The Baring of Lives and Souls

Article excerpt


Drawing," wrote the American painter, Alice Neel, "is the discipline of art." One of the great painters of the twentieth century, she was a pioneer among women artists; a representational painter of people, landscape and still life in an era dominated by the essentially masculine language of Abstract Expressionism.

Clement Greenberg, the high priest of formalism, had insisted that the canvas be freed of all personal narrative, autobiography and literary content. Influenced by Expressionism and Realism, Neel overtly disobeyed this mantra of Modernism. Against this background of heroic male art she made sense of the world through an essentially female gaze that encompassed the body and personal emotion. She was not, she said, against abstraction, but could not stand that the Abstractionists had "pushed all the other pushcarts off the streets."

What she produced were images of friends and lovers, poets, celebrities and the poor - Hispanics, blacks and the elderly - from Spanish Harlem where she chose to live in line with her strong social conscience and left-wing beliefs. Her cast of characters was portrayed with an incisiveness that was never clouded by sentimentality or illusion. Through the body's idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities she revealed, with searing honesty, the psyche and soul of her sitters, their suffering, endurance, courage and insecurities hidden behind carefully constructed facades. What she captured, in a form of "internal portraiture", was the inner texture of their lives. "Every person," she said, "is a new universe, unique with its own laws emphasising some belief, a phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by."

Now there is a chance to see the first exhibition in this country of her works on paper. Her pencil, ink and gouache compositions from the 1930s to the 1960s include both individual portraits and closely observed scenes of daily urban life. …