David Brody’s Reaction to
“Alice Neel: The Painter and Her Politics”
by Gerald Meyer
(an article appearing in the Fall 2009 issue of Columbia Journal of American Studies)
While there is some merit to Gerald Meyer’s article “Alice Neel: The Painter and Her Politics”, appearing in the Columbia Journal of American Studies, my objections boil down to three points: Scholarly laziness(at least in regard to Sam Brody), editorial sloppiness and ideological myopia.
On the first point scholarly laziness: Mr. Meyer resorts almost exclusively to secondary research sources and in doing so repeats factual errors about my father and his association with Alice Neel that have unfortunately become part of the record of Sam Brody’s life as recorded by Alice’s biographers. I suppose that when researching a piece of this sort, it is usual to start at the public library, or perhaps nowadays on Amazon.com, but when surviving witnesses to the events in question are available, it’s worth doing some fact checking.
Admittedly this isn’t an unusual circumstance. In the “publish or perish’ world of academe it is fairly common to slap together bits and bobs of existing research for the sake of making a point or beating a deadline. History is replete with instances of errors in research being perpetuated for generations if not centuries. It took five hundred years for scholars to begin to correct the history of the life of England’s great medieval monarch Richard III. Of course the initial mythology of Richard’s life was created my Thomas More and William Shakespeare. Pamela Allara, Ann Temkin and the Belchers aren’t exactly in that league.
As I pointed out to Mr. Meyer via email, a simple Google search would have directed him to this website and provided him with access to Sam’s widow and at least two of his children. He would have been told that in fact Sam left Alice (not the other way around) in 1956 and moved in with my mother Sondra Herrera a year before the incorrectly cited 1958. This was an error that could easily have been corrected. In addition, contact with Brody’s family, including a daughter born before my father ever met Alice, would have put claims of his violence toward children in a very different light.
On the second point, editorial sloppiness: The article is filled with typos and basic factual errors that are not directly related to Sam or Alice’s life or politics. One in particular stood out. Describing Alice’s fondness for Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War, Meyer writes that “when she saw this painting in the Prado, she stated, “I was moved to tears.’” In fact The Disasters of War isn’t a painting but a series of prints from etchings, published after Goya’s death.
Admittedly Mr. Meyer teaches history not art history, but the etchings in question are a significant part of the record of Napoleon’s campaign on the Spanish peninsula and I have to assume that this was an unintentional error that the editors of the publication missed. Alice may well have been referring to Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808 which does hang in the Prado. The reason this confusion stood out for me was that my father’s final, never completed, film was a documentary on Goya and this remarkable series of images.
On the final point, ideology: As a leftist, it was clearly tempting for Meyer to see Alice’s art through the filter of his own worldview. Certainly she was at one time a member of the Communist party and remained politically radical all her life. But to emphasize this to the extent that Meyer and some others have, distorts Alice’s motivations. She was an artist first; a communist second, third or even forth. Her subject matter reflected the community of artists, writers and activists in which she circulated. It was inevitable that she would in her work reflect their prevailing modes of thought.
That is not to trivialize the truth of her sense of social consciousness. I would simply suggest that we remember that Alice had a nuanced and complicated personality and that her politics were just as complicated. In my presence she often had shockingly unflattering things to say about many of the radicals with whom Mr. Meyer so closely associates her. Because she painted you didn’t necessarily mean she cared for you.
In fact, while discussing this piece with my mother, Sam Brody's widow and someone who knew Alice well, she found the idea of describing Alice as a commmited Communist faintly ridiculous.
To clarify my own motivations please remember that my father was also a communist and, although he ultimately repudiated the excesses of Stalinism, he remained a committed Marxist until his death. I have always taken pride in his genuine commitment to his beliefs in contrast to so many of his “fellow travelers” who ultimately chose the comfort and safety of liberalism and wealth.
On the positive side, Mr. Meyer does point out that my father was one of the most vocal and persistent supporters of Alice as an artist. They remained close friends until her death and his admiration for her talents never flagged. He was her biggest fan as well as her one time lover and that alone requires that art historians try to get the story of his time with Alice right.
Other biographers have spoken to me and other members of my father’s family and while I may not entirely be comfortable with their conclusions, at least they called and gave Sam Brody’s version of the facts it’s due. I wish this was always so.