Beyond the Canvas
Alice Neel: Un regard engagé at Centre Pompidou, Paris
"I do not pose my sitters. Before painting, when I talk to the person, they unconsciously assume their most characteristic pose, which in a way involves all their character and social standing – what the world has done to them and their retaliation." - Alice Neel (1900-1984)
Neel's view that the subjects of her portraits were retaliating against the world's nastiness is extraordinary. Then again, there is very little about her that wasn't. A lifelong communist since the McCarthyism days, a wildly free-spirited woman who swapped New York's residential Greenwich Village for Spanish Harlem, Neel spent her life painting unapologetic and empathic portraits of American society. She painted both the rich and the underprivileged, her friends and her neighbours, with a definite penchant for the marginalised, the mad and the destitute. What also very much set Neel apart from the rest, is her unflinching commitment to realist figuration at a time when minimalism and abstract expressionism were all but dominating the art scene.
It's easy to be fascinated by Neel's portraits for their intensity and ability to capture the psychology of the sitter. I was mostly struck by how she painted women, without any idealisation or sentimentality. Poor mothers, an unusually large number of heavily pregnant women, nursing women, victims of domestic violence. Her female nudes couldn't be farther from traditional canons. Their bodies are ordinary, relatable, they are no objects of desire depicted to please. Ah the female gaze.
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