Sunday, January 31, 2016

Alice Neel

Recently I saw the film "Alice Neel" at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In conjunction with the exhibition of the Beaver Hall painters, the museum has organized the screening of several films on women artists, with this one being the last of the series.

I have seen Alice Neel's paintings in New York, and have been awed by her style of portraiture: raw and direct, with some influence of the German expressionists.

You can read about Neel's life on-line. Her family/estate maintains a website that gives a thorough biography (1900 - 1984) and includes many images of her work.

The film was made by her grandson Andrew Neel, and it includes interviews with Neel herself, her family and friends, as well as footage of her at work. It is available on DVD and Netflix.

Abdul Rahman, 1964, Alice Neel
The arc of Neel's life follows the "tragic genius" trope so popular in literature and the public imagination, including the triumphant "plucked from obscurity" finale. Born in Pennsylvania to a middle-class family, Neel began her formal art education in her teens, enrolling in full-time studies at 21. She fell in love with a senior art student from a well-to-do Cuban family, and the brief time she spent living with him in Cuba began her lifelong concern with social justice.

Still in her twenties, she lost her first child to diphtheria and then her second child, who was kidnapped by her husband and raised by his Cuban family. She suffered mental health issues at this time but continued to find solace in her painting.

When the Depression arrived, Neel was lucky enough to be hired by a WPA project for artists, which gave her a living wage while allowing her to paint the struggles of the displaced and unemployed.

Nancy, 1980, Alice Neel
The  WPA ended and Neel survived as a single mother on "relief". By this time she had had other lovers and two more children. She spent much of her welfare income on canvases and oil paint, and lived a squalid, bohemian lifestyle. Her sons felt loved but neglected as children, and were deprived of life's necessities, even basic security. (Note: one became a doctor, the other a lawyer.)

Self-portrait, 1980, Alice Neel

As a realist painter, Neel was pushed aside by the tidal wave of abstraction. Portraits were a hard sell, especially when their subjects were the dispossessed. Neel moved from the artistic enclave of Greenwich Village to live in Spanish Harlem. This decision isolated her from the galleries, agents and fellow artists who might have furthered her career. Only in the late sixties did she renew her involvement with the New York artistic circle.

Slowly her art gained recognition. Feminists championed her work, especially her portraits of female nudes, including those of pregnant women. In 1974 a retrospective was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in 1976 she was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Since her death in 1984, appreciation for her work has continued to grow.

The film raises some compelling questions, among them:

"What does the painted portrait give us that photography does not?"

"How do we understand the intrinsic value of a work of art, beyond fashion, trend and public acclaim?"

"What do we mean by 'artistic success'?"

"What is the place of self-promotion in the management of an artist's career?"

"What is the cost/benefit of the single-minded pursuit of one's art? Is that cost weighed differently for men and women?"

1 comment:

Margaret said...

I like Ms. Neel's 'loose' style, which gives a different 'feel' to portraiture -- far less formal (as suits the nature of the portraits/figures she paints!) And thank you for those ponder...