Legitimacy in life and art is hard to recognise… Or is it? That’s just one of the interesting questions raised when watching Art Bastard, the multiple award winning documentary which focuses on the life of New York painter Robert Cenedella.
The documentary shines an interesting light on why this successful artist is not a household name and the current state of the art world in general, from people on the outside as well as various insiders. Early on we discover (just as Cenedella himself did), that his biological father was not who he thought he was. Later on we also learn from one interviewee of how he thought the adult Cenedella was instantly recognizable due to his similar sense of humour and behaviour to that of his real father.
A key part of Cenedella’s artistic development was through the Art Students League of New York. Here he met German satirical painter George Grosz. The influence of Grosz as a teacher can be seen throughout Cenedella’s work and the two got along so well, that they nearly travelled to Berlin together.
Father figures and family would become a key theme in Cenedella’s paintings. We get to see sharp close-ups of pieces like Father’s Day (1977), which depicts the two fathers of Cenedella in a humorous middle aged boxing bout.
Victor Kanefsky shows an assured hand in directing here and creates an appropriate structure for this bizarre biography. Keep an eye out for the background compositions of Cenedella’s previous work early on, which could easily fill the frame and distract you from the colourful man himself. Music is also used rather effectively with some sparse numbers that suit the setting. Some pieces of work prove to be even stranger than one might first think. In response to most students at the time being ravished with Elvis Presley, as a classical music devotee Cenedella made and distributed “I Like Ludwig” badges in order to pay for part of his tuition as well. Another example is the Nixon Hostility Dartboard (1966), which was a best seller and involved a letter from Cenedella to Nixon, as well as visits from the CIA.
“Mediocrity deciding the fate of genius” is a line from the film which conjures up other creative correlations. Perhaps the most obvious being that between a movie studio and a director, and the uneasy nature of any form of creativity being curated.
One can’t help but think of comparisons to another uncompromising artist in David Lynch, who was also the subject of a documentary recently in David Lynch: The Art Life (2016). Both men seem to share a confidence and longevity in their respective approaches, without much concern for critical reception or inclusion. Where the two differ though is in ambiguity. Some people (like me) may not want to be given all the answers in such a clear and concise manner.
Given the release of these types of artist focused stories, perhaps more time can be spent in simply understanding the artist. Art Bastard is a good starting point for such a conversation, which can hopefully lead to more creative control and recognition for all those that deserve it.
Art Bastard is screening as part of the 2017 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, for tickets please visit the MDFF official website.