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Eva Hesse circa 1962, courtesy of the Hesse Estate

Remembering Eva Hesse, art’s forgotten female pioneer

Eva Hesse was absurdist art’s own homegirl – so why has no one bothered to make a film about her until now?

In lesser hands, it would be easy to turn a film about Eva Hesse’s life into a Hollywood weep-fest, the sort of film where the strapline is ‘triumph over adversity’ and the poster features a sad-faced Natalie Portman holding a paintbrush. After all, the events of Hesse’s life ­­– fleeing the Nazis, losing most of her extended family in the Holocaust, steaming through New York’s art scene as a woman in the sixties, a messy divorce and a tragic death from cancer while at the height of her success – kind of writes itself. Plus, Hesse was seriously beautiful, in a dark-eyed, raven-haired kind of way, which is the sort of thing that makes Hollywood exec types open their chequebooks and get on the phone to Portman’s agent.

Thing is, you don’t need to paint Eva Hesse as a tragic heroine for the events of her life to be interesting – and it’s an insult to the lasting legacy of her art to do so. Hesse was absurdist art’s own homegirl, a pioneering woman in a male-dominated space who created art not as a female artist, but as an artist. In her short life (she died at the age of 34) Hesse ushered in the postminimal art movement and created a prolific body of work that continues to have an immeasurable cultural impact today. Despite this, no one has ever bothered to make a film about Hesse’s life, or publish her extensive personal diaries.

First-time feature film director Marcie Begleiter and her mostly all-female film crew want to change that. Their forthcoming film Eva Hesse, which opens on April 27, features actress Selma Blair voicing Eva, reading from Hesse’s journal. It charts Hesse's life, through the traumatic events of her childhood right through to her tragic death, without the maudlin gushing we'd expect of a lesser filmmaker. Hesse emerges from it as a strong, courageous and flawed individual, who is allowed to tell her own story through her extensive personal journals. To find out about why Hesse’s life and work has been ignored by filmmakers until now, we caught up with Begleiter at the Dazed offices in London.

How did you first get interested in Hesse's life?

Marcie Begleiter: It was the work that drew me in. I saw it in reproduction, and it was still so powerful – the sculptural and latex work. I saw photos of it in art school and I didn't know anything about her but I was really taken by it. I read the biography of Hesse by Lucy Lippard and learned about her, about how she was this super smart and deeply thoughtful woman, and that's what really got me going. I actually staged a play about her life in 2011 and afterwards a producer approached me and said, 'Have you thought about making a film about this?' So I put together a funding proposal, and started interviewing her friends and family. And what really struck me was how they all were talking about Eva as if they had seen her yesterday. She had passed in 1970, and yet here it is in 2011 and people are still queuing up to talk about her, and the power of who she was is still so visceral in their lives. And I thought, I need to come back and capture this with a camera, because these are elders and there may not be much time otherwise to get her story on film. 

Tell me about the journals.

Marcie Begleiter: The only reason I was able to do this project was because of Eva's journals. They've been unpublished for decades – they're finally being published this year. They're in a little museum in Ohio. I found out about them through a friend of mine who is an arts librarian and I was talking to her about how much I loved the Lucy Lippard book and she said 'you should go read the originals'. So I wrote a grant application, I got some money and I went off. This is ten years ago. So the documentary's been a long time in the making. 

Why do you think no-one's ever bothered to make a film of Hesse's life before now?

Marcie Begleiter: I think there's been interest, but no-one's ever bothered to figure it out. I think in a way we were foolhardy. We didn't have the funding in the beginning, but we just forged ahead. We just said it was going to happen, and we made it happen. 

The events of her early childhood – fleeing the Nazis and losing most of her extended family – were traumatic. How did you balance this part of her story without wanting to make her a tragic heroine?

Marcie Begleiter: One of the things that really draws me to Hesse was how ambitious she was from the very beginning. In spite of tremendous adversity, she had this sense of wonder and of the absurdity of life.

“She used the discipline of being an artist to return to Germany in the 60s, a place which had destroyed her family. She made this extraordinary series of work there, and then when she came back to the USA there was no stopping her really, she was on such an upwards trajectory”

For the people who knew Eva and care about her legacy, the most important thing was that we were not going to tell a tragic story. You could go for the melodrama, but that was never my interest. We wanted to tell a story about a woman who hit a homerun in life, who lived more and did more in 34 years than a lot of people do in a lifetime. 

There's a scene in the documentary where we're reading from her diary and even at such a young age her sense of purpose is so strong. Was it difficult not just to reduce her to the 'female artist' narrative?

Marcie Begleiter: Yes, definitely. She didn't want to be put in this sort of female ghetto, where people would say 'you're good for a woman'. She wasn't a woman artist, she was an artist – period. But she didn't turn away from being female, she allowed that to inform her work. But she was always clear that she was as good as anyone else, male or female.  

Given how young she was when she died, her output was kind of incredible. 

Marcie Begleiter: She put everything into her art. Everything, everything. The disappointments in life, the joy of life, the discovery of her passions. And her journals, they're 1,200 pages long. Throughout the whole film, the only voice narrating it is Eva's. She tells her own story. If you look at 1966, which is the year she separated from her husband Tom, there's so many pages in the journal where she's dealing with that loss. And if you look at the work from 1966 it's extraordinary that a human being can make that much work in one year. 

How difficult was it to depict her death without coming off as sentimental or too tragic?

Marcie Begleiter: I think the thing is, when Eva got sick she was just at the point where she was breaking through into the art scene with enormous clarity and speed. And what was so extraordinary is that she kept working from her hospital bed. Even though it was so easy to just give up and focus on your medical problems, that wasn't her. She said, 'if I can't make sculptures, I'll make paintings, and if I can't make paintings I'll sit in bed and make mock-ups and have my assistants make the sculptures.' She made the most incredible work while she was undergoing operations and treatment for brain cancer. And she used to wear this terrible wig, and whip it off and joke about how terrible she looked bald. 

The majority of people who worked on the film were women. Was it important to you that female voices told Hesse's story?

Marcie Begleiter: As a woman to find this story – I could have continued to do all the other things I was doing, but this is a film I wanted to go and see and it didn't exist and at some point you have to say 'why don't I do it?'. If we're going to complain, and say we don't see ourselves reflected in the media as women, then we should do something about it. So I did it. 

Other people had tried and failed to tell Hesse's story. Did you fear you'd not be able to complete it?

Marcie Begleiter: For me, making the film, I really tried to channel Eva's drive. Like, so many times there would be moment where I'd feel like the film would never get finished, and I'd ask myself 'what would Eva do?' Eva always had doubt, but she'd always tell herself that she'd just do it anyway. Even with the self-doubt, she never stopped working – she allowed it to be an internal voice, but as she moved through to the late 60s and achieved more success, the doubt just fell away. She just rode the wave.