With rare exception, movies about famous painters prove to be a disappointment. The recent film about Gustav Klimt, with the formidable John Malkovich in the title role, was a futile attempt to capture the essence of this artist's life in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. Though the beautiful costumes and authentic interiors provided a certain pleasure, it was not enough. The film disappeared without a trace. A few years earlier, the abysmal movie about Modigliani starring Andy Garcia was kindly laid to rest soon after its release.
It's quite a different matter with smart documentary films about art and artists, when they are able to provide interesting information as well as satisfy the voyeur in all of us. Case in point: the recently released documentary My Kid Could Paint That about the adorable 4 year-old child prodigy, Marla Olmstead. It seems that she started to paint even before she could walk. You can see her in diapers sitting on a large sheet of paper spread out on the table, brush in hand, bright swirls of color around her. Is she painting, or simply messing around? This documentary is less about the artistic merits of Marla's colorful doodles and more about the media frenzy that has already affected her parents and will no doubt cast a pall over her future. Marla's paintings have sold for thousands of dollars and stories about her appeared in newspapers around the globe. Her being adorable and photogenic played a not insignificant role in the spectacle that ensued. I feel sad about this girl and about her caring, though not very wise parents, who seemingly lost control over the events shaping the life of their family. But I couldn't care less about the dupes who bought her paintings believing they were investing in the works of a young genius. What do you think an artist uses first and foremost to create a painting -- the brush? The hand? Or the mind? The painting happens in the artist's head with the help of the hand and the brush, not the other way around. Making art is a cognitive process. So how much of her mind do you think 4 year-old Marla was able to pour into her paintings? Not much, if you ask me.
Ten years ago, a similar media storm swirled around another prodigy, 12 year-old Alexandra Nechita –- who was not only photogenic, but impressively articulate as well. Her paintings were an energetic pastiche inspired by Chagall and Picasso's art. The BBC was making a documentary about her and asked for my comments. I said that considering what was happening around her, she had no chance. For example, her naïve, if not ignorant, school art teacher recommended that she not attend art classes, for fear of spoiling her natural talent. I remember attending the opening of her show in Orange County, where expensively dressed ladies and gentleman admired the paintings without ever bothering to take off their dark sunglasses. It's impossible to say for sure how Alexandra Nechita's early gift for painting would have developed if she was not mercilessly exploited as a child. Sad to say, when I checked out her website for her recent work, I saw the same pastiche of Chagall and Picasso – only now without a trace of enthusiasm.
I want to leave you with a recommendation about two other art documentaries not to be missed in upcoming weeks. One, The Rape of Europa, is the fascinating story of art stolen by Nazis during World War II and in many cases, miraculously recovered later. The other is Art:21, a four-part series on PBS comprised of interviews with leading contemporary artists, which airs on Sunday evenings starting October 28. Both documentaries represent a rare achievement by being informative as well as vastly entertaining.
Banner image: Child prodigy Marla Olmstead, still from My Kid Could Paint That