell was an active participant of New York's dynamic Abstract Expressionist scene and hung out with fellow painters Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston, as well as poets Frank O'Hara, James Schuyler and John Ashbery. In the mid-fifties, she moved to Paris, where she was part of a circle of friends that included Pierre Matisse, Samuel Beckett and Alberto Giacometti. This elegantly edited documentary weaves together interviews with the acerbic Mitchell and other leading painters and critics, while letting her stunning pictures dominate the film. Stephen Holden of the New York Times says, 'The canvases have grand chaotic romanticism. While celebrating the physical universe with an ecstatic love of color, they don't shy away from expressing a harsh, feral apprehension of nature and its violence.'
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Top customer reviews
She is the first one to say she doesn't think when she paints - she feels instead. We are told almost nothing about her life, except for the fact that her father seems to have been a difficult man. She mentions depression five or six times throughout the hour-long documentary, but the issue of why she is depressed is only broached once, at the very beginning, when she relates that once, she stopped painting for about two weeks, after Big Joan told Little Joan that if painting gave her so much pain, then she should stop. I wondered what that comment suggested about her mental health, since she was clear the two were parts of herself. She doesn't say if painting was the reason she was depressed the many other times.
Of her private life we only learned that she moved to Paris out of love for a French-Canadian artist, and she laughs that it's what women are supposed to do: follow the man (I paraphrase), and given the stature of Mitchell in the art world I had a hard time believing that. She wanted to move to Paris. That was her choice. She doesn't have to put herself down. At first she didn't want to give the interviewer his name, because the man had been married. Apparently the man left her for the dog-sitter (that's what she said). Why he made that choice would have been an interesting issue to explore: how was Mitchell in her everyday life?
And we are told nothing about any friendships she had. Did she have none? A French art connoisseur talks about her vulnerability and hypersensitivity and Brice Marden talks about the light in her paintings, but we never know whether to believe them. The one real piece of information we get about Mitchell is that she had, apparently, this condition that makes one see letters as colors. I did find the comment about the connection of her work to van Gogh, Cezanne and particularly Claude Monet valuable. To give an idea of the scope of the movie's indifference to Mitchell's life, it doesn't even say she was born in Chicago. When it briefly touches upon her early years, we do see a picture of the river and hear a mention of the Art Institute, so people who have traveled there will recognize it.
The movie does have good shots of Mitchell's paintings, but again, it offers no insight into her life and little insight into her work - it sounds more speculation by other people. There is also no discussion of how her style evolved over the years. My advice is to buy it on Amazon Video (like I did) rather than DVD. You're less likely to feel you wasted your money.
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5.
She is not an easy interview, though. The film shows her evasiveness and unwillingness to be pinned down on art or her private life, which was tumultuous and fraught with drinking and disappointment. Yet somehow she was able to channel the pain and difficulty into creating very great art, and this video is a fine introduction.
As to the coverage of her work, I would like to have seen more about how she influenced contemporary painters today - women and men. Also, more about her own place in contemporary art. I thought there needed to be more contextualizing of her work and I would like to have seen more of her work besides the Grande Vallee in a gallery setting so that the size and scope of her earlier work could be better appreciated. Just seeing the paintings themselves on the screen does not give a good idea of their size or how viewers would relate to them in person.