There’s not been one normal thing in my life,” says Eva Hesse (her words read by Selma Blair) at the start of the documentary “Eva Hesse.”
She was different, she says later in the film, alone, “but a good painter.” This documentary, directed by Marcie Begleiter, returns over and over to its juxtaposition of a melancholy woman haunted by fears and shadows of the past, and at the same time an artist self-assured about her works and her professional capabilities.
The filmmaker found hardly any footage of Hesse, who died in 1970 of a brain tumor when she was only 34. So most of the images in the documentary are black-and-white still photos, with a few filmed moments. To make a variety of observations, these fragments are not presented quite chronologically; rather, they are interspersed throughout the documentary.
As the story unfolds, the viewer becomes familiar with settings, clothing Hesse wore on one occasion or other. So the images get sorted in the viewer’s mind as though in real memory, and the story becomes even more compelling.
With the cyclical nature of fashion, the ’60s, when most of the still pictures of the adult Hesse were taken, are once again stylish. This is an insignificant detail, but it means that to people watching in 2016, her appearance isn’t dated at all. We see Hesse’s brooding face, her long dark hair, and she seems very much of this moment.
In a way, she was. Fearlessly, Hesse abandoned paint and brushes to experiment with other materials — latex, plastic, rope — and, five years before her death, morph from painter to sculptor. The medium doesn’t make any difference, it’s said in the film, an artist is an artist. The movie portrays Hesse making art feverishly, her work eliciting great respect from artists like Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, her friends. Her confident experimentation seems to point to the future.
Born in Hamburg, Hesse was 2 when she and her older sister were sent out of Germany with a kindertransport headed to the Netherlands, where they lived in a children’s home. Their parents eventually escaped, too, picked up their daughters in Holland and took them first to England, then to America. At the end of the war, by which time her parents had divorced, they realized that no one else in their families had survived the Holocaust.
The day that Hesse’s mother learned that her parents had died in a concentration camp, she threw herself off the roof of the apartment building where she was living with her daughters. Hesse was 10 at the time of that suicide.
Her father was adoring and adored by Eva, but understandably, her childhood left her engulfed by fears. (She was in analysis most of her adult life.) She was a prodigious letter writer and journal-keeper, and it is mostly her own words that piece together the narrative of this film.
She started school at Pratt, dropped out and went to Cooper Union, then finished at Yale, where she was a protegee of and assistant to Josef Albers. But exactly where along the way she found the professional strength and self-confidence that enable an artist to fulfill her potential remains somewhat mysterious.
Her older sister, Helen Hesse Charash, serves as an admiring docent for this portrait of her sister, especially its personal parts. As sisters are, she is loving (and still mourning, of course) and at the same time a little wistful when comparing her own childhood with that of her sister.
Their parents always thought that Eva needed protection, she says. But Eva was really the strong one.
(At the Tivoli.)
Not rated. Time: 1:48.