Amir Bar-Lev's fascinating documentary focuses on Maria Olmstead, a four-year old girl who attracted international media coverage by creating abstract paintings which elicited comparisons with Jackson Pollock and Wasilly Kandinsky. The filmmaker uses this story to reflect upon modern art, child prodigies, play, and media exploitation.
A local newspaper story about the daughter of Mark, a worker on the Frito-Lay factory nightshift, and Laura, a dental assistant, led to a piece in the New York Times. In the documentary, the newspaper's art critic Michael Kimmelman notes that there has long been an urge to debunk modern art as not real art. He says:
"If you take an artist like Pollock, everyone figured that this is the ultimate example of modern art gone crazy. This guy dripping splashing paint. Pollock basically invented a whole new way of painting. And the photos of him dripping, splashing, walking around these canvases made it look that much more like he was not an artist. If you put a paint brush in the hands of any animal that has the ability to produce something, it will produce something like abstract art. It’s the ultimate joke, that a chimp could do it, that an elephant could do it."
Anthony Brunelli, a Binghamton native, is a photorealist painter who first saw Maria's paintings at a friend's house and became her dealer. He was able to sell some of her work; in one instance, she was called " a budding Picasso." The Today Show and Good Morning America squared off in a bidding war over an appearance by the toddler. Then five months into her fame as a media celebrity, CBS's 60 Minutes presented an expose suggesting that her father, an amateur artist, has actually created the paintings. The tide of public response turned against Maria, and her parents were vehemently criticized for using their daughter in a scam to make money.
The Olmsteads called upon documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev to help them make their case to the public that Maria was indeed the child prodigy who created the paintings, which by then had brought some $300,000 to the family. The result is this film where Bar-Lev probes the controversy over modern art and explores the family life of the Olmsteads, their daughter, and young son once they became famous.
There is a lot of thought-provoking material here, and every viewer will come away with a different slant on creativity and the dire effect of media feeding frenzies.
Special DVD features include an audio commentary, "Back To Binghamton" mini-documentary with Director that includes follow-up interviews, and "Kimmelman on Art" mini-documentary with New York Times art critic.