Magazine article The Spectator

Psychological Approach

Magazine article The Spectator

Psychological Approach

Article excerpt

Alice Neel: Painted Truths

Whitechapel Gallery, until 17 September

Paula Rego: Oratorio

Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albemarle Street,

W1, until 20 August

The last time I wrote about Alice Neel (1900-84), on the occasion of an exhibition mounted six years ago by the commercial gallery Victoria Miro, a reader wrote in to correct my statement that Neel's work had not been shown outside her native America. The point I was making was how relatively little known Neel was, particularly in England, though that situation has now changed. At Victoria Miro (until 30 July) a host of international artists pay tribute to Neel's work, and at the Whitechapel there's a major survey of her paintings. Revealingly, though, this is still the first solo showing for Neel in a European museum.

The exhibition is accompanied by a weighty hardback (price £34.95), packed with full-page illustrations and learned essays, including a short text by Frank Auerbach praising Neel's courage. 'Her work declares an appetite for experience, ' he writes, 'has a patent and shaming honesty, is indifferent to rules and hierarchies.' Walking into the Whitechapel show is refreshing not just for the honesty of Neel's psychological approach, but for the direct formal appeal of her paint surfaces and application. Gutsy realism is one thing, but Neel's brand of portraiture as therapy is quite another. Although there are many artists today who ape her style, few achieve its depths and splendours.

The show begins on the ground floor with 1930s pictures such as 'Degenerate Madonna' and 'Futility of Effort'. In the latter, a heartbreaking image in grey, cot imprisonment becomes cot death, as a news story overlaps with Neel's private life to produce this chilling allegory. In the summer of 1930, Neel suffered a nervous breakdown, and a few months later attempted suicide. If the experience of personal suffering equips an individual to understand others, then Neel was soon fully qualified to paint great and penetrating portraits. But her early work, traditional and often symbolic realist portraiture, did not receive much recognition. Only in the 1970s did she begin to be valued, as her work grew in assurance and fluidity of handling.

There's an early portrait of the artist Robert Smithson before he became famous for 'Spiral Jetty' in 1970, his flesh all green and pink. (Neel made a speciality of painting art world personalities. ) Then there's the relentless bonhomie of the 'Fuller Brush Man' in grey working suit, anxious to maintain his quota of 25 sales a day.

People, as Neel admitted, both terrified and fascinated her, though painting was clearly her way of dealing with the terror, for it only rarely comes across in her pictures. Even the arresting portrait of Warhol, naked to the waist to display the fearsome scars of his 1968 gunshot wounds, is a statement in vulnerability rather than aggression.

Interestingly, Warhol's closed eyes also serve to remove him from the world with a kind of weary disdain, further distancing him from the viewer.

Upstairs there's a room of cityscapes and portraits from memory, including a crisply structured painting of a fire escape and the nearly Abstract Expressionist 'Night'.

Another large gallery shows Neel doing nudes and double portraits, both of which she's uncompromisingly good at. And don't leave without confronting Neel's nude self-portrait aged 80. Disapprove? Yes, she probably does. But the magic remains, despite the brashness, the willed awkwardness and the expressive distortion.

The show, already seen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (which organised it), tours to Moderna Museet, Malmo, Sweden (10 October 2010 to 2 January 2011). …

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