Hi kids, I finished my Art History final today and got my paper back. Got an A, of course! I’ve been studying for french and writing my last astronomy extra credit paper, and now more astronomy studying. Nothing exciting here. Here, I’ll share the first part of my paper about Alice Neel. This is actually the second paper I’ve written on this show and I’m getting to know the lady pretty well. I think she is amazing.
I’ve chosen to talk about the Alice Neel: Women. This show took place at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C in 2005 and 2006. This paper is not only an analysis on Neel’s portrayals of women, it is also a sneak peak into the lives of women during the 50s, 60s, and 70s through the eyes of a perceptive observer. Alice Neel took on the challenge of painting images of women, from a modern woman’s perspective. In her paintings you will not find passive beauties. You’ll discover real people, with distinct personalities and life experiences. Neel has an uncanny knack for bringing out a person’s personality traits in just one, static image. Her portraits are iconoclastic representations of today’s women: mother, professional, and lover. There are few images of feminist and professional women as powerful as the images Neel created during the second half of her career. I believe they will serve as a historical snapshot of our current progress in the equality of women in the arts.
About the Show
The Alice Neel show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts spanned half a floor, approximately 4 large rooms plus hallways. The show was dedicated to Alice Neel’s portraits of women. If there were men represented in the paintings, they had supporting roles as partners, babies, or transvestites. Half of the show was of her earlier work completed between the 30s and 40s. The prominent half of the show was filled with paintings from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Most of these paintings were either of friends, family, active feminists, art critics, or art historians. All of the paintings from the 1950’s until her death in 1984 were oil on canvas. Her entire art career has been relatively fruitful but she is much more known for her later work. Her sailor boyfriend, Kenneth Doolittle destroyed most of her work completed before 1934 including over 50 paintings and over 300 watercolors. Despite her romantic and personal hardships, Neel was dedicated to establishing a professional career as an artist for her entire career. Other than the artwork destroyed by her sailor lover, there are Neel artworks representing every year until her death in 1984.
The paintings in this show do not sit quietly on the wall; they leap out at you and demand that you pay attention to them. They are bold, colorful and full of personality. They demand that the viewer consider women’s roles as mothers, lovers, activists, and professionals. Neel expresses emotion through eyes, hand gestures, posture, and furniture. Throughout the show I noticed that she must have paid special attention to the chairs she chose for her subjects to sit on. She portrayed qualities about her sitter through the furniture they occupied and how she chose to paint them. Some of the chairs and couches are completely painted, they feel solid. Others are just thin outlines of chairs. It is an interesting added stylistic component to her work that gives is a special quality.
The show opens with a nude self-portrait of the artist, painted in 1980, just four years before her death. It’s as if she didn’t want to leave the planet until she had convinced the world she was fully capable of exposing herself to the same scrutiny she had given to so many of her subjects. It recalls the long tradition of painters painting themselves such as Anguissola and Gentileschi. By being so bold as to paint herself nude, she is speaking to her own frankness and desire for honesty. I’d also like to think she is making a statement about the west’s obsession with perfect, young bodies. By showing she’s not afraid to show off her own body, she is speaking to so many American girls who believe they are “abnormal” by having even 1 ounce of body fat.
I’d like to believe this is Alice’s version of Neel as the allegory of painting. She sits in an active pose, one foot slightly askew, paint brush and paint rag in hand, peering towards to viewer with inquisitive eyes. The easel is just out of view, but you know it is there. The view is probably of her studying herself in the mirror but it feels as if we are still the one’s being analyzed. I think the viewer feels more uncomfortable having to look into those piercing eyes and to behold the artist in all her naked glory than the artist felt being put on display for eternity.
Images are from the Alice Neel Website.